Date posted: 24/09/2020 5 min read

Meet the audit expert who hated auditing: Fiona Campbell FCA

Here’s how IAASB deputy chair Fiona Campbell FCA turned her loathing into love and a high-flying audit career.

In Brief

  • Fiona Campbell FCA went from “hating auditing with passion” at university to a globally respected expert on the subject.
  • For the past 20 years, she has been involved in designing EY’s global audit methodology.
  • Audit has given her opportunities to travel, and to take complex problems – “the geeky stuff” – and come up with practical solutions.

By Stephen Corby

To go from “hating auditing with passion” to a globally respected expert with a book on the subject seems unlikely. But for Fiona Campbell FCA, it’s just one step in an extraordinary journey from a farm in New Zealand to deputy chair of the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (IAASB).

Campbell was told by her high-school careers adviser that she “might” make it as a flight attendant – if she really knuckled down. She had loftier travel goals for herself, pondering a career as a diplomat. “Unfortunately, anyone who knows me will tell you I’m not known for my diplomacy. I’m a little too blunt,” she laughs.

“I was not the best student; I was easily bored,” she adds. “And when I saw that counsellor years later and told him I was now a partner at a chartered accounting firm, he was like, ‘excuse me?’”

Fiona Campbell FCAPicture: Fiona Campbell FCA.

From NZ farm to [Excel] table

Campbell grew up on a snow-swept farm on the southern tip of New Zealand, between Dunedin and Invercargill – “It’s not the ass end of the world, but you can see it from there.” – and says it taught her that you have to find your own solutions to problems.

“It’s a very grounding way to grow up. You can’t wait for a spare part to be shipped in from the other side of the world; you just fix it with a bit of fencing wire yourself. It taught me that you can be presented with really complicated stuff, but there’s usually a pragmatic solution,” she says.

“You can be presented with really complicated stuff, but there’s usually a pragmatic solution.”
Fiona Campbell FCA

After moving to a warmer dairy farm in Australia, near Bega on the NSW South Coast, and struggling through high school, Campbell decided to “have a go” at commerce at Deakin University’s Waurn Ponds campus in Geelong. She quickly discovered she “hated accounting, and hated auditing with a passion”.

She did, however, discover a liking for processes and rules, which momentarily tempted her towards a career in law. “I quite like a bit of control, too, and the law gives you that,” she says.

But so do accounting standards and, instead, in 1990 she took on a role with EY.

“I found I could take them [accounting standards] and read them and interpret them in quite practical ways,” says Campbell, who has since written a university textbook on the subject and is now a partner with EY’s Assurance practice in Melbourne.

For the past 20 years, she has been involved in designing EY’s global audit methodology, including ensuring compliance with both international and local auditing standards.

“If you work hard and say yes to things, you get rewarded for that with more opportunities,” she says.

“That’s the key reason I’ve stayed at EY as long as I have. Every time I’ve felt a bit bored, even for just a week or so, another opportunity has presented itself.”

Why 2020 is a challenging year for auditors

Opportunities have gone beyond Australia, and beyond EY, to the IAASB, where she’s worked on international standards, contributing to ISA 315: Identifying and Assessing the Risks of Material Misstatement, and generally keeping the world of auditing afloat in challenging times.

Campbell says 2020 has been a particular struggle and “the hardest I’ve ever worked in 30 years”.

The challenges of the global pandemic and working from home have added, by her estimate, at least 30% more time to most tasks, but often more.

“It can’t just be a case of us working harder as auditors: there has to be a number of ways we can approach it. I don’t have all the answers, but we have to be a part of the innovations and part of the solutions, otherwise we won’t exist as a business,” she insists.

As for the work itself, “everything takes a lot longer to do. If you think about doing an audit, normally you’re in a room with your team, you hear the chit chat so you know what’s going on, and you could be dealing with an issue with the client directly at the same time,” she explains.

“And it’s exhausting, constantly being on video calls. Normally when you’re in a room with people you can read body language, which is so important, but now you’re trying to look for tiny little micro expressions, tiny cues, and that’s assuming the tech actually works, which we all know isn’t always the case.

“It’s exhausting, constantly being on video calls… you’re trying to look for tiny little micro expressions, tiny cues, and that’s assuming the tech actually works.”
Fiona Campbell FCA

“It’s just added so much complexity and time. Plus, the way you learn in this job, it’s an apprenticeship model, so you start as a graduate, you’re on the job, learning from someone by sitting right next to them, and that’s been lost as well.”

The upsides of a pandemic

While Campbell’s career progression has been driven by a powerful work ethic, and a “pig-headed refusal to give up”, despite the tough year, her optimism shines through. After all, there have been upsides to all this.

“There’s no more commuting: I got up at 8.25am this morning for an 8.30am meeting – I’d been up until 2am on a board call the night before – pulled on a black T-shirt and jumped in there, and no-one was any wiser,” she laughs. “I don’t know how I’ll go when I have to wear make-up and high heels again.”

What she does know is she won’t stop loving her job, no matter where she has to do it.

“I really feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds. I get to take complex problems – a little bit of the geeky stuff, which I really enjoy – and come up with practical solutions. But I must admit I miss the travelling. I always loved meeting people around the world as part of this job. I love the people aspect.

“Maybe I could have been a diplomat.”

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