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Unwavering in disruption: Reflections on an extraordinary year

By Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, President and CEO of the AICPA and CEO of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

In this interview, Barry Melancon, CPA, CGMA, CEO of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (the Association), reflects on an extraordinary year and the steps we must take to prepare for 2021.

You have described 2020 as a ‘historic' year for the profession. Can you explain what you mean by that?

We faced a level of disruption none of us had ever experienced before. As a trusted profession, accountants were looked to for guidance and stability. We were on the front line of the pandemic’s economic effects, and our expertise, abilities and the relationships we have built were put to the test. I am especially proud of how the profession rallied to support small- and medium-sized enterprises and self-employed and gig workers during this challenging period.

We could effectively respond to this crisis because of our long history of anticipating change and adapting. The profession is — and has always been — transformative, evolving to meet the demands of a rapidly-changing environment. For more than a century, we have grown our capabilities, knowledge and talents to remain resilient against disruption and turn that resilience into results for our organisations, economies and communities. 

How is the Association, through CIMA, helping members and students navigate the pandemic?

In March, we launched the CIMA Coronavirus Resource Centre, sharing tools, resources, and learning to help members stay informed as the pandemic unfolded. Since the pandemic played out differently around the world — and there are more than 650,000 Association members in 179 countries and territories — we also produced a wide range of free member webinars tailored to different regional needs. One of these was our region-by-region CIMA ‘Reimagine Recovery’ President Roadshows, where members could hear directly from CIMA President Nick Jackson and Management Accounting Chief Executive Andrew Harding about recovery efforts that impacted them.

To make sure members continued to have access to our learning, we converted our in-person training and conferences to online. In partnership with Oracle, we developed a 5-part Agile Finance Reimagined webcast and whitepaper series to help finance teams increase resiliency and growth across the business. We also produced free resources for organisations, including our business resilience and recovery toolkit, that helps business leaders steer through the short- and long-term ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis.

While supporting members and their organisations, we have not lost sight of our commitment to the next generation. Students were also under enormous stress during the pandemic, particularly when it came to their CIMA exams. We quickly worked with Pearson Vue to deliver a secure platform for remote online exams, enabling all students to take both the Objective Tests and Case Studies exams from home beginning in May. We plan to continue offering online CIMA exams after this crisis ends.  

The pandemic impacted our own business practices, including our governance meetings. We held our first-ever virtual CIMA Annual General Meeting in June. We changed how we operate, but our commitment to the profession never wavered. We take our responsibility to our members and students very seriously and are committed to providing the tools they need to be successful — no matter the environment.

The Association is key to sound policymaking around the world. Can you tell us about some of those efforts?

With help from our global membership, we successfully advocated for many key relief programmes and efforts throughout 2020. In the UK, we:

  • Submitted five comment letters to the UK Chancellor, one to the Small Business Minister and a 20-point plan to the UK Prime Minister for economic and business recovery, with 14 policy measures adopted from these efforts
  • Responded to 10 consultations and inquiries relating to COVID-19
  • In November, released a 40-policy proposal report for economic recovery to the UK government titled ‘Budgeting for Recovery and a Long-Term Economic Future for the UK,’ with two policy wins from this
  • Responded to the House of Lords EU Services Committee Inquiry into professional services and Brexit, with two of our comments on mutual recognition of qualifications and regulatory alignment picked up
  • Responded to an inquiry by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee Inquiry into Delivering Audit Reform

We represented member voice to policymakers outside of the UK throughout the crisis. We developed an approach that is strongly guided by local volunteer leadership to ensure that we take local nuances into account. A few highlights include:

  • Successfully advocated for measures to support small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and practices (SMPs)
  • Submitted six suggestions to improve economic stimulus packages in Hong Kong
  • Supported the country director in making a submission on proposed amendments to the National Qualifications Framework Act in South Africa
  • Successfully advocated for the removal of a clause from proposed legislation requiring all accountants in business to be a member of Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ghana (ICAG) in that country
  • Created an AICPA Paycheck Protection Program Coalition of small business payroll providers to facilitate information sharing and ease-of-access for loan funding in the United States

We have always had a strong voice in advocacy, but this year we have been more essential to policy changes than ever before. The level of activity is historic for the profession, and it will continue well beyond the end of the health crisis.

