Date posted: 04/02/2019 10 min read

Why Stephen Walker FCA is championing CAs as a force for good

Ethical leadership and opportunities for CAs in public service top the list for 2019 CA ANZ President Stephen Walker FCA.

In Brief

  • Ethics is a touchstone of CA membership, and 2019 CA ANZ President Stephen Walker FCA sees ethical leadership as a force for good.
  • Walker acknowledges how important it is to CA ANZ members to safeguard the chartered accountants brand.
  • As well as promoting public sector service, Walker wants CA ANZ to offer more for smaller and medium size accounting firms.

Story Pattrick Smellie

Photo Christopher Pearce

Stephen Walker FCA was walking past the offices of once-legendary New York broking firm Bear Stearns late one summer’s evening in 2008, when he noticed something odd.

“I remember walking past the building that night and thinking, ‘What’s going on? There’s a lot of security guards out the front of this building and a lot of people not being allowed inside’.”

The New Zealander, then working in New York as director of operations for the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), only realised the significance later that evening when he turned on the news in his Manhattan pad. He’d just witnessed a key moment in the start of the global financial crisis (GFC).

“There is a lot of synergy between both being in a public service auditor role and a profession leadership role.”
Stephen Walker FCA

Within a few weeks, Lehman Brothers had collapsed, too, and some of the world’s largest financial institutions were being bailed out by governments and central banks desperate to stop a runaway global recession.

At the heart of the GFC was lax and opaque disclosure about financial instruments that were meant to help manage risk, but were actually a source of enormous risk that few, if any, understood.

The audit expert feared the crisis meant all the hard work the IFAC had been putting into improving global adoption of professional standards had “the potential for it to come unstuck again”.

Walker had arrived at IFAC in 2002, as the accounting profession in the US was reeling from revelations of the poor financial practices involved in the corporate collapses of Enron and WorldCom. Meanwhile, in Australia, the collapse of insurance group HIH was in the headlines. Walker remains proud of the work IFAC achieved in building a more robust global framework of audit, ethics and public sector accounting standards.

Within a year of the GFC, family ties drew Walker back to Wellington, New Zealand, taking up the reins as executive director at Audit New Zealand – New Zealand Auditor-General’s public sector audit practice.

It was a professional homecoming for Walker who had first joined the Audit Office (later to become Audit New Zealand) and the Office of the Auditor-General as a university student studying for his accounting degree in 1987. He qualified as a chartered accountant in 1993.

“I’m very keen to give prominence to the value created by careers in public service, which are often purpose rather than profit-driven.”
Stephen Walker FCA

After 10 years heading Audit New Zealand, the Wellington-based 49-year-old says he’s stepping up to the CA ANZ presidency in part because of a commitment he made on return to New Zealand to “give back” to a profession that had been so good to him.

Leading CA ANZ and Audit New Zealand

Stephen Walker FCA

With support from his employer, Walker intends to split his time between his role leading Audit New Zealand and the CA ANZ presidency.

“It’s important that the presidency not be seen as a role that you have to commit full-time to,” he says, although he expects some longer than normal weeks and creative task-juggling.

“What I think helps me is the two roles I play. There is a lot of synergy between both being in a public service auditor role and a profession leadership role.”

Walker was elected 2019 president at the CA ANZ Council meeting on 28 November 2018. He has been a member of the CA ANZ governing council since 2015, served on the council of the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants from 2009, and was on the committee that prepared the Australian and New Zealand bodies for the amalgamation. As CA ANZ Council vice-president for the past two years, Walker has worked closely with past presidents Jane Stanton FCA and Cassandra Crowley FCA.

Walker is adamant the cross-border amalgamation in 2015 that created CA ANZ has and will continue to deliver benefits to the profession in both countries and to our members all around the globe.

“The biggest thing we hear from our members is ‘make sure you safeguard our brand, the CA brand; make sure you’re strongly connected into international networks’,” he says. “Well, I think we’ve been able to really strengthen that as a combined organisation.”

Public sector service in the spotlight

Every CA ANZ president brings a set of personal priorities to the role that they seek to progress during their tenure. “In the past couple of years, past presidents Stanton and Crowley have approached this under an umbrella theme of being ‘professionally connected for the public interest’ and I intend to keep that overarching theme,” Walker says.

He has identified five key areas that align with his personal passions, not least of which is addressing the tendency for the accountancy profession to promote private sector careers rather than public sector and not-for-profit sector roles.

“I’m very keen to give prominence to the value created by careers in public service, which are often purpose rather than profit-driven. At times we are guilty of just talking about career opportunities that exist in the for-profit or private sectors,” says the first CA ANZ president from a public sector background.

Walker sees a need to widen the range of educational programs that CA ANZ offers so that “where the education program can be sector-neutral, we talk about and use examples from the different sectors that our members operate in”.

