Brené Brown, author of the New York Times bestseller Rising Strong, says that integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast or easy; and it’s about practising our values not just professing our values.
It’s also the motto of CPA Australia, the professional accounting association I joined over 20 years ago.
CPAs – or Certified Practising Accountants – are the governors of financial reporting in Australia with a vast membership of 155,000 finance professionals, spanning every industry and sector.
Written in the smallest type font on the CPA logo is their one-word motto: INTEGRITY.
Which is kind of ironic, given the spectacular corporate governance meltdown that occurred at the not-for-profit membership body this year, to wit:
- The member-forced disclosure of scandalous annual pay packets including $1.7m for the CEO, $900k and $950k for his two direct-report COOs, and board remuneration between $100k and $400k per person for roles that were until recently voluntary positions;
- A questionable marketing strategy centring on a celebrity CEO that consumed up to $30m of member monies annually;
- Establishment of a commercial financial planning business without member endorsement that burnt through over $20m of member monies in its first two years of operation, for almost zero return;
- The loss of Professional Standards Scheme accreditation for CPA members in public practise;
- As the opaque veil of leadership fell, all 12 board members submitting their resignations within 60 days of one another;
- Only seven days after issuing a public proclamation of support of the celebrity CEO by 23 past and president directors, said CEO was abruptly terminated with a $4.9m payout;
- A very public grilling of the board and executive taking place before a Senate Committee hearing in Canberra;
- An open investigation still under way by the corporate regulator ASIC; and
- The instalment of an Independent Review Panel, whose interim report has identified a host of unethical and immoral decisions made by the former leaders of CPA Australia.
Far from the word brandished on CPA’s logo and letterhead, it seems integrity is the very thing missing in the actions and ideals of its leadership. And yet it is actions, not words, that define the brand of any individual, team or organisations.
I call this mismatch between words and actions an integrity void, and it’s not unique to CPAs. Look around you and you’ll see examples of the integrity void everywhere.
Take the Commonwealth Bank, for instance. It’s core values – clearly articulated and widely communicated to its 45,000 employees and countless stakeholders – are integrity, accountability, collaboration, excellence, service.
Yet where is the correlation between these stated values and the actions (or inactions) that culminated in record civil penalty proceedings against the Bank for serious and systemic non-compliance with the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act 2006? The action launched by AUSTRAC in the Federal Court alleges over 53,700 contraventions of the AML/CTF Act, with some analysts estimating the fine could be up to $2.5 billion. Now that’s some integrity void.
Then on a community level, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is an integrity void of an entirely different level. Over 60,000 phone calls, letters and emails reporting alleged abuse, perpetrated by leaders of the churches, schools, community groups and even government departments to whom our precious children were entrusted. All of these institutions say they act with honour and in the best interests of our most vulnerable community members; all of them have demonstrated an integrity void between their words and actions.
Take a look around you, in the headlines, in your conversations. Where do you see the integrity void?
Back at my professional association CPA Australia, as a member agitator who spoke out early and loudly and coordinated the Board Spill Petition aimed at dislodging the remnant Directors, I’ve been in contact with literally thousands of other CPA members.
Most were horrified that their hard-earned designation had been tarnished by a few self-serving individuals. They couldn’t believe the leaders of a professional association would act in such a way, and they were the only too willing to step up and support the campaign for change.
A few others though, asked why I was intent on causing embarrassment to our membership by speaking out publicly on my blog and in the media. What was I hoping to get out of it? What good could come of it?
And a smaller number demanded I cease and desist any further member communication, lest I bring the accounting profession into disrepute. They suggested that speaking out against our leadership was to a betrayal of all members and the profession at large. I even received anonymous emails threatening action if I didn’t shut up.
Frankly, that was the turning point for me.
When a person of integrity sees something very wrong, they simply can’t un-see it. And then they have only one choice: to act and practise their values, or to do nothing and live a lie. For me the latter is really a non-option. I’ve never really been one to put up and shut up.
As an accounting professional, I chose to act, by taking a stand against the very leaders who in no way resembled the profession they represented. And who took advantage of a membership who had a right to expect better.
Several other CPA members were at the forefront with me, and their actions spoke to their personal integrity. As did those of journalists like Joe Aston and Edmund Tadros and Liz Hobday and Elysse Morgan, who were courageous and relentless in garnering information for CPA members that our own leadership sought to deny us. And the members of Parliament like Senators Hume and Xenophon and Dastyari who took an interest and demanded the truth from the remnant CPA board. All this contributed to lifting the lid on what went wrong at CPA Australia and to beginning the process of restoring integrity, an outcome that will be a work in progress for some time to come.
In your business, in your team, even in your family – what do your actions say about you? And your inactions? What message do they send? One of integrity, or something else?
This is the question I posed in the workshops I ran recently to assist two different teams in building their professional brand and team promise, that will position them to live and breath their values and vision, with integrity.
I chose to share this message about integrity with those teams, because it’s a conversation whose time has come.
I know that as a change agent, I will always choose courage over comfort. As a person who coaches others through change I will absolutely support them to choose what’s right over what’s fun, fast or easy. And I am wholeheartedly committed to practising my values, not just professing my values.
And how about you?