Marta Phillips OBE CA discusses the lessons learned throughout her career
Marta Phillips OBE CA is the former CEO of the Pensions Advisory Service and ICAS Council member. She tells Ryan Herman about horses, courses and why it was time to quit Westminster
Forge your own path
My biggest influences growing up weren’t so much people as events. My mother was a deputy headmistress in Guyana but didn’t have proof of her qualification when she arrived in the UK, so couldn’t teach. She became a clerk at the (then) DHSS. When the careers adviser suggested I become a teacher, I replied: “My mother is a teacher, my aunt is a teacher, so I don’t want to be a teacher.” “How about computing?” she asked. My older sister had just started in computer programming, so I didn’t want to do that either. So then the question was, “How about accountancy?” And I said, “OK, fine.” So it was all very scientific!
My first accounting lesson – be thorough
I heard dyslexia mentioned in secondary school before I came to the UK, but didn’t quite know what it meant. If I don’t read things multiple times, I sometimes don’t get the true sense of what it’s saying. I will keep checking until it consistently makes sense. But that constant need to check things was my first key lesson as an accountant, and certainly as a trainee – you need to collect evidence and be thorough.
If it’s not good enough for you, it’s not good enough for your customers
The thing I’m most proud of is the work I did in social housing. I served as Treasurer and then Chair with Servite Houses from 1991 to 2007. One thing that struck me is that housing managers underperform because tenants are wary of complaining in case they lose their property. So a housing manager would say that a repair would be done “sometime on Tuesday”. That might mean someone having to take a whole day off, with a consequent loss of earnings. I would kick up a fuss if that was me – and if it’s not good enough for me, it’s not good enough for our tenants.
It’s good to talk
When I arrived at the Pensions Advisory Service, there was a divide in the organisation. What I found astounding was there was no communication after board meetings – the directors never told staff what was going on. I thought they should be interested because it affects them. But they hadn’t been used to anybody telling them what was happening, so they didn’t feel comfortable asking questions – which was odd. I told them what happened in the board meeting, and there was a deathly silence. It took about six months to get people to ask questions and be curious.
Don’t fight a losing battle
I was brought up with the philosophy that if you keep your head down and work hard, things will happen for you. But I realised far too late in my career that’s not always the way things work. Sometimes you have to be more proactive and know when it’s time to quit.
You can learn a lot from a horse
Horses need cajoling into doing things. With work, I try to start from the standpoint of what’s in it for them – just as you would with a horse. If you try to understand the other side’s perspective you will find the solution.
Pursue your passions
I didn’t have a plan for becoming a non-executive director (NED). The most difficult part, even if you’ve had a stellar career, is getting that first NED role. My advice would be to find something that interests you and where you can add value. I got involved in Newham Riding School. We got the school moved to a five-acre site and raised just under £1m to rebuild it. More recently, I have been Chair of the Audit Committee of the London Fire Brigade since 2020.
Board members need to be accountable
When I became Chair of Servite Houses I started paying board members because I wanted to hold them accountable in the same way as staff are. Even if it’s just a small amount, you can say, “this isn’t something you can float in and out of – I expect you to be at the board meeting.” I retired six existing board members who had been there a long time but hadn’t grown with the organisation.
Early engagement is key
I lost touch with ICAS after first qualifying. Years later, after I was persuaded to join Council, one of the key issues was how you encourage students to stay connected with ICAS. To do that you have to make sure they’re engaged while they’re studying to become a CA. Get them along to events and let them feel part of ICAS so they stay connected after they qualify.
We need long-term thinking
I was an NED on the board for restoring the Palace of Westminster. It’s a fascinating project – you learn about the architecture, engineering and history. It needs to be done. The problem is that it’s several interconnected buildings that were built in the 1850s or 1860s with 65 levels and lots of void spaces. There are massive fireplaces in public rooms and two big fans pulling all the air down. Then it filters up through all the void spaces, horizontal and vertical, and goes out through Victoria Tower and the central lobby. Imagine what would happen if there was a fire!
Most politicians only have a limited lifespan, though. Some MPs think all the work, including the asbestos remediation, can take place with up to 6,000 people onsite. That simply can’t work and makes no sense to me. So I left the board in December.
Your integrity is not for sale
Young CAs should have a goal, and a plan for how to reach that goal. But always be prepared to change the plan and adapt. You can get over most things in life if they don’t quite work out as planned, but if you’ve lost your integrity, I think you’ve lost yourself.
If you would like to share your experiences as a CA, please email firstname.lastname@example.org