More courses of relevance to public sector and not-for-profit accountants are also on his agenda, with Walker believing public sector accountants represent a substantial 10% of our New Zealand resident members and an opportunity for future membership growth in Australia since they are just 2% to 3% of the total today.

Why ethics are so important in accounting

The motivations for public sector or purpose-driven work feed strongly into Walker’s highest priority, “amplifying the importance of ethical leadership in the profession”.

“The profession is grounded not only in professional skills, expertise, all of those important knowledge and experience areas, but it’s grounded in ethics, and continuous learning, and competence,” says Walker.

He sees that as appealing to the new generation of younger accountants who want to work for organisations that have a real purpose behind them and set a high bar for ethical behaviours”.

Maintaining professional standards of ethical behaviour is essential amid the endless tension globally between accounting practitioners and those who seek to control them.

“The international code of ethics for the accountancy profession is a critical foundation, although that’s currently under real challenge by regulators globally,” says Walker. “Some regulators, and particularly independent audit regulators, feel the profession has too much say over audit and assurance and ethical standard setting.

“Those standard-setting models are set under the auspices of IFAC, with safeguards to ensure the processes remain independent, although some in the regulatory community would like to take it away from under that IFAC umbrella.

“In Australia and New Zealand, our members have been quite vocal opponents of a number of the international regulatory Monitoring Group’s recommendations, so we’ll be watching developments very closely over the next year.”

Walker notes that accounting professionals on both sides of the Tasman will inevitably have to “grapple with the findings” of Australia’s Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industries when its final report emerges in February.

“What will be important for me is that we reinforce the principles that are important for our profession; our ethical principles, principles around professional competence and audit quality, the strength of the profession and, if necessary, how rigorously we deal with conduct of and discipline around members that haven’t behaved in the way you would want your members to behave,” Walker says.

For Walker, managing this state of flux to maintain globally consistent reporting and ethical standards is vital to the profession. “If there are changes to the environment around standard-setting, there are fears about how that will play out in terms of the global connectedness of standards,” he says.

“The profession is grounded not only in professional skills… it’s grounded in ethics, and continuous learning, and competence.”
Stephen Walker FCA

Promoting a work-life balance

Responsibility for IFAC’s Small and Medium Practices Committee has given Walker an exposure to the big issues facing smaller firms.

So he wants to see CA ANZ offering more for small and medium-sized accounting firms, which in many cases are facing existential challenges brought on by digital technology and the broader range of services that clients seek from accountants these days.

“The smaller practices, particularly, they’re under significant time pressure; they find it very hard to know where to look for advice about how they could evolve their practice, let alone find the time to do the necessary work,” he says.

Noting his predecessor Jane Stanton’s strong personal message on managing mental health issues at work, Walker sees it’s an issue that can cut both ways for accounting professionals, who “end up almost being a de facto counsellor for (clients who) are grappling with mental wellbeing issues.”

Keeping Walker sane is his family, although dinner table conversation may sometimes be at risk of turning into “shop talk” since his wife, Sharon, is also a CA ANZ member who works for New Zealand’s standard-setting organisation, the External Reporting Board.

The fifth president of CA ANZ since the merger of the Australian and New Zealand bodies, and the third Kiwi to hold the position, Walker is learning horse-riding as he and Sharon support their third and youngest child, “an absolute horse-riding fanatic”.

As their eldest has just completed her first year at Otago University and their son his final year of college, Walker might anticipate a little more time to give to the demanding dual role he takes up for 2019.

In the end, however, the CA ANZ presidency is about promoting the positive impact of the profession.

“The value that the accountancy profession and the supporting professional organisations can play in different countries, different economies, different societies, whether they be developing countries or developed, is something I’ve observed throughout my career,” Walker says. “Ethical leadership can be such a force for good.”

The 2019 CA ANZ president’s priorities

Amplifying the importance of ethical leadership

“This is important because of the positive impact that the profession has in our communities, and because, internationally, regulators continue to question existing standards.”

Highlighting the value that CAs create in public service

“I’m keen to raise the profile of the amazing career opportunities that people can have in public service roles, in both the government and non-profit organisations. I think there’s potential growth in membership operating in those sectors as well.”

Enhancing professional education programs

“We need to ensure that CA ANZ’s offerings reflect the full breadth of the sectors that our members operate in.”

Supporting the evolution of small and medium-sized CA practices

“Many practice owners are struggling with how to evolve their practice from what might be a largely compliance, transaction-focused practice today to being a practice that’s going to evolve with technology and different service offerings.”

Giving young accountants a stronger voice

“We’ve got some amazing young members. Our structures often don’t create an opportunity for the young member voice around the table.”

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CA ANZ President Stephen Walker FCA talks to Professor Karin Lasthuizen about the benefits of ethical leadership.

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