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The accountant’s role in solving business challenges

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 14 Feb 2023

Accountants need to adapt to ensure they can continue to serve the needs of business owners by staying ahead of societal changes and reflecting a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

The news that the UK government has scrapped a barely two-year-old in-house consultancy arm because its civil servants preferred to obtain advice from external advisers such as accountancy firms only reaffirms the trusted place of accountants in society.

That said, however, the government’s desire is to cut taxpayer spending on private sector firms, meaning accountants cannot simply expect their reputation to precede them to secure future business.

All aspects of society are experiencing a period of fundamental transformation due to changes in societal expectations, consumer behaviours and accelerated technological advances, among other shifts.

Accountants must adapt, too, in order to continue to serve the needs of business owners. Until recently, the top tiers of government and business were dominated by white men from middle class backgrounds. In the past decade, that has slowly begun to change as greater evidence acknowledges the imperative for diversity and inclusion in all aspects of society.

Research by McKinsey & Co has shown that companies with the greatest gender diversity on their executive teams are 21% more likely to outperform peers on profitability and 27% more likely to create superior value.

UK research also shows that women are as successful as men in sustaining a business once established, according to the Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship. An update last year of the Rose Review showed that up to £250bn of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as men.

Despite the disparity between male and female start-up ownership, the Rose Review Progress Report found that more women than ever are starting new companies and are taking up a bigger proportion of the entrepreneurial landscape than ever before. More than 140,000 companies were set up by all-female teams in 2021, representing year-on-year growth of more than a third.

But, as has been clear for a number of years, it’s not just the male-female disparities that accountancy firms should consider. Socioeconomic background, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age and an array of other characteristics should also be factored into recruitment and retention plans at accountancy firms to better serve the future business needs of clients, who want to see themselves reflected in their advisers.

Julie Corkish, Head of Practice, ICAEW, says: “The diversity of our members, acting as trusted business advisers, is critical in supporting businesses through change. With strong relationships built on clarity around values and an understanding of what is important being essential, that diversity will ensure they are able continue providing relevant advice, reflecting the needs of businesses and those who are managing them.”

Critically, firms also need to build liquid talent pipelines to the top to retain women post-childrearing or caring breaks. That is woefully lacking in many organisations. Age bias among employers, particularly in regard to the over-50s, is also increasingly coming into focus as the UK suffers from a lack of workers post-pandemic.

Flexibility will be vital to adapt to future business demands. In many regards, accountancy firms are way ahead of many companies in adapting to new employment trends. Many offer full-time remote working or a hybrid form. Adoption of new technologies to aid remote working has made a significant impact in this regard.

Accountants can also play a pivotal role in influencing government policy. CBI Director-General Tony Danker recently highlighted how UK business is already losing out on green growth opportunities to the tune of £4.3bn, according to CBI research.

“If you’re going to overcome the headwinds that firms face this year, you’re going to need far more forward momentum economically. I worry our economy is moving backwards not forward in areas such as capital, people and ideas,” Danker said in a speech at UCL recently.

He warned that companies were putting investment plans “on ice” either because they’re uncertain or diverting cash to deal with higher energy costs, higher wage bills and higher tax rates.

Danker pointed to an uncompetitive corporate tax regime, poor childcare provision and lack of investment in training and development, among others, as some of the myriad challenges that companies face.

As society becomes more inclusive of people’s differences in outlook and appearance, so too will organisations. But that must be reflected back in a very visible way. For example, some disabilities or sexual orientations are obvious and people can choose whether to display them or not. Others, however, are not.

But taking a stand to make those more visible differences centre stage can show leadership as well as inclusivity. While those with obvious physical disabilities still struggle with employment opportunities, some firms are helping neurodivergent people gain opportunities in the workplace. EY recently established a second centre of excellence in neurodivergence in Glasgow, following the success of its first site launched in Manchester early last year.

Recruitment of people with disabilities is an area ripe for further positive action. Research by Accenture, Getting to Equal: The Disability Inclusion Advantage, found that US GDP could rise up to $25bn if just 1% more people with disabilities joined the US labour force.

The commercial advantage is strong. The research found that organisations that proactively recruited people with disabilities achieved – on average – 28% higher revenue, double the net income and 30% higher economic profit margins over the four-year period it analysed.

Today, of course, the biggest problem for most businesses, large or small, is how to grow. Accountants can offer the tried-and-tested methods for growth, but with so many externalities affecting the business world, creative solutions, increased agility and greater flexibility will be essential tools for accountants to offer business owners so they can harness the growth that the UK needs and companies crave.

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