Behind the numbers: listen up

damian wild

I’ll give you a couple of examples, both sourced from last week’s ICAEW
annual dinner.

We stoked no small amount of controversy last month with a poll that revealed
45% of accountants believe professional bodies are an irrelevance. I could write
endless columns on the results (not least pointing out that the findings were
almost exactly the same as when we ran a similar survey eight years ago) but
I’ll concentrate on one aspect.

ICAEW president Richard Dyson devoted his speech to dismissing the results
themselves as an irrelevance. I felt he was wrong, though, of course I would.
Wrong because he seemed to be shooting the messenger because the findings made
for uncomfortable viewing. His instinctive reaction, it seemed, was to question
the validity of the poll, not the reasons why so many accountants have so little
affinity to their professional body.

Later at the same event Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP made a wide-ranging and
stimulating speech about business challenges. He boiled them down to two: China
as an icon for Asia and the internet as an icon for technological change.

That short summary doesn’t do his speech justice – he also identified the
growing power of retailers, the influence of CSR and the importance of taking
your people with you in these uncertain times. It was, in short, important

Yet the audience appeared indifferent. Many were clearly fearful, some were
no doubt dwelling on the irony of inviting a branding man along to an institute
that had taken so much flak for a rebranding of its own. And at least one guest
on my table had nodded off. There wasn’t a whole lot of listening – in its most
accurate sense – going on.

I don’t mean to single out the institute for particular criticism here as
these examples reminded me of many conversations I have had with partners,
finance directors and regulators over the years. Conviction is always in much
greater supply than consultation.

Seniority demands belief and accountants are paid handsomely to advise.
However scratch beneath the surface of the writings of many management theorists
(re-read Peter Drucker’s The Frontiers of Management if you’re in any doubt) and
you’ll see listening is a skill that has to be nurtured like any other. I
sometimes wonder whether accountants do it often enough.

Damian Wild is the managing editor of

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