Interview: Anton Colella - The Power of One
Robert Outram asks ICAS CEO Anton Colella about how The Power of One programme will guide CAs around the world to “do the right thing”.
Q: What is the The Power of One initiative?
A: The Power of One is a major initiative to support members in ethical leadership.
We are calling on every one of our 21,000 chartered accountants around the world to embrace taking personal responsibility and doing the right thing, especially when they encounter dubious or unethical behaviour.
We are providing new resources and support for members on ethics, including a series of papers on the concepts and practice of business ethics.
Above all, we are looking to raise awareness of the key role of personal responsibility in business ethics. It’s about the ability of the individual to stand up and make a difference: “The Power of One”.
Q: Why are these issues so important right now?
A: The public’s trust in business is at a low ebb. I don’t believe most people going into business do so with the idea of acting unethically, but there is a great deal of public scepticism regarding business institutions, just as there is regarding politics, the media and a host of other institutions in civil society. It is important that trust is restored, and that it is seen to be justified.
Q: Is this about better regulations?
A: In recent years the response to any corporate or institutional failure has been to call for more regulation. Clearly, there’s a place for good, effective regulation, but on its own that is not enough. Failures in judgement or ethics still take place, so we feel it’s time to focus on personal responsibility.
Every corporate failure has its roots, ultimately, in a personal failure to take the right course. We feel it is not right to focus on regulations and rules to the extent that you are in danger of losing sight of the principles that underpin them. Those principles should be part of a chartered accountant’s “DNA”.
Q: Can you define this concept of ethics?
A: There is a basic test that anyone can apply when weighing up a course of action that may have ethical implications: would I be happy justifying this decision in court or in the media? Would I be happy for my family or my neighbours to know what I’ve done? If the answer is “probably not”, that should sound an alarm that the course of action may be ethically dubious, even if there is a way of making it square, apparently, with the rule book.
The ICAS Ethics Committee has thought long and hard about this question and ICAS is considering publishing a discussion paper on this topic in the first quarter of 2016.
Q: How does this build on ICAS’ existing commitment to ethics?
A: Professional ethics and the concept of “the public interest” have always been central to the values of ICAS, from its earliest origins. The Institute’s founders adopted the motto “quaere verum” – that is, “seek the truth” – and this remains as relevant a touchstone for ICAS and its members now as it was then. Members who have visited the ICAS headquarters at CA House recently will have seen that, as part of the building’s refurbishment, we have inscribed “quaere verum” and its translation at the entrance, as a statement of what ICAS stands for.
Q: What difference do you think the individual can make? What happens if I am up against vested interests who won’t back down, even though they are acting unethically?
A: We should not underestimate the power of an individual who stands up for what is right: that is “The Power of One”. Of course, one member of a board of directors – for example – will not always prevail and sometimes the only right course, having stated your objections and your reasons, is to resign. In such a case, ensuring that you have an exit interview with the board chairman is a powerful way of stating your case.
ICAS is there to advise and counsel its members in difficult situations like this, and I would also recommend the ICAS Career Mentoring Programme. A mentor’s experience can be invaluable in helping negotiate some of the difficult ethical and personal issues that can arise in business.
Q: Why is ICAS looking to add to the accountancy profession’s “ethical principles”?
A: There are currently five stated fundamental ethical principles, which have stood the Institute in good stead. They are: objectivity; confidentiality; integrity; professional competence and due care; and professional behaviour.
We are now consulting on the addition of a sixth principle – moral courage – as well as proposed amendments to three of the existing principles. As our discussion paper puts it: “moral courage” entails “…fortitude and determination to exert professional scepticism, to challenge others who are behaving inappropriately, and to resist the exploitation of professional opportunity for private benefit rather than the public interest.”
In many ways it is moral courage that underpins the other five ethical principles.
Q: What is the role of the ICAS professional community?
A: It is often a very lonely position for an individual to stand up against unethical behaviour. “The Power of One” aims to show business men and women who confront unethical behaviour that they are not alone – thousands of chartered accountants around the world stand behind them and indeed expect their colleagues to stand up and be counted. When one CA takes an ethical stand they take that stand for all. In a real sense, “The Power of One” is supported by “The Power of Many.”
Q: What happens next?
A: ICAS has published two supporting papers already in this series, Personal Responsibility and Ethical Leadership and Moral Courage and there will be more to come. Our Ethics Committee is now the ICAS Ethics Board, and Norman Murray CA, a senior and well-respected business figure, has agreed to chair it, following the excellent work of Ian Paterson Brown CA, who is stepping down after seven years as chair.
We’re also producing resources such as more case studies, providing examples drawn from real-life dilemmas.