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How the profession can embrace change, according to ICAEW’s new CEO

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 08 Apr 2024

Alan Vallance, ICAEW’s new CEO, believes there is plenty of opportunity for the profession as the way we live and work is transformed.

ICAEW’s new CEO, Alan Vallance, recalls two formative points in his life that demonstrated the impacts of both positive and negative change. He worked in both Budapest and Györ – a town on the Austrian-Hungarian border – during the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. It was a huge transition that involved the economic rebuilding of much of Eastern Europe, but it was also a time of immense optimism: “People actually saw a brighter future, there was a lot of optimism. I was doing a lot of due diligence and acquisition work. It was a really exciting time that opened my eyes to the world.” 

Vallance emigrated to Australia after that, where he worked for 20 years. It was during his time at the Australian Weather Bureau that he experienced the impacts of negative change, in 2009, at a time where the world was starting to wake up to the threat of climate change. The team at the Australian Weather Bureau could see it happening in real time, with severe weather events on the increase. At one point, the organisation dealt with floods in two states in the country, bushfires, the impact of the Fukushima tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster, and an actual plague of locusts. “It was truly Biblical. You could see the infrastructure of the organisation start to creak and crack.”

These are just two of many experiences that have shaped Vallance’s approach to leadership, which he now brings to ICAEW. He is full of praise for his predecessor Michael Izza, who worked hard to modernise the organisation over the past 17 years: “His contribution was enormous.”

Vallance is joining ICAEW at a pivotal time. There are numerous changes occurring both within the organisation and in the wider world. Chartered accountants are operating in a rapidly transforming and uncertain working environment. World events are impacting economic conditions worldwide. Rapidly evolving technology and new sustainability standards are expanding the remit of accountants. 

“There are a number of significant issues that professionals in general face and the accountancy profession is no different,” says Vallance. “But to some extent, for every challenge, there’s an opportunity. AI is seen as a challenge in many areas, but it’s a great opportunity to improve and enhance the work that we do. There’s a lot to dig into to ensure that I understand what the issues are for the profession and how we can support them.”

ICAEW is also reshaping itself to better reflect the world it operates in. Vallance has inherited numerous projects in this regard, from an update of ICAEW’s Royal Charter to an evolution of the ACA qualification itself. 

“That is one of the crown jewels of the organisation,” he says about the qualification. “I did it many years ago and, revisiting it now, it’s amazing how it’s evolved over the past 30 years or so. It’s still the preeminent financial qualification, and I’m really proud of that. Now it’s time for the next iteration.”

ICAEW has undertaken extensive consultation with its membership on the future of the qualification. It’s important that the members help to shape the direction of this, and of the Institute in general, says Vallance. “I’m very keen on member engagement. I really want us to engage with members at more senior levels, and I want to be actively involved in getting out and about and meeting members in person. If we don't know what our members are feeling and telling us, we can't do much about it.”

Prior to taking on the ICAEW CEO role, Vallance headed other chartered professional bodies such as the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). That experience has given him a solid understanding of the inner workings of chartered professional bodies, particularly when adapting to better reflect the modern professional working environment: “It’s all about taking the best of the past into a brave new world. We want to modernise while respecting the history and legacy of the organisation.”

Vallance’s experience of change has led him to develop a very people-focused leadership style. He talks passionately about the need to take people on the journey and encourage them to be actively involved in the change process. “You’ve got to do it with people, not to people. You’ve got to help people make a change, because they might be hesitant to do so themselves. I want to create an environment where people can succeed, which some describe as a coaching environment. I’m a big fan of that approach.”

Professionals cannot afford to be resistant to change, he explains. Flexibility and adaptability are critical skills for chartered accountants to develop, as is honest and open communication. Vallance encourages leaders within the membership to foster environments where people can afford to make mistakes and learn from them. He also advocates for members looking for experiences that might broaden their knowledge and put them outside their comfort zones.

“The consultation we did last year showed that the profession still really values the fundamentals of accounting, such as double entry bookkeeping, T accounts – the things that make up the bedrock of the way organisations manage financial performance. But the way in which people learn those skills will change. 

“We’ve enhanced and developed technical skills around technology and sustainability, and also the professional skills required in today’s workplace. We’ll be making assessments even more aligned to the work environment, with more structured supported learning. The new ACA will also allow the student to tailor some learning to their specific personal circumstances.”

It may only be week one, but Vallance is excited about what the future holds for the profession and for ICAEW as it stands on the precipice of great change: “It’s a very exciting time to become Chief Executive. The Institute has the opportunity to be bolder, to get out there and influence the direction of travel in the UK and internationally, in a different way than perhaps we’ve done before. As a chartered accountant, I have an emotional investment in this organisation. I’m excited to roll my sleeves up and get on with it.” 

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