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The evolving role of accountants in tackling global issues

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 05 Apr 2022

Academic research highlights three areas where accountants need to think and behave differently if they are to lead the way in addressing sustainability and human rights challenges. Professor Matt Gitsham explains.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a massive challenge worldwide that has required management action from leaders across all organisations. But many other global challenges are forcing their way on to the management agenda too – the climate emergency, biodiversity collapse, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

We tend to assume these kinds of challenges are for governments to deal with. But increasingly, citizens – both as customers and employees – expect businesses to be playing a leadership role in tackling global challenges too. And more and more businesses are. 

At the height of the pandemic, Apple announced its intention to be entirely carbon neutral by 2030 – including emissions from across its supply chain and product life cycle. Unilever has goals for its supply chain to be deforestation-free. More and more businesses are engaging in human rights due diligence across their value chain.

As public expectations grow, and more and more organisations get engaged, there are implications for leaders at all levels across organisations, and accountants are no exception. Through research from the Hult International Business School, we’ve identified three areas where you need to be thinking and acting differently.

Reframing your day job

First is to start thinking differently about what counts as your day job. Taking action on climate, pollution, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, and human rights issues in your supply chain – all of this is now a core part of your job. It should not be a distraction from your core work, or be seen as an additional cost. Instead, it is core to creating and protecting value for the organisation.

As a leader, you cannot afford to be uninformed about these global challenges. Instead, you need to learn what they mean for the work you’re involved in, and how and where you should be intervening. For accountancy professionals specifically, this implies a shift in thinking about the scope of the information that it is your job to gather and provide to others.

In the past, the job was narrowly about assembling, providing and assuring information on financial performance, both to management teams and to investors, regulators and the wider public. Now it’s about performance more broadly, including carbon and environmental performance, human rights performance and governance performance.

If these areas are new to you – and they will be to most – take the opportunity to seek out some further education on these topics. Joining the ICAEW Sustainability and Climate Change Community might be a good starting point.

Leading change in the organisation around you

Second is the role you play in leading change in your organisation through the language you use and the example you set. You influence people through the way you articulate the purpose of the work everyone is involved in, the kinds of goals you set, and the things you hold people accountable for. 

What targets do you set for your people around carbon, diversity, and human rights? Do you stick your neck out and speak up about these issues rather than turn a blind eye? Who and what do you champion through the stories you tell? How do you enable leadership to emerge through framing questions and challenges rather than telling people what they should prioritise?

All these leadership actions are important steps you can take to encourage others to lead on the global challenges around you.

For accountancy professionals, this might mean proactively talking more with colleagues about the wider range of issues that contribute to successful performance, asking questions and delving for more information on a wider range of topics. 

It is about initiating conversation about why it is important for organisations to be making a bigger contribution to helping address global sustainability and human rights challenges, and how gathering information helps, for example, with carbon footprint and human rights issues across the organisation and wider value chain.

Leading change in the wider ecosystem 

Increasingly, you have a leadership role in the wider ecosystem around your organisation too. Your leadership role extends to leading behaviour change among customers, persuading suppliers to do things differently, and influencing other partner organisations involved in the same sphere or ‘ecosystem’ as your own. You may have a leadership role to persuade policymakers to change regulatory frameworks.

To be able to perform these aspects of your leadership role well, you need to be able to engage well with multiple different stakeholder groups, contribute to public and political debate with an informed point of view, and engage in multi-stakeholder collaborations and partnerships with unconventional partners.

For accountancy professionals, this might mean engaging with suppliers to help them get into a position where they can better provide you with sustainability and human rights information; proactively engaging with customers about how your sustainability information can help them achieve their sustainability goals; and/or advocacy with policymakers for policy changes – for example, around carbon pricing and plastic taxes, or mandatory non-financial reporting.

Matt Gitsham is Professor of Sustainable Development at Hult International Business School