Helen Brand, CEO, Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)

Helen Brand is the Chief Executive Officer of The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), since September 2008. She has built her career within professional bodies and has considerable experience and knowledge of the 180 markets in which ACCA currently operates. She is a founding member of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) and now sits as Vice-Chair on the IIRC Board. She is also a member of the University of Exeter Business School International Advisory Board and a member of the Deakin University Business School International Advisory Board. One of the few women to lead a global professional body, Helen is a regular media commentator on the role of ethics and the delivery of public value play in business and society. On her recent visit to India, we caught up with Helen Brand to talk about the 20 trends transforming employability in the upcoming decade and the skills that current and aspiring professionals need to hone in order to stay relevant. Here is the expert from our interview with Helen Brand.

  • Can you tell me a bit about ACCA and how ACCA can support Indian Professionals?

ACCA is a global body of professional accountants, we have over 219 thousand members and 527 thousand students in 179 countries around the world. We originated in the UK in 1904 and very quickly grew globally, probably because of our history of inclusivity and innovation which remain as our founding principles because, in 1904, people essentially needed to be from rich and wealthy families to become an accountant. Our founding fathers believed that anybody with ability should by examination and experience become professional accountants, prove you worth, and if you have ambition and ability. And that’s what we very much believe now, we should not put artificial barriers in the way of people’s success.

We were the first body to have women members, female presidents, we opened qualifications globally for them too. The reason we can work globally is the finance function in any business is key to success. As we have international financial reporting and auditing standards, there is a framework to outbreak globally as a profession.

At the heart of everything we do, we talk about delivering public value, so for us, that means working in the public interest, supporting ethical business practices, and generating sustainable economic growth and if there is a profession where we can do that, then we are delivering public value.

Now in the Indian context, I think it is all about sustainability and inclusivity, so that the very exciting and dynamic economy in India there is, grows in a way that is sustainable and inclusive in population and the benefits of the growth and wealth. So we train professional accountants to think about all those issues, not simply the bottom line, profit motive, which might have been the only thing that you would associate with finance and accounting. We’re looking at societal impact, environmental impact, and how business and organizations accounts them in their reports.

  • There has been a lot of transformations happening due to technological advancements, can you tell me about those transformations and how it is important for people to upskill professionally to learn about what is new in the market?

One thing is certain is that of course, the accounts profession has adapted to new technology over many decades, it is not the current digital wave, so whether it was having a calculator or a computer, we have seen this evolution over time. Now, the more routine repetitive work has been taken over by computers and machines and that’s true in the current environment.

So what was seen by in the careers that the entourage might be different, but the value this added to the role in the finance profession moved up the chain and ACCA did a big research report on Generation Z and what they are expecting from the world of work. Certainly, they see digital is as providing opportunities and not as a threat, an opportunity to meet more interesting people, to do your work more effectively and have a greater impact. 

The big differentiation in this wave is data, the digital transformational technology is producing much more data much more rapidly and the ability to analyze that data. So that’s where professional accountants would come into the picture, be they auditors in business, in the government sector, the insight they will be able to create from that data will help them to make better decisions to drive the organization more strategically. So, we see that educating and training professional accountants with that data analytical ability digital mindset is going to be quite easy. I think, certainly the digital mindset lets you apply to any profession or role because that’s just the environment and reality we live in.

  • With everything going digital, how does ACCA reach out to the youth, i.e., the millennials and GenZ?

Digital is a great enabler of education and that is a very important fact. I think the technology being applied to learning and skills development are much more creative and interactive than before. So is reaching a global audience, we can deliver quite a lot of interactive and highly valuable education through digital channels. 

At different times of your career, you need to emphasize those aspects more than others, you will need all of them at the base. When you are going to be a leader, you need to showcase that Vision quotient more than when you were a junior person of the organization. We equip them to up those quotients.

  • How are the members of ACCA are standing apart from their competition in the Financial Industry?

Well, I think we take great pride in our tagline, “Think Ahead”. And I think probably what we are trying to convey with this is that forward-looking mindset that helps in continuous learning and developing. We also have a very broad qualification that covers all aspects of accounting and finance, so even if our members specialize in something, they have a broad understanding of the basics. Employers always comment that our members are commercially aware, so they apply their knowledge and that is a huge part of what we do is that, in creating learning professionals, we are market-driven. We listen to employers, so it is not academics with a towel over the head kind of, inventing something that seems clever. It is more about including what employers say they need to succeed in their business. So, our members should facilitate business success and ultimately become business leaders themselves.

Our members are very entrepreneurial. They set up or wish to set up their own businesses. I think that’s the important aspect to these qualifications now is that the foundation for a business is a career, it’s the foundation to make your own business successful as well. We know that startups and small businesses are at the end journey of economic growth, 

But if you have the financial acumen and if you can plan for your business, you stand a 100% chance of being successful. So, many of our younger members, in fact, over 80% of the 19,000 respondents to our GenX, said they wanted to start their own business during their career as that will generate the wealth and sustainability that we need.

  • Many times the younger generation doesn’t know what is wrong and right. What is your take on that? And in your courses, how do you teach the younger generation, the GenZ, about what is right and wrong and ethics?

