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Counting on professional values
Published on Friday, 19 Aug 2011
Helen Brand
CEO, Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)

As a daughter of a headmaster and a teacher, Helen Brand knows a thing or two about the virtues of discipline and delivering on one’s words in the most honourable way. After becoming chief executive of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) in September 2008, Brand felt it was her turn to share these values with the global accountancy body’s almost 150,000 members and half-a-million students in over 170 countries.

Under Brand’s direction, the 107-year-old association offers qualifications to people who seek a career in accountancy, finance and management. She has focused on helping develop the accountancy profession in emerging economies, and one of her achievements has been in expanding ACCA’s presence in China, where it now has more than 22,000 members and 41,000 students, with offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macau.

Brand advises the US-based International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) and is also a member of the Prince of Wales’ Accounting for Sustainability Supervisory Board, which helps organisations institutionalise the practice of integrated reporting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brand was awarded the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s Official Birthday Honours list this year.

“I am delighted to be honoured in this way. It came as a complete surprise, a very pleasant one, but a surprise nonetheless,” Brand says.  “I truly believe that this honour is in recognition of ACCA’s success, of which I am extremely proud to have played a part, alongside its members, students and its staff around the world.”

The following are excerpts from an e-mail exchange between Rex Aguado and Brand, the veritable queen of accountants.

What does your role in ACCA entail?
My role is to provide the strategic oversight and direction of this global organisation, working with our council of elected members. ACCA’s strategy is based on a vision that by 2015, employers in all sectors will recognise ACCA as the leading global professional accountancy body in reputation, influence and size. My role is to ensure that this happens.

How would you assess ACCA’s role in this highly connected world?
Our focus is on professional values, ethics and governance. We use our expertise and experience to work with governments, regulators, professional bodies and employers to develop the global accountancy profession and to deliver public value. I see our role in three ways – partnerships, professional qualifications and delivering public value.

We work with a range of outstanding partners to demonstrate how accountants deliver value and how they can shape business success for the future. In China, for instance, last year we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Institute of Certified Public Accountants to work together to develop training programmes. We also have an agreement with the National Audit Office of China and a partnership with over 50 mainland universities to incorporate ACCA syllabus in their accounting degree curriculum to train accounting professionals.

What has the accountancy profession learned from the global financial crisis?
Accountancy has been criticised during the financial crisis and, in particular, the role of audit has come under scrutiny. One of the key lessons has been the need for dialogue and to be forward-looking, especially when the profession has been criticised. It is important to learn from any past mistakes and from past successes.

In this context, ACCA held a series of roundtables, in the UK, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore, Ukraine and Brussels to discuss the future of audit. We have also published a number of policy and technical briefs on the issue. This work was designed to contribute to the global debate on how the profession can add value through continuous improvement.

We have looked at the future of financial reporting, at the skills needed for the future of the profession, and at the issues of risk and reward. All these publications and activities have proved the case for accountancy. We assert that the accountancy profession’s strategic oversight can future-proof businesses worldwide, that accountants are value creators with status and influence.

What is the role of ethics in the accounting profession?
Ethics are central to the accountancy profession. In fact, they are essential in every walk of business life, but we think especially so for accountancy and the finance professions. ACCA has placed ethics and professionalism at the heart of its range of qualifications, from foundations in accountancy, our new suite of entry-level certificates, to our masters level ACCA Qualification. Every student has to take a module on ethics and professionalism.

What is your role in the Prince of Wales’ Accounting for Sustainability Supervisory Board?
This group is making significant progress towards developing a globally accepted integrated reporting framework which brings together the financial, environmental, social and governance aspects of an organisation. The initiative works with businesses, investors, the public sector, accounting bodies, non-government organisations, and academics to develop practical guidance and tools for embedding sustainability into decision-making and reporting processes. To date, the project has involved the collaboration of more than 150 public and private sector organisations.

How will the awarding of the OBE impact your life and career?
It was unexpected and I said at the time that it was as much for all the work of ACCA staff and members around the world as it was for me. This kind of formal recognition can only be a boost for ACCA, and personally, it simply motivates me to go on to deliver even bigger and better things.

Can you share with us your formative years?
Throughout school and university I found myself in leadership positions. But the thing I find interesting is that I never felt under any pressure at all from my parents – a headmaster and a teacher. They focused on family activities with me, my brother and sister, and extended family. I would describe it as simply having fun. That sense of family and security is, I am sure, the best foundation my parents could have laid and it is something I have always borne in mind with my own children.

How about the initial challenges you have encountered?
Being young and a woman can sometimes mean you are put in a “box” by some people in the work place, which is incredibly frustrating. Obviously, there’s no need to worry about the “young” bit anymore. I always found that the key to acceptance and then moving upwards was to deliver. Ultimately, if you can be relied on to add value to your organisation, any prejudices will tend to be forgotten. Identifying role models and learning from them was also very important to me in the early days.

How did you end up in accounting? Was this always your career plan?
My career plan was to be involved in international relations of some sort, as I greatly enjoyed studying international politics at university. So I was initially attracted to developing the accountancy profession internationally rather than accountancy per se.

How will Asian developments affect the direction and vision of ACCA?
Asia is a dynamic and expanding market, where ACCA has played a part for many decades. With our offices in Singapore, China, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong, we are committed to continuing to support growth and development. The global economy has been rebalancing for some years now. In order to sustain this, Asia will need a strong accountancy profession and ACCA will make the strongest possible contribution.