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Interview with Hilary Lindsay, ICAEW president

By Michelle Perry

Hilary Lindsay, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales’ second female President, talks to Michelle Perry about why the profession must invest for the future amid post-Brexit uncertainty and the continuing evolvement of the role of CPAs.

As A Plus meets Hilary Lindsay, new President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, at its headquarters in the heart of the City of London, she is reading a book about the rise of robots and the impact on the profession.

A study earlier this year by Oxford University found that there is a 95 percent likelihood of a robot taking over the job of an accountant, which in isolation is a worrying statistic but Lindsay is sanguine about the figure.

“There’s a lot of fear about robots. The pace of change is going to be quite different but our members are well placed because of the skills we have. The profession will be less affected by this because the judgment and professional scepticism won’t be able to be replicated by robots. It is about the trust point but we need to remain relevant,” Lindsay says.

In a world full of change, Lindsay is focusing her year as president on maintaining stability. By ensuring the continuity of the institute’s strategy of diversity, growing and supporting members, building communities and investing for the future, she hopes to steer a steady course while all around is volatility.

This tendency towards stability is perhaps favourable given that change is a certainty for the United Kingdom for at least another decade, if predictions are correct, following the outcome of the 23 June referendum to leave the European Union. However an EU exit could give the U.K. the freedom to untangle itself from many regulations, particularly in regard to audit, that some considered restrictive. Lindsay is however cautious about repealing any EU regulations too quickly. “We should take our time for considered change and we should avoid gold-plating EU regulations. Regulation is a very important part of trust between business and society. Of course it mustn’t be a barrier to organizations being able to carry out their roles correctly,” she says.

ICAEW continues to hold Brexit talks with the government. “We have made several suggestions to government. Our three focuses are around having a skilled workforce for the 21st century; the need for an industrial strategy that makes sense and considers our strengths as a country; and the need to look at new ways of doing business.”

Ensuring diversity

Lindsay is also placing a couple of “areas of interest” at the heart of her year at the helm of one of the world’s oldest accountancy institutes.

“One of the most important things as president is that you pick up the baton and carry it forward; that you maintain continuity of the institute’s strategy. But within that I have a couple of areas of interest – to be adaptable because if not we will not have a profession to hand over. And being inclusive – sharing our knowledge,” she says.

Inclusivity has been a long-term interest of Lindsay’s but she has witnessed its increasing relevance in the lead-up to her presidential year. As vice president she visited Malawi where ICAEW had been appointed by the World Bank to strengthen the national accountancy qualification. ICAEW had been working closely with Malawi’s accountancy institute to develop a new strategy, and do some training in IFRS quality assurance and ethics.

Unexpectedly the Society of Accountants in Malawi, as it was then known, decided halfway through the process to join the ICAEW in becoming a chartered institute. Lindsay was invited to open the new institute there. This kind of inclusivity is what the ICAEW president is keen to maintain and progress further during her year at the top. And it does not just extend to distant borders either.

“It is about having as many varied paths into the profession as possible and attracting talent and ensuring members feel they belong to the institute,” she says.

The aim of securing diverse paths into the profession is clear in her own career. From 2011 to 2012 Lindsay was president of the U.K.’s Association of Accounting Technicians, the professional body for accounting technicians. Members of the AAT can join ICAEW through a fast track route, which offers individuals the chance to study for the chartered accountancy qualification.

“The more varied the ways into the profession all the better to get the broadest mix. That means globally, too,” she says.

Indeed ICAEW and the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants, which have had a close working relationship for many years, have a reciprocity agreement, allowing some HKICPA members to become members of ICAEW without further examination.

In her previous role as an award-winning university’s finance lecturer, Lindsay travelled regularly to Hong Kong to teach students, with whose studiousness she was impressed. She hopes that during her presidential year she will have the opportunity to return to the region once again, especially now that there are even closer ties between ICAEW and the HKICPA.

As a northerner and chartered accountant she is keen to play a role in narrowing the north-south divide that the U.K. suffers from. The Northern Powerhouse – a strategy to invest more in infrastructure and business in the north of England begun under former chancellor George Osborne – is something that Lindsay supports.

“Our members are all over the U.K. and we are trying to help them support the local businesses and the economy and then hear back from them and that will inform our view that we share with government and other stakeholders,” she says. Lindsay is also the new Chairman of the Consultative Committee of Accountancy Bodies, the combined group of five U.K. accountancy bodies with a membership of over 380,000 professional accountants, which provides a platform for its member bodies to work collectively in the public interest on issues affecting accountancy and the wider economy. During her year in office Lindsay also wants to focus on flexible working and wellbeing in the workplace.

When Lindsay qualified as a chartered accountant in 1974, just 2 percent of the membership consisted of women. Despite the gender imbalance at the start of her career, Lindsay says she “never felt that gender was an issue.” Today, that figure stands at around 29 percent of the ICAEW membership, so it was high time the institute elected Lindsay.

As the second female president in the institute’s 136-year history, Lindsay was hoping her gender would not be too much of an issue. However, with equality never far from the headlines it is difficult not to be partly defined by it. Baroness Noakes was ICAEW’s first female president in 2000 but Lindsay is the first academic to be president.

“I have always been able to do what I wanted in my career but I’m very conscious of being a role model in doing the job. I hope it won’t be anywhere near as long before we get a third and fourth female president,” she says.

Challenges ahead

Indeed Lindsay’s career to date has been a diverse and successful one. After qualifying with a small, four-partner practice in the north-west of England and working there for a decade, she travelled south to ICAEW’s Moorgate headquarters to seek career advice on how to start her own practice. She was promptly recruited as ICAEW’s practice adviser and later became the director responsible for member services at the institute. In 1999, Lindsay left the institute to work for the Open University lecturing and carrying out research into continuous professional development and lifelong learning in the accountancy profession. Several years later, Lindsay returned to the institute when she was elected to the ICAEW Council.

“I have concluded that we all have to continually adapt. That’s what it’s about for me: adapt, learn, and change,” she says.

Lindsay foresees some of the greatest challenges for the profession around the evolving role of audit. As the threshold for a statutory audit is increased by governments – U.K. companies with a turnover of less than £10.2 million are exempt – the president says that chartered accountants need to adapt and evolve too to develop ways of providing assurance around other areas such as the United Nations’ sustainable goals and technological developments such as blockchain – which can be used to track food from the source to ensure its authenticity – so they meet the needs of all stakeholders.

The other challenge therein lies in how to attract “the young, brightest, hard-working people to continue to join accountancy.” Auditing culture is another growing area for today’s auditors, and one that regulators all over the world are increasingly focusing on, she says. Lindsay considers her strengths as a professional lie in her ability to balance her skills and interests of people and data and that has dictated the career path she has led. She also suggests that as an accountant it is these skills that not only provide individuals with myriad opportunities but also make them important to society.

“Once you qualify you have a passport that offers fantastic opportunities to work anywhere. And you can really add value to society by making sure organizations have credible data. The ability to look at the data and be aware of the human impact too means that our members can do so much in lots of different fields and locations,” she says.

It is easy to see that it will be this balance that Lindsay will inject in her stewardship of ICAEW during her presidential year and that will hopefully be her legacy for future generations of accountants. That, and the belief that a cup of tea and a game of Sudoku is a great way to wind down after a hard day in the office.

This article was originally published in the October 2016 edition of A Plus. You can also read a digital version.