Ethics is the heart of being professional and doing the right thing generates trust and confidence and that’s what you need to generate. Either within your organization or for investors or stakeholders more widely. Ethics runs throughout our education from day one. So, when somebody signs up with ACCA, just as a student, they sign to a code of ethics and that they will abide by the professional code of ethics. And then we have ethical considerations built into the syllabus. 

But most importantly, we have our Ethics and Professional Skills module, which is one of the three pillars of qualifications. So, they have exams, experience, and ethics. This module is an interactive module that tests your competence in exercising professional judgment while facing ethical dilemmas. It puts you in real-life scenarios. Of course, you need to know and understand the principles. 

But then how would you apply these ethics when you have a difficult situation? So, we present the students with various business scenarios, ethical dilemmas and the interesting thing to learn about is that its not always black and white choice, it is not always a very obvious choice, what you have to be able to do is to articulate why you have made that choice, on what principles are you applying in that scenario. So, we are very excited about that. 

Many of our members who refresh, so we ask our members, every year, to consider ethical competence and ethical behavior. Although this module is originally designed to qualify student, because we are always refreshing the content of that & updating it, members use it themselves and go through the module to update their own competence

And, the other thing, of course, is to demonstrate, be transparent when things do go wrong. We have 219 thousand members, they are all human beings, some things are bound to go wrong, but we have a regulatory and disciplinary structure. Ultimately, we remove members who have not complied with our ethical code. So, any member, public or employer can make a complaint about the ethical conduct of a member or student of ACCA, and it will be investigated and if necessary take disciplinary process. I think that’s a very important part of that public interest, we show that when things do go wrong, the action is taken and those hearings are public and we also publish the findings of those hearing so that’s very transparent.

  • There is a change in the requirement or skills that the recruiters are looking for GenZ employees. What is the skill set that an accountant needs to sustain in the market?

Well, you do need ethical and technical competence, but that is almost taken as a given if you have an accountant qualification. It would be understood that you have learned those things. I think what is being looked for much more are communication skills and strategic skills that can add value to a business and within that, very clearly emotional intelligence. 

So, being able to demonstrate that you understand your own emotions and how they impact on the decisions you make but also that you are empathetic to the emotions of the others and being an employee, we know that businesses are much more effective, they deliver on the strategy if employees are engaged to that emotional quotient and intelligence that makes everyone feel included in decision making and they organizations run. 

So, I think sometimes people concentrate on those paper qualifications or they get very into the books and what have you, but not on being a rounded individual who can communicate effectively. We make the difference in getting the jobs that you want to have. So, you have to invest in being a human being and that brings dividence in the roles you might achieve.

  • Can you elaborate on the 20 trends shaping future careers that are mentioned in the ACCA report, “Future-ready: accountancy careers in the 2020s”?

Some of the trends are around societal values and the meaning of work and purpose. People want to work in org that have an authentic purpose and they can demonstrate that they are doing good rather than doing bad. So what is the environmental impact of this business, does it have an inclusive work culture and can they see themselves reflected in the way it works. The whole technological piece, so whether its the emerging technology, data, etc. those are very important and trends, the flattening of organizations, and this are always driven by digital. But, its much less commander control and much faster organization. 

So, it is quite evident that your career will not necessarily be roles in order, like a ladder, it’s not even a lattice. It’s just much more fluid and the way you will get a reward, financial and personal, probably by doing a completely different role or moving sideways to do an interesting project that develops your capability but that’s not necessarily about a higher promotion or progress, so an organization themselves if they are going to be agile and respond to customer demands or dynamic market conditions, pandemics or whatever it is that might be thrown to the business world, then you have to be agile in the way you respond to that and bureaucratic organizations that know when they can make the decisions unless you are in this position, that doesn’t work anymore, so you have to empower people through that process. 

So, I think that’s one of the groups that you can put many things into that. I guess the innovation piece, being able to change business models and transforming businesses, we are very excited about that. I think everything links back to digital. But the way that small practices are looking to transform themselves and their clients through the sources they can provide and doing it in a very quick and responsive way. So, that’s more business transformation and as individuals, you can have a very rewarding career and survive, which normally people don’t necessarily think about. 

  • What is ACCA offering to the Startup ecosystem in India?

We are doing a lot of work globally around S&P transformation, but our members in India do not work in audit, they tend to be more on the advisory side if they’d be working S&P or small businesses themselves. So, our members would be the finance lead within small organizations. Of course, small businesses cant afford to have a full-time finance person, so they might act as a consultant to a few to help them with their business when it comes to strategy and financial advice.

So, we have lots of successful members who have helped small businesses go through that transformations through podcasts, websites, a key that connects our community. Whether it’s in Beijing, Bengaluru or London, they can learn from each other and that’s again totally possible now and very exciting.

  • What would you advise the Indians students who are aspiring to set their foot into the finance industry?

Be ambitious, Be passionate. You re always better at your job if you are passionate about it. So, make sure you put your full passion and dedication to the role. I do believe that having a professional qualification can give you an upper hand in business and career for a lifetime. It connects you to your peers and that’s a very valuable support network for your lifetime. So, its worth that investment to get through and set yourself up for some tests.

  • What is your opinion about the current Indian Economy and what do you think is its future?

It is very exciting. All the fundamentals are there. I think the government is driving a very can do and aspirational attitude. The key will be scaling the youth dividend to make the most of these opportunities and understanding sustainability issues that come with growth. I think India could be a real leader to using its time with the capability to showcase that sustainable development story.

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