Q&A: IFA director of professional standards Ian Waters

Q&A: IFA director of professional standards Ian Waters

Accountancy Age spoke with the IFA's newly-appointed director of professional standards, Ian Waters, who outlined his background and the key goals for his tenure

IFA

Post-Carillion, and in the midst of an era-defining push to restore trust in audit and corporate governance, the value of serving the public interest in accountancy has never been clearer.

For Ian Waters, newly appointed director of professional standards at the Institute for Financial Accountants (IFA), this principle must be embraced at every opportunity.

Fusing his considerable experience in both the practice and regulatory sides of the profession, Waters intends to instil a culture of trust and ethical integrity at every level, beginning with IFA staff and working right the way up to the wider profession itself.

Speaking to Accountancy Age, Waters explores his career to-date, the things he’s accomplished along the way, and how he plans to translate this into his new role going forward.

What has your career looked like prior to joining the IFA?

I’m a chartered accountant by qualification, having qualified back in 1990. My first job was at the accounting firm at the bottom of the road where I lived when I was 18, and from there I spent quite a bit of time in small practices. Towards the end of the 90s I joined SWAT which is now part of the Mercia training consortium and spent five years working there specialising mainly in small entity audits, as well as a little bit of CPD lecturing, teaching of junior accountants and visiting firms providing consultancy services in audit, which I found really rewarding.

In 2004, I took a job with ACCA, and that’s where I stayed for 15 years, starting off as technical projects officer and working my way up. I spent seven or eight years as head of standards, so very much responsible for regulatory policy and regulatory oversight, in addition to ethical matters and the ACCA rulebook.

I left the ACCA in 2019 and joined the IFA earlier this year, having ran my own consultancy company in the interim period, providing services to small firms of accountants and a few professional bodies in the area of compliance.

Can you pinpoint some of your biggest or proudest achievements during that period?

I’m just quite proud of my career history, especially at ACCA. One thing I’m particularly proud of was in the field of legal services, achieving recognition of ACCA as a regulator of probate activity. That was founded on ACCA having high standards that the legal services board accepted and recommended to the Lord Chancellor.

I also helped ACCA to gain recognition as an alternative dispute resolution body and an ATOL reporting accountant regulator. Both of those, again, were very much based on being able to articulate the high standards that ACCA members are held to, and a lot of my role was holding them to those standards.

Another interesting one was my time at SWAT, being a big change from working within small firms to the consultancy side. I think that step was really important to my growth because it showed how valuable my skills and experience were, but also my soft skills and relationship building capacity. I had a very good relationship with the firms I visited, and the work I did was really appreciated.

And looking beyond employment, another point is my master’s degree in applied and professional ethics. I turned 50 just before I was awarded the qualification, and so I feel it’s an achievement that I rediscovered personal development and the value of learning at that stage in my life.

 

What do you think you are bringing to this role?

Coming from a professional body and with some consultancy experience as well, you might think I was a natural fit in a sense. But also, I was familiar with the IFA for some years, going back to when I would represent ACCA on various working parties and groups. So I knew a bit about the IFA and its culture, and I think they knew a little bit about me as well. So culturally and professionally it feels like a good fit.

It’s really exciting to be in an organisation that is somewhat smaller than ACCA, and an organisation in which I can make a difference and have this level of oversight. And that leads me on to what I want to bring into the role, which is commitment to the value of a professional body, and more specifically the trust that is so important to its members and to the public interest.

How has the IFA dealt with the pandemic, and how will you carry that forward?

I’m a big believer in listening to what people need and responding to that, and we need to embrace that going forward. For instance, something that is on all of our minds at the minute is what’s going on in Ukraine, so we’re listening to the needs of members and representatives in that part of the world and doing a bit of thinking about what they need. And that includes the areas that are subject to sanctions: understanding those sanctions and how they might impact our relationships with members in those areas, and doing the right thing. And the need to listen applies in relation to all of our members. Focusing on the pandemic, we are all still dealing with a period of change as we get back to a new normal.

We have to listen to IFA staff as well. Like any organisation, the IFA is going through changes, and I think there are practical and ethical considerations we need to take on board when setting out our expectations of staff and members. So as a member of the senior management team, I have a role to play in ensuring that staff are comfortable in the way they work. Our team need to feel safe and that they have the interactions and support they need, not just to be able to do their work, but to make work an important part of their lives.

How will your passion for regulation, professional standards and ethics come into play?

I still think there’s some work for me to do in getting to know my colleagues across the IFA and the wider IPA group, and there are often gains to be had in evolving the regulations that apply to accountants globally. What I mean by this is that I want to ensure there is a consistent way of thinking about how regulation and professional standards fit within a professional body of accountants.

Ultimately, a professional body supports its members, and there needs to be a framework in place whereby a professional body that regulates its members to a high standard is seen to keep that regulation objective and robust and so is seen to be serving and protecting the public interest in that respect. If it’s done well and that independence is maintained, then the brand is heightened, and the level of trust is strengthened. And of course, that’s in the interest of members. So the interest of the public and the interest of members are aligned.

What trends and challenges do you see on the horizon?

One of the things we’re certainly living with day to day is the challenge of robust anti-money laundering compliance. We need to be at the table as far as that is concerned and make sure that we exercise proportionality and diligence in order to gain the clarity that we need for our members and to be able to supervise them. When it comes to the need to combat serious and organised crime, for example, accountants and other professionals have a major role to play in this.

However, there’s always the need for open and frank dialogue with government and oversight organisations to make sure that we maintain a focus on risk-based supervision. Government, for example, is not always very familiar with what accountants and lawyers do, so it’s about listening and explaining and seeking to achieve collaborative, effective and proportionate solutions in light of the perceived risks.

We must also support our members in anti-money laundering compliance in such a way that the public interest is maintained. Truly effective compliance entails understanding why compliance is important, and that is where the public interest is best served – ensuring that IFA members are better able to identify the areas of risk and better able to identify the possible proceeds of crime.

In terms of what’s on the horizon though, I think sustainability is something within our strategy that will continue to grow in importance. That will of course involve engagement with new sustainability standards – to the extent that they either impact our members directly or guide our members’ behaviours.

 

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