Philip Johnson CA shares the lessons learned throughout his career
In our new series, Philip Johnson CA reflects on a career that took him from office boy to the top of a Big Four firm, and cleaning up after some notorious scandals
Two or three people can make a big difference to your career
I failed my 11 plus and had to leave school at 16 because my parents couldn’t afford for me to stay on. But there was a science master, Mr Hughes, who told me I could do anything, given enough desire and aptitude. He was a great mentor.
Being an office boy meant I learned how the company worked
I grew to understand the importance of teamwork and it enabled me to think differently about organisations when I started auditing them.
Treat others as you expect to be treated
In 2002, I led on integrating Arthur Andersen into Deloitte. There were some damaged people at Andersen because of what was happening in the US – the company had been the accountant for Enron and WorldCom, two of the biggest corporate scandals of the era.
I explained to several partners that I’d come to Deloitte through a series of mergers when it was Touche Ross. I was looked after, and they would be looked after in the same way. The day I retired from Deloitte, a former Andersen partner left me a voice message saying: “Everything you said would happen, did happen. Thank you.”
Hire people who want your job – it makes you better in your role
A lot of that comes down to instinct, but you need to know if they just want to get a qualification or do they want to be a professional? There is a big difference between the two.
Obviously, you need to consider whether they will fit into the team, but also challenge the status quo.
When something goes wrong, everyone wants to leave the liabilities behind
I was part of the team that investigated the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, whose Chairman, Roberto Calvi, was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge – his death remains an unsolved crime. Nine years later, I was asked to lead the team in Abu Dhabi on the collapse of BCCI. Both entities were fraudulent. Corruption was endemic.
With Banco Ambrosiano it was the banks that lost money. But with BCCI, it was the people with savings – and a lot of them suffered as a consequence. We had to build a picture of what happened, where the assets were, what the liabilities were etc… We managed to get a $2bn settlement from the Abu Dhabi government, which helped to pay a large dividend to a lot of the people who had [lost their savings]. That was a serious challenge, but also very fulfilling.
As a leader, you have to be inclusive
When I became President of what is now Accountancy Europe in 2010 the organisation had not changed for 25 years. Same constitution, same practices. It was time for a change, and that was difficult because it involved bringing together 45 institutes in all 33 member states to agree to a constitutional change.
Travel is a great educator
I visited 25 of the 27 EU states. I wanted everybody to have their say. When I stepped down as President, there was a book that covered my time there, including a testimonial adapted from a Madeleine Albright quotation: “To understand Europe, you have to be a genius or French. Philip Johnson is not French. But he understood the complexity of the organisation. Diplomacy, humour, composure and respect are some of the qualities he deployed during his mandate to reconcile divergent views. As President, he laid the groundwork for a new profession.”
It’s good to get a fresh perspective
Organisations like the Rugby Football Union (RFU) can be seen as an old boys’ club. The RFU wanted to improve its governance and, although I’m involved in the charitable side of rugby and support Sale Sharks, it wanted somebody who wasn’t embedded in the sport. Being on its audit committee during the pandemic, I could see it wasn’t just about ticket money, but also hospitality, which created a massive shortfall.
I said: “You can’t tinker, you’ve got to be bold. But you have to be mindful of how you deal with the people who have to leave, as that will affect the ones who stay.”
It was a traumatic period and became about survival. The government deserves credit for how it supported sport.
There’s more to life than work
Work has always been important, but away from that music is one of my passions. My tastes are eclectic, ranging from the Beatles to jazz. I recently lost my wife suddenly and unexpectedly. She loved jazz and that rubbed off on me.
CAs should get involved in education
My wife was chair of the board of governors of two state primary schools and we both shared an interest in education.
I was on the board for 30 years, 13 as Chair, at Cheadle Hulme School. There is immense pleasure in seeing young people go from the shrieking violins in junior school to the orchestra in sixth form.
Recently, I became Chair of LTE Group which delivers further and higher education, but also works with the prison service and provides apprenticeships. It’s a long way from an independent school like Cheadle Hulme, but no matter where on the spectrum somebody is, it’s about creating an opportunity for people to achieve something that may not happen without your input.
The tangible is often under-appreciated
The ICAS Council oversees the organisation to ensure the profession acts in the public interest, and that the education for CAs of today and tomorrow is fit for purpose. It also needs to ensure policymakers and regulators understand the consequences of their actions – some of that falls under the Policy Leadership Board, which I chair. That’s not always appreciated by members because they can’t always see the results.
This is a pivotal moment for the profession
ICAS must equip young CAs with the right tools to be able to serve corporate UK going forward. Technology – AI, digital tools, etc – will continue to have a huge impact and change business models. You need people who can interpret data, as opposed to just producing and delivering it. Also, do you want a big-stick regulator or one that regulates in a way that creates positive change? There’s a big issue about the attractiveness of the profession. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the people in the profession that determines the quality of its output.
You either have integrity or you don’t
One thing ICAS is noted for, both in the UK and internationally, is its push for integrity and trust – it’s the cornerstone of our profession. Someone at a different organisation once said to me: “Oh, we’re going to have to write a paper about integrity. And I said, ‘Why do you need to write that? It’s inside you. You either have integrity or you don’t.’ They said, ‘Oh, you don’t understand, it’s different today.’ But it’s not.”
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