Why accounting skills and values matter in an age of disruption
Anna Lee, CEO of Flybuys, explains how trust, ethics, and purpose will shape the future of accounting in the face of technology and changing values
The accounting profession is experiencing profound disruption as it deals with digitisation and a growing emphasis on social and environmental issues in business. These forces present risks and opportunities for the profession and will fundamentally change how accountants work.
But even during this time of change and uncertainty, accountants should stick to the core skills and values that have served the profession for so long, argues Anna Lee, the CEO of loyalty business Flybuys and a UNSW accounting graduate.
Speaking at the nineteenth annual Bill Birkett Memorial Lecture – which celebrates the life, achievements and visionary insights of the late Professor Bill Birkett by showcasing the latest thought leadership from distinguished academics and industry leaders – Lee recounted how she had learned about these attributes as her career progressed.
Paul Andon, Professor and Head of School for Accounting, Auditing and Taxation at UNSW Business School, described Ms Lee as a visionary leader who is driving national growth and performance for Australia's premier loyalty program, inspiring a team of over 300 employees to enrich the daily spending experiences of more than 9 million Australians.
“Anna's career is marked by a commitment to fostering diverse and inclusive organisational cultures that drive organisations to go beyond business as usual,” he said.
Why trust is critical in accounting
Ms Lee’s career began in February 1994 when she walked into the Coopers & Lybrand office as a school leaver.
“My days ranged from managing cash flows for the super wealthy, to auditing coal mines, to setting up early-stage reporting for the emerging tech internet businesses that were popping up in the 1990s,” she said. “The breadth of experience was invaluable and taught me to be adaptable, agile and understand business models very, very quickly.”
And when working with clients, she saw that no matter their line of business, they all had one thing in common. “They turned to us to help their businesses grow. But at the heart of it, they turned to us because we were trusted,” she said at the lecture, which is run in partnership with CPA Australia.
Trust was the first lesson Lee learned as her career got underway. “Trust is the holy grail that underpins the entire profession,” she said.
At the same time as she was working, Lee was also studying accounting part-time at UNSW. While she easily got the hang of debits and credits, she was “completely confused” about the theory of cash flow statements. Only when she applied the cash flow theory to a real client did she have her light bulb moment and lesson number two: “Understand your financials so you don't run out of money.”
Leading with ethics and integrity
Lee also outlined why she chose a career in accounting. She confessed that she hadn’t felt strongly about accounting but had always liked numbers. She didn’t want to be a doctor, engineer or lawyer, so the only occupation left that was acceptable to her Chinese mother was accounting.
Once Lee finished her UNSW accounting degree in 1997, she jumped straight into her professional year studies. She sat the first subject and, having always been academically gifted, didn’t find it hard. She had expected to breeze through it but had failed.
“I had never failed any subject or exam ever in my life. I was disappointed, embarrassed, confused, and felt I'd let everyone around me down,” Lee recalled. “In that moment, I learnt my third lesson – humility.”
The experience changed her approach to the profession. “I studied without complacency, and I committed to truly appreciating what the accounting qualification and profession was about, and I would need to genuinely work hard at mastering it,” she said.
Her next lesson came after she had left professional services and worked in commerce, where, for the first time, she had her personal values tested. “When I delivered bad news to the board for the first time, I knew that this would potentially shine a bad light on both my boss and the overall business. But did that mean I should dilute the message or not deliver it at all?” she asked the audience.
“Or when you finalised the full year's financial results, but the result conflicts with your own and your peers’ bonus schemes? And when you have to resist pressure to treat something differently at the risk of your own promotional prospects?”
Another test came when she had to make cost-cutting decisions that impacted other people’s jobs and livelihoods. These are among the tough decisions that a leader has to navigate, and they need to do it in way that balances the needs of many other people but also allows them to sleep at night.
This was Lee’s fourth lesson: “Accounting is so much more than debits and credits. It's about leading with ethics and acting with integrity,” she said.
Purpose can coexist with profit
Lee noted how a new generation wants more from their careers than just job security and a qualification, and the importance to them of a strong personal purpose. “There is a strong movement for one to work for a business whose purpose is very closely aligned with their own,” she said.
“So how do accountants find a place in a world driven for purpose first rather than profit? Is there a fundamental conundrum the profession has got itself into? Is purpose mutually exclusive to profit?”
The realisation prompted Lee to look back on her own career and she found that she had taken jobs based on purpose. She joined online retailer The Iconic because of its ambition to revolutionise the way Australians and New Zealanders shop their fashion.
“We were pioneers and innovators. We knew about the impact of technology on our lifestyles, and we wanted to combine this to create awesome customer experiences,” she said.
Her fifth and final lesson from accounting was that purpose can coexist with profit. While at The Iconic, Lee was offered the chance to switch from the chief financial officer role to chief operating officer. The COO position ultimately led her to take on the chief executive role at Flybuys.
COOs are very different from CFOs and require different solutions and approaches. “In a high-growth business, many things can happen, which also means many things can go wrong, and a lot doesn't go according to plan. This meant for me to succeed would require me to be adaptable, ready to react quickly and comfortable with ambiguity,” she said.
She found that her experiences as an accountant had prepared her for these other roles. “I realised my many years of practice in accounting was the perfect training ground for this – being able to look at problems from different angles, remain calm and apply logical thinking where skills are developed over the years. In fact, I was very good at them,” she said.
“And coupled with strength and courage, I'd learnt from confronting issues when my values were challenged proved to be a formidable and rare combination.”
Summing up, Lee challenged her audience to consider their purpose and how aligned they are with the business they work for. “What I ask of you tonight is to inspire you all to change the world one successful business at a time,” she said.