Q&A: Kreston International CEO on commerce, people, and the future of accounting

Q&A: Kreston International CEO on commerce, people, and the future of accounting

AccountancyAge spoke to Liza Robbins on career highlights, pandemic challenges, and accounting in the digital age

Q&A: Kreston International CEO on commerce, people, and the future of accounting

In August 2018, global accounting network Kreston International appointed Liza Robbins as CEO. With a primarily commercial background, Robbins anticipated challenges, but nothing could have prepared her for the disruption of the past year. However, with the accounting industry changing rapidly, she took on the challenge of delivering compassion and support to the organisation’s members, and continuing to deliver value to their clients.

Speaking to AccountancyAge, Robbins explores her career to-date, the things she’s accomplished along the way, and how she plans to translate this into her current role going forward.

What have been some of your biggest challenges of your career?

I think in any job, your audience want to know that you’re credible. And while my background has been successful, naturally I’m always going to be challenged on not being an accountant. So you do have to prove yourself, and for me it’s about demonstrating that I have the client perspective. That’s one aspect. But the other main thing I kept hearing when I started at Morison (my previous role) was “she’s female – that’s not credible in my country”. But ultimately, I simply said: “Tell me what you’re trying to do, and I’ll help you achieve it.”

It is extremely disappointing to hear those comments, but it spurs me on. I write a regular blog, and a young woman from a Kreston member firm recently wrote to me saying “you’re a role model for me”. And that’s something that I feel naïve for not realising earlier – that I am in this position, and that I can inspire people to make sure they’re the best they can be.

What are your key priorities in your current role?

I think it’s terribly important that most of these associations and networks are membership organisations – meaning they are run by members and for members. No one’s pulling a profit from them, and we understand that they are our clients. At Kreston we are acutely aware of our role in society. So when I joined, the first thing I did was put together a strategy, put it in front of the members, and said “is this where we are all going?”. So now it has been about delivering that strategy.

The main aspect of that is global connectivity, and I think this is something that’s more relevant now than ever. Mainly because the pandemic is one of the things that we have faced as a globe together. At Kreston, we pride ourselves on being truly connected. For example, communication was always key in our strategy – that we have to communicate our value and provide information to firms that will help their clients. So it’s very much that that sharing of information around a network of people that really know each other.

Aside from that, technology is of course playing a major role in what we’re doing. Last year we implemented a new system called Kreston Kommunity. There’s a nice piece of technology there now that people are using tracking referrals and client sectors, and all sorts of things. So the application of technology was very important.

I think in the pandemic, the role of Kreston has been twofold. One is short term to try and give people tools such as talking about experiences and to be a friend to one another. But also, and I think this is really important to any leader, you have to have a vision to get through this. We have to provide practical advice on how to run things, but we also have to be part of each other’s support networks.

How has Kreston been hit by the pandemic and how have you pivoted your own approach in order to tackle this disruption?

There’s no single answer to that, because we’re in over 120 countries and have 170 member firms. Each firm will have a different story. In terms of the centre of Kreston, our world was a global one of travelling and seeing people and organising conferences, and that stopped. But as a team, we had the technology to adapt to virtual working very promptly. We’ve been delivering in a similar fashion, but in a different way.

I think what was interesting is that the pandemic advanced a conversation that had been taking too long to have. Businesses don’t change, businesses are forced to change by clients, by employees and by society, and they were forced to change in this instance. And now that everyone has embraced this flexible working, the majority of the people have been amazing – they’ve proven their worth, that they’re trustworthy, and that they’re the right people. So I think that actually advanced the conversation. What’s more, some of our firms have begun to look at remote audits, and so that’s changing too. They may not have chosen to do it this way initially, but I suspect this has really accelerated their learning.

And what’s been most interesting is that our advisory income grew 60% – we were one of the top five fastest growing networks globally. And we’ve also only lost one firm due to COVID. I think ultimately, even though there’s been ups and downs, we’ve adapted well.

What are your key focus areas in the accounting space in 2021?

Let’s start with audit reform, which has obviously been coming for a long time, and is now hopefully reaching a head. I think like a lot of people, I welcome audit reform. People talk about it as a sort of singular project, but I think there is a demand both from society and from the profession itself for audit reform. I think making practice accountable is required by society and my hope is it happens fast. Business is happening today, audits are happening today, and our stakeholders need the answers today.

And of course, tax will always be under scrutiny. There’s a lot of conversation about what the ‘right’ tax is. That’s a very interesting question, because one way to answer it is, the right tax is what the regulations say – it’s what’s legal. But now it’s a common moral and ethical issue – it’s something society now owns, and they want an answer. So I think the whole concept and the debate surrounding it is to be welcomed.

And finally, there’s of course a very big push for diversity and inclusion in our profession. I think we’ve got a long way to go, but I’m just delighted to see how many of the governing entities and bodies have it on their agenda. It’s not the old greenwashing; we want to see results now. So I think that’s also a desperately important issue, and I hope we make progress faster.

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