ACCA chief gives thumbs up for SL; sheds key insights into firms and professionals

Monday, 21 October 2013 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The global body for professional accountants, the Association of Chartered and Certified Accountants’ (ACCA) Global CEO Helen Brand OBE who was in Sri Lanka recently is impressed with the vibrant, optimistic feel, and the professional activities taking place in the country. Enjoying the Sri Lankan hospitality, and enthused by the professionalism of the workforce, Brand stated the visit has “reinvigorated” her commitment to the nation. With ACCA for the past 17 years, Brand in an interview with the Daily FT also spoke highly of the global qualification’s progress in the country and the growing demand for it. From a member driven market to one of growth Sri Lanka has over 3,000 ACCA students and affiliates, reinforcing the growing recognition for the qualification. During her three-day visit, Brand officiated the 2013 graduation as the Chief Guest and attended key discussions on developing and promoting the profession in the industry with a host of stakeholders She has considerable experience and knowledge of the 170 markets in which ACCA currently operates, and has worked closely with IFAC (the International Federation of Accountants) in an advisory capacity. During her career at ACCA, she has gained a broad strategic and operational knowledge of the global accountancy body. She firstly led ACCA’s corporate development team, becoming Chief Operating Officer in 2002. She then became Managing Director Operations in 2004, before becoming Managing Director, Strategy and Development, in 2007. She is also a member of the Prince of Wales’ Accounting for Sustainability Supervisory Board which works to ensure that integrated reporting is embedded in organisation’s DNA. She was awarded an OBE in the June 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours list for her services to the accountancy profession. Despite a tight schedule, Brand spoke to the Daily FT about her views on Sri Lanka, its business environment, and how ACCA has contributed to its progress. Following are excerpts: By Shabiya Ali Ahlam Q: It’s been a while since you last visited Sri Lanka? What are your impressions about the country? A: I used to be a regular visitor to Sri Lanka, but I haven’t been to the country in the last eight years. I see it has changed a lot since that time. I have been here only for few days but I can say it feels very vibrant, very optimistic and there definitely is a sense of business like professional activity. So all in all, it is very upbeat. I have always enjoyed Sri Lanka, the people, the food, but I think the business environment is one that has definitely changed the most.     Q: What is the purpose of your visit this time? A: This time it is to engage with stakeholders and to understand their needs and expectations from ACCA. We have a local and regional team but as Chief Executive I think it is really important that from time to time I get into the market and hear directly from the people what they think is good about ACCA, how we can improve, and add value to the business and society that we work in. In addition to our members, students and, employers, I also met with a few government representatives. I have met all the people who are working to produce and support ACCA students and members. The feedback from the employers is that they want more ACCA qualified people since they are happy with the quality of the individuals that go into their organisations. So what we have to find is the capacity that attracts the brightest and the best into ACCA.     Q: What was your discussion with the Minister of Higher Education about? A: Our discussion was about complementing his vision for the higher education of the country. To extend professional qualification that complements the academic qualification so the employability of the students will increase. It is the partnership that is going to make sure that the people who come out of the higher education find jobs and are productive when they are in those jobs. That is where the ACCA can add value. To improve the employability of students who have completed their higher education.     Q: How is ACCA in Sri Lanka doing and what makes it stand out from the rest? A: The essence of ACCA is this idea that we produce the complete finance professional. So our qualification prepares an individual for a career in any sector. Its gives the professional a foundation to work in any area so I think that is unique. Also, with a long standing history of global qualification, we have a global outlook and a global network which makes ACCA very different from the other institutions that operates anywhere around the world. Globally we have 162,000 members and 426,000 students. In Sri Lanka we see ACCA having a lot of potential. We have been investing a lot more recently. One of the good indicators is that two years ago we only had one approved learning partner in Sri Lanka, and now we have five. That I think is an indicator of the demand and the investment that we are putting in to make sure that we support the market better.     Q: What are the new plans for ACCA in Sri Lanka? A: We recently signed a MOU with the University of Colombo and the University of Kelaniya. Going forward, those kinds of partnership are going to provide an excellent platform to develop a number of ACCA members and students. We do a lot of work on research and insights within the country to make sure we are addressing topics such as talent management. There are lots of exciting activities coming up.     