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Held to Account

Monday, February 1, 2010 - 09:10

The new CEO of CPA Australia is committed to throwing open the doors on what his profession is capable of. By Cameron Cooper

The image of accountants as a conservative group of number-crunching pros is about to get a shake-up if Alex Malley gets his way.

As the new Chief Executive of CPA Australia, one of the world's largest accounting bodies, Malley is determined to see his members gain proper recognition for the wide range of roles in which they engage: financial adviser, strategy consultant, mentor, risk manager, resource adviser and corporate governance watchdog, among others.

"It's a personal mission of mine and it has been for over 20 years," Malley says. "To actually do justice to the profession and to recount far more about what accountants do."

As a result, since taking the reins at CPA Australia in July 2009, Malley has started to implement a new brand strategy that will have a profound influence on its 130,000 members.

"We feel there is a real need to open up the doors to the profession. In the past we have been very effective, but very conservative, and we certainly want people to understand what accountants do today. [But] I think we have relied on being the second-oldest profession in the world."

Valuable experience

A former chief executive of the Urological Society of Australia and New Zealand, and a past president of CPA Australia, Malley believes his appointment as CEO reflects the full spectrum of experiences that modern accountants typically possess.

Over the years he has been an academic, a board director, a mentor and a coach. He has run his own business consultancy and been involved in the management of public identities.

Malley says he has "insatiably" sought experiences to build his "breadth and depth" as a professional. He can often be found at conferences or events speaking to people of interest and talent outside his profession.

"You then tend to pick up and retain a lot more than if you are simply trying to get to a goal of being a senior manager and saying 'I'll listen to anyone who is a senior manager'… I don't subscribe to that," Malley says. "I subscribe to focusing on what drives you and what interests you; that tends to put you in a positive space."

It is a pointer to a management philosophy that encourages people to gain a wide range of experiences and then apply them within an environment that embraces emotion, judgement and instinct.

"Yes, I encourage that behaviour," Malley says. "I believe, generally, it is probably better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission."

Global goals

With a membership spanning 100 countries, Malley says CPA Australia's business aims must reflect the body's truly global status.

It has three key objectives: servicing members; developing mechanisms for members to access and engage with senior executives; and fostering a membership with a "borderless mind". The latter goal reflects the reality that accountants increasingly operate in an international market.

There is no better illustration of that fact than the global financial crisis. It is a phenomenon that Malley believes is another telling example of human behaviour. "Every decade or so, humankind does this in some form or another," he says.

While the crisis has put pressure on accounting professionals and businesses generally, Malley contends that the challenge is for corporations to now focus on a better regime of risk management and more robust strategic plans. Executives must also "maintain a memory of the pain and why that pain arose".

Unfortunately, the history following past cycles suggest the lessons from the present crisis will be forgotten. "The only thing that changes is the multiples of dollars that are lost seem to be more impressive every decade," Malley says.

Leadership is the key to improvement. "It's the leaders who have to keep an eye on these things and keep the balance between the destination of the business, the manner in which it operates and where risk is well respected."

Regulation is a crucial component of maintaining standards, but Malley says it is up to boards, CEOs and CFOs to communicate appropriate standards, internally and externally.

"It's really about human behaviour, ethics and the transparency of people's behaviour."

Regional challenge

With Australia now ranked second, behind the UK and ahead of the US, in the World Economic Forum's ranking of global financial centres, there is a risk that the nation may become complacent about its place in the business world.

Malley issues a word of caution, noting that the determination of Asian nations to succeed is both a compelling model that Australians need to match, and a competitive issue with which the domestic economy needs to deal.

"There are some really driving hungers in markets outside Australia that we need to mimic in some way and we need to engage young people at a level that motivates them far more than our traditional systems do."

He uses the cricket world as an example of the threat to Western business. In the space of a few years, Indian business figures have turned the cricket world on its head and shifted the power away from traditional strongholds such as Australia and England. If we do not engage meaningfully with emerging superpowers such as India and China, Malley fears Australia will be left in their wake.

"We have to develop relationships now. We have to work out what it is that is our comparative value and, I believe, much of that is about innovation. It's about intellectual skills."

The other big issue for business leaders and markets will be to tackle short-termism that has seen the focus switch from traditional five-year business plans to much shorter periods.

Malley blames a Western culture that has become accustomed to getting what it wants - and quickly.

"That's our greatest danger globally… that we are so attuned to a quick fix."

Malley urges CEOs to speak out and "put a line in the sand and talk to the market about three- to five-year plans and have boards behind them that have the courage to support them through what may not be a short-term gain but a long-term gain".

Changing roles

For the accounting profession, change is also inevitable. As part of its brand strategy, CPA Australia is promoting a campaign of 'think plus create' to increase awareness of how accountants operate and the value they add to business.

Malley believes the profession must embrace two overarching roles: being the thinker and analyst in businesses, and being the co-creator of new ideas and innovation.

Accountants must also get their heads around sustainability, according to Malley, who says the present economic climate offers a chance for corporations to commit to sustainable business practices and position themselves as business leaders "to their competitive advantage".

"Sustainability is the future," he says, adding that accountants will increasingly play a critical role in managing intangible assets such as the environment and energy and water resources.