Amy Duff 7 Dec 2016

Michael Izza: my ten years

What’s it like to lead an organisation that must be agile and competitive but stay true to an historic charter; a place where accountability and the highest ethical standards are central? To be answerable to nearly 150,000 members? Amy Duff speaks to ICAEW’s chief executive to find out

Asked to think back to his first day as chief executive of ICAEW and describe his abiding memory of that day, Michael Izza doesn’t hesitate (bearing in mind it’s been 10 years since he took over). The reason his recollection is so fresh is because it was a bit of a humdinger. “I remember it vividly. I took over as chief executive on 6 December 2006 and there was an ICAEW Council meeting,” he explains. “There was a slight snag: the minister responsible for the professions, Margaret Hodge, wanted to have a meeting that morning. So, my first Council meeting as CEO and I miss the start. It’s quite an interesting statement of intent, albeit it wasn’t planned!”

So much has changed since then – in the profession, in the world order, with technological advancement – that ICAEW has adapted or responded to. And yet in many ways Izza is still doing what he did at the very start of his tenure.

His counsel continues to be sought by politicians, his schedule remains similarly frenetic. “This afternoon I’ve got a phone call with the chairman of a select committee looking for ICAEW’s insight on a particular issue. Our team are talking to governments and ministries all the time,” says Izza.

“After this interview I’m going to see the chief executive of the Legal Services Board to talk about ICAEW’s application to become a legal regulator. I’m talking at the UK Cyprus Business Chamber with the Cypriot minister of energy and tourism this evening. And then I have a dinner at the Guildhall after that. Tomorrow morning I’m in Mansion House to have a discussion with the Lord Mayor.”

Not that he’s complaining. The variety means his job is “extraordinary”: busy – “punishing, sometimes” – but exciting. And the only way he can keep in touch with the membership – “soon to be 150,000” – is to pack his day engaging with it. “In East Anglia yesterday I had conversations with perhaps 70 members – a tech company, some smaller practices, and students and staff at a Big Four firm,” says Izza. “Actually, one of the challenging parts of this role is you have to know enough to be able to talk about different issues with different audiences. I don’t think it’s acceptable to say I don’t know.

If somebody wants to talk about HMRC service standards you have to be willing to talk about it. If somebody wants to talk about how IFRS 9 is going to be implemented and the impact on the banking sector, you have to have a view on it. We’re able to do what we do because we distill the collective wisdom of the membership. It is challenging first of all to capture it, but the intelligence and the insight that gives you is really very valuable.”

Izza says he’s pleased with that level of member engagement. Asked to pick out other highlights from his 10 years, he cites increasing student numbers and ICAEW’s reputation and influence, both in the UK and overseas. Through the 1990s student numbers had been going down, he says, reaching a low point in 2005. That was a problem, he explains, because if you don’t have a pipeline of people coming into the profession, you don’t have a future.

“If this isn’t seen as an attractive profession, we’re all marking time and handing something over to the next generation that’s diminished. What we have done is turned that around significantly. In 2015 we had a record intake of ACA students and we will close 2016 with over 25,000 training for the ACA.”

That’s significant, he adds, because by equipping students with skills that are fit for the future (and skills that employers are demanding), combined with a lifetime commitment to ethical and professional standards, ICAEW is contributing to building stronger economies across the world. And with strong economies come “lots of things that are desirable for society”, says Izza.

Whether that’s healthcare, education, better living standards, or the reduction of poverty, “although markets can cause problems for people when they fail, we have nevertheless seen more people with better standards of living today than we’ve ever had before. The chartered accountancy profession plays an important role in continuing that.”

Izza also believes that ICAEW’s interaction with politicians (not just in this country), regulators, standard setters, the membership, and society at large “is probably as good as it’s been in my time in the profession”. He says: “We take our role, our mission to act in the public interest, more seriously than ever before. I also think it’s really important that ICAEW and indeed the UK accountancy profession is outward looking, international, and not domestically focused.”

He says ICAEW has grown its international membership, trains in many countries around the world and, of course, has offices overseas. “I’m hoping that we can continue to build on that, albeit the world is a very big canvas to operate on.”

None of this has been without its challenges, naturally. No conversation about leadership takes place these days without reference to the 2008 financial crisis and how those stormy waters were navigated. The accountancy profession was not, is not, immune. Tax has subsequently become a “cause célèbre, and the accountancy profession has often been on the wrong side of that – unjustifiably in many cases”, says Izza.

But rather than see tax, audit and financial reporting in trouble, Izza prefers to focus on the opportunities. “I’d say these areas are just evolving as the needs of business change, and as technology takes a bigger role.

“The responsibilities of chartered accountants are also evolving. Remember, chartered accountants are not there just to behave in a legal way, they’re expected to behave with a higher duty of care through the ethical code – society wants different things from us. And instead of seeing some of these changes as problematic, there could be opportunities to reinforce more strongly what an important role we play in terms of making market economies work.”

And in these unpredictable times, the dependable hands of chartered accountants are more welcome than ever.