The Association did not just focus on COVID-19 this year. What are some of the key initiatives we made progress on in 2020?

The pandemic did not disrupt our efforts to reimagine the profession. 

On the first of the year, we launched the updated Code of Ethics to better help finance professionals deal with challenges to ethics and independence in the modern digital business world. We continued to build on the ethics support offered to CIMA members, including introducing a new Ethics CPD tool.

In January, we created a Global Career Hub for both management and public accounting. Since launch, we have posted more than one million jobs and developed career resources to help members and students navigate COVID-19.

We also rolled out a new global pathway to CIMA membership and the CGMA designation — the CGMA Finance Leadership Program.

We expanded our Future of Finance series with a new report, published in partnership with KPMG, that examines the impact of digital technology on the finance function and its people. We recently released an update to the report focusing on the pandemic’s effect on digital transformation.

In June, we launched the CGMA Future Mindset tool, a personalised learning experience aligned with our Future of Finance research. The tool is free for CIMA members and CIMA Professional Qualification completed students as a 2020 member benefit.

This year, I signed a call to action in response to climate change on behalf of the Association, demonstrating our profession’s commitment to combating climate change and our support of members working to address climate risk. The Association remains committed to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and recognises the role we play in sustainable business development.

What is your advice to members and students as they prepare for 2021?

Focus on people.

The strength of the profession depends on our people. As the Association, we recognised that the human impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was carried through into our profession. We must continue building the human resilience needed to navigate through — and beyond — the disruption facing us. Wellbeing and mental health should be top of mind for organisations, particularly as the crisis drags on into the new year.

2020 has reminded us of the importance of our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. By tapping into different cultures and perspectives, our profession is positioned to solve even the most complex and challenging issues. The Association is committed to fostering a culture of belonging, and we offer resources to help organisations recruit, retain and advance diverse talent in the profession.

Emphasise value creation.

As a profession at the heart of business, we pave the way forward for our organisations. Businesses look to their CFOs and Finance for greater guidance during disruption. We’ve long talked about the need to transform the finance function from a focus on costs to a more strategic, partner in organisations. The pandemic accelerated that shift to be more value focused.

There is an increasing demand for companies to demonstrate their value beyond profit. The pandemic is highlighting how social and environmental issues can pose financial risks to companies, and non-financial reporting is becoming a bigger part of a company’s accountability. Integrated reporting is a comprehensive approach to corporate reporting that can help organisations articulate how they add value now and in the future.

Commit to learn, unlearn, relearn.

As we learned this year, we must be willing to adapt. That means recognising the skills we have today may not be enough for the future. In fact, according to the most recent World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report, 44 percent of the skills employees will need to perform their jobs effectively will change by 2025. To reskill and upskill, we must commit to a cycle of learning, unlearning and relearning. Throughout the pandemic we saw the value of being a nimble profession, and this adaptability will continue to be important.

We help equip members and students with the technological and people skills needed for the future through our Go beyond disruption professional development series. In addition, the Digital Mindset Pack, powered by AICPA and CIMA research, can help CIMA members leverage the technologies that are rapidly transforming finance.

Do you have any final thoughts for our members before we close out a truly extraordinary year?

This year was tough for everyone, but it has also provided the profession opportunities to support our organisations, governments and communities in new ways. Accountants are leading in recovery efforts, and our ability to do so is because of your hard work. As trusted professionals, you restore confidence amid disruption. Thank you for all you do.

None of us could have fully prepared for 2020, and the path ahead is unclear. While we may not know what is in store for 2021, that does not mean we can stop where we are now. Together, we must reimagine the world we want to create, then build that future.