Q: It is noted that in the recent financial crisis Sri Lanka was not affected as much as other countries in the region. What are your thoughts about the nation’s economy and its financial environment? A: My view is that with the highly educated population Sri Lanka has, it is positioned in the world as a country that has a lot of potential to prosper. There is a more optimistic feel and outlook in Sri Lanka than there might be in some parts of Europe. Sri Lanka is very much a part of the future, which is a good thing to be.     Q: So how does the ACCA qualification help prepare financial professionals to face and adapt to the upcoming challenges in the business environment? A: Flexibility is critical and we know that staying in one job and thinking that one will remain in it is a thing of the past. What a professional body does is to support an individual throughout the business life. Thought our Continuous Professional Development (CPD), we make sure the members are developing the competencies needed at any given time. So we make sure these professionals don’t stay static but remain relevant. And I think that is what professional bodies have to offer in this environment. Following the financial crisis, we changed our syllabus to focus more on risk management, ethics and governance. We ran a lot more CPD courses around the same area. We don’t wait for huge syllabus reviews every few years. As and when the market demands it, we evolve it depending on the need. We are not created by an academic conscript, but are created by what the market needs.   Q: In the ever changing business environment, how can businesses deal with risks on an international stage? A: I think that is challenging. The first thing needed is people understanding international business. I think people and talent management should be the heart of not only successful businesses but also successful finance. There should be a strategic view in looking at the long term value creation. There is a misunderstanding on the risk element that it must be avoided at all cost. I think the issue is taking those risks and understanding how it is going to be managed. It is only when the risks are taken that the business will evolve. And that is what we have to teach, to see the risks as opportunities.     Q: How important is it to promote consistent implementation of International Accounting Standards? And what do you think of Sri Lanka on this regard? A: We think standards are very important for long term stability of the economic environment. It is self evident that being able to compare and understand businesses across regions and the globe is fairer. And also it is more likely to get investors and other stakeholders the information they require. I think Sri Lanka taking up these standards, even though late, is good. Different markets move at different paces. All those having ACCA qualification since 1996 has followed IFRS, so they are ready to use those standards and implement them. That actually for me is a very important point. A country can have all the standards in the world, but if it does not have the people who are capable of implementing them, it is not going to work. So implementation is just as good and important as standard setting. You will be amazed of how many people don’t think about that.     Q: How has the role of finance professionals changed over the years and what should they do to prepare for the future? A: We have done a number of reports about the future of CFO and talent management. Certainly they have to broaden out their skills set. So the technical foundation, be in financial management, taxation, and others, is almost taken as it’s given. It is around the strategic outlook, how you support the business strategically, and your communication skills that you will need for a CFO position. First of all, it is the leadership with the finance team itself. It is also about supporting the CEO and the board in the decision that are made within the business. I think it is the broadening of the role that is very important and those are the kinds of skills that people will need going forward.     Q: In terms of the role of a CFO, what are the challenges a person in that seat typically face on an everyday basis? A: The CFO is increasingly seen as the ethical guardian of a business and to keep the business in doing the right thing. So the CFO has both roles that are to make sure that the business is making the right decision in making profits and making sure the profits are achieved in the right way. That is challenging but it is a critical role for CFOs to play.     Q: The global economy has seen multiple crises. Looking at the trend it is likely that the global environment will continue to be disturbed. So how do you recommend the policy makers and professionals promote international financial renovation? A: I think that the very heart of the problems we face is ethical behaviour. The leaders need to model that behaviour. It’s only through that there will be sustainable business and economic development, that is a very big task, a long term one, but it is what ACCA believes passionately in. I think that an ethical call could make a huge difference to the future. In order to make businesses sustainable, transparent reporting should be established, since one can only manage what is measured. The policy makers and those who promote standards for reporting should be focusing on the non financials in addition to the financial element to sustain the business moving forward. It is communicating about what is material and it is communicating with clarity and transparency. Pix by Daminda Harsha Perera