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An exciting and challenging time to become President – the President's speech in full

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 23 Jun 2023

New ICAEW President, Mark Rhys, set out his vision for the year ahead at the recent President's Lunch at Chartered Accountants' Hall.

The intellectually curious and observationally astute amongst the audience will realise that my name is Mark Rhys and I’m (just) the new president of ICAEW.

In my first speech as President, you can imagine the platitudes that Chat GPT would provide.

So I’m not going to do that…. These words are mine:

We have to admire the bold confidence of our Institute’s Victorian founders who helped lay the foundation stone of this fantastic building in 1890 – they understood that we would be a professional membership body, not a regulated trade group – their Royal charter obligation was and is explicitly “to serve the public interest”.

I strongly believe – and I expect you all share this – that we as chartered accountants have an obligation to the society we serve to be trustworthy professionals providing trusted information.

On your behalf, on ICAEW’s behalf, I as president accept that obligation.

I get the challenges that we face, I understand your expectations of the profession and I commit to you that the Institute will, through its three strategic foundations and five strategic themes, work to deliver a better stronger profession in the public interest as foreseen by our Victorian founders: 

In today’s words – “enabling a world of sustainable economies”.

During my presidency, I want to highlight the role our members play in business – as Chairs, CEOs, CFOs, and in a wide range of responsibilities. 

Our profession is influential across the economy – in the public, private and charitable sectors and in every industry imaginable.

Our 166 thousand members in the UK and around the world provide a critical service to their clients – advising a wide range of businesses who depend upon the provision of that service and the quality of their advice.

ICAEW exists to attract, educate and train members, support them, and build and promote our and their reputation and influence. 

So, our three core foundations: education and training, belonging and supporting, and reputation and influence – each play an important part.

And this is all underpinned by the exacting rigour of our qualifications, training and continuing professional development – recognised and respected across the world.

Indeed, just yesterday, our members voted on revised CPD regulations to provide stronger assurance that ICAEW chartered accountants are maintaining and enhancing their professional skills and competence.

Our integrity is further underpinned by our regulatory and disciplinary role, firmly independent of our membership activities. Good regulation is the keystone of a high-quality profession and should be supported and celebrated. We protect the public interest – and indeed our members’ own interests – by ensuring our firms, members, students and affiliates maintain the highest standards.

If we are to cast ourselves as leaders and promote our reach and influence, we all have a duty to each other, as professionals, to be models of probity – not just our members and students, but our staff, our volunteers, our colleagues in business and practice and in all our positions of leadership.

ICAEW strategy is built around what we are calling “a decade of transition”.

The forces shaping the future of business, and our ways of living and working are shifting, and serious long-term thinking and planning is required to adapt and to deal with the challenges and threats, and to embrace the opportunities.

I’ve spoken about our three strategic foundations – education and training, belonging and supporting, and reputation and influence – and we need to ensure that we continue to be a force for good.

But it’s also important I think to sketch out how those three strategic foundations work together to enable the five strategic themes which, together, focus our thinking in every corner of the Institute as we consider how we will have made a real difference as we look back in 2030 at 150 years of ICAEW.

Those five themes (warning: there might be a test over coffee) are:

  • strengthening trust in the profession,
  • helping to achieve the UN sustainable development goals,
  • supporting the transformation of trade and the economy,
  • mastering technology and data, and
  • strengthening the profession by attracting talent and building diversity

Taking them in reverse order:

One, we must continue the progress we have made in ensuring that our profession better reflects and respects the diversity of the communities we serve – it’s an absolute requirement but – let’s be honest – we have much yet to do.

Two, we need to address the implications of emerging technologies for the speed and quality of tax advice, accounts preparation, audit scepticism and efficient service delivery. 

When I started my training at Arthur Andersen in 1984 we had no computers - so I know the profession can respond to and indeed continue to thrive through such change.

Three: the transformation of the economy as we reform tax systems, grapple with inflation, work from home, connect so much more quickly, make big immediate decisions on our iPhones but find less time to think requires new approaches and an agility of response that sometimes feels like too much for a Wednesday lunchtime.

Fourth, the UN sustainable development goals will only be achieved through quality trustworthy information – I’ve completed the Institute’s Sustainability Certificate, but I doubt that that will be sufficient.

Perhaps the challenges of the non-financial data necessary to make good ESG decisions and the shifts prompted by new technology will necessitate a reconsideration of our founding tenets – we might need to revisit some of our charter objectives for a few of the things that the Victorians had not quite envisaged.

And five:

Let’s speak about trust in our profession – both trust in our work and trust in our members. 

On occasion, some Chartered Accountants attract adverse media comment – possibly because we are so involved throughout the economy. The profession sometimes – despite all our best efforts – can fall short. When things go awry, we all feel the pain. Sometimes our members have not delivered on expectations, we see ethical shortcomings where accountants fail to meet our high principles, or get caught out by fraud and failure in the firms we audit, advise or work in.

There will be failings – we have tough goals and difficult jobs. The Institute commits to working to address those failures, asking hard questions (and – as every studious and curious Chartered Accountant will – expecting good answers, supported by real evidence): “why?”, “what’s the root cause?”, “how can we change to address that?”

And of course, how do we educate and, yes, regulate to continue to earn the trust that society places in our advice, our opinions, our reports.

We have significant resources available to make a difference: 

We’ve more than 800 dedicated staff supported by many more volunteers and contributors who I must thank for their role in thinking hard about, supporting and developing the three strategic foundations, and the five strategic themes that underpin all of this thinking.

But you’ll also be aware that we are in the midst of some major changes to our institute’s leadership and governance.

Michael Izza is retiring as CEO later this year – I know I speak for all of us when I say how grateful we are for 17 years unstinting and energetic leadership (there’ll be plenty of opportunities to celebrate in due course).

In the same year, our Council – the voice of the profession in overseeing the board and the Institute’s strategy – has carefully considered, developed, and approved fundamental changes to modernise and strengthen our governance.

This includes the decision to appoint an independent chair of the board for a renewable three-year term – so whilst we are conducting that search, I’ll begin my year by serving as chair of ICAEW board but will be pleased to relinquish the role to improve the clarity of our structures and accountabilities.

So – an exciting and challenging time to become president – we’re an important pillar of the economy.

We are acutely aware that our future success cannot be taken for granted – we have recently seen other organisations lose members, their reputation and their influence because they have failed to meet public expectations around the topics that I’ve already spoken about in our own strategic themes.

So, we need to anticipate and prevent such problems in our own organisation and to act swiftly and decisively should they arise.

My role is to represent the institute – to listen to you, our members, and our stakeholders – and to voice your views in the board. We have a lot to do, we haven’t got all the answers, so I am interested in hearing what you think. I will make myself accessible so that we can better address the obligations we have to society.

And finally, let me personally thank Julia for her leadership over the past twelve months. She’s chaired the board, spoken at innumerable events, met thousands of people, been a sounding board for Michael and the executive team and all with poise and gracious intelligence, none of which I will come close to matching – a daunting act to follow!

Thank you for your time, I’m grateful for and honoured by this opportunity and I look forward to serving the profession over the next twelve months.

Finally – you can continue your lunch, but we then have much to do.