BONUS | Alan Johnson - Accountants Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Across the Profession

February 11, 2021 | 35 Minutes

Alan Johnson, President of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), joins Count Me In to talk with Loreal Jiles, IMA Director of Research, about the importance of taking action to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in the accounting profession. On the heels of an IMA and CalCPA-sponsored research study supported by IFAC and 13 other organizations, Loreal shares relevant findings from the research study and Alan recounts personal experiences and offers actionable insights on steps accounting and finance professionals can take to play leading roles in DE&I improvement. Download and listen in for inspiration to act now!

Alan Johnson, President of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), joins Count Me In to talk with Loreal Jiles, IMA Director of Research, about the importance of taking action to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in the accounting profession. On the heels of an IMA and CalCPA-sponsored research study supported by IFAC and 13 other organizations, Loreal shares relevant findings from the research study and Alan recounts personal experiences and offers actionable insights on steps accounting and finance professionals can take to play leading roles in DE&I improvement. Download and listen in for inspiration to act now!

Contact Alan Johnson:
Contact Loreal Jiles:

IMA's Diversity and Inclusion Commitment and Resources:

Mitch: (00:00)
 Welcome back to Count Me In. IMA’s podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host Mitch Roshong and today I am previewing another special bonus episode. You will hear from IFAC President, Alan Johnson, as he speaks with IMA's Loreal Jiles about diversity, equity and inclusion. In their conversation, to the two discuss what accountants can do to promote and support diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces, and ultimately do a better job as a profession to attract, retain, and promote diverse talent. Keep listening as we tune into their insightful dialogue now. 
Loreal: (00:40)
Hello everyone. I am Loreal Jiles and I am Director of Research for Digital Technology and Finance Transformation at the Institute of Management Accountants. Today, I am joined by an accomplished executive in the accounting and finance profession, Alan Johnson, who is currently President of IFAC, the International Federation of Accountants. Throughout his career spending about four decades. Alan has worked in Africa, Europe, and Latin America in a host of finance roles, including chief financial officer, chief audit executive, and several other board roles and executive roles. We joined today in discussion of the important topic of diversity equity and inclusion in the accounting profession. And for the purposes of this discussion, when we refer to the accounting profession or the accounting and finance profession, we are collectively speaking of the public accounting segment as may be familiar to those in the US those typically working in CPA firms and audit tax or advisory capacity, or the management accounting segment, accounting and finance professionals working within business or other organizations. And so for the last few months or so, the Institute of Management Accountants and the California society of CPAs to gather with global research partner IFAC, and a host of other research partners and contributors have just concluded a look into DE&I in our profession. We discussed, and focused on three aspects of diversity, race and ethnicity, gender and persons who identify as LGBTQIA. We began with the US and this is part of the larger multi-part series that will ultimately be global, and what we found in the US was the presence of something we've termed the diversity gap. Much greater diversity across the profession, but considerable under-representation of diverse talent among senior leadership levels. For every 10 of our professions, most senior leaders, eight of them are men., nine are white and few identify as LGBTQ. We surveyed over about 3000 US accounting professionals and found that diverse talent believes aren't advancing because of inequity and exclusion that still persists and it's diverse talent, unfortunately, is leaving companies, and in some instances, the profession because of a lack of D&I. So not like to invite you, Alan, if you could help us shed a bit of light when the importance of this topic, please tell us why is DE&I an issue that should matter to the accounting profession. 
Alan: (03:24)
So, good afternoon, everyone and good afternoon Loreal and thank you very much for inviting me to this podcast. First of all, I just to let your listeners know that, the accountancy profession is a profession. It's a global profession of 3 million professional accountants around the world, and we support businesses. We support, which are both large and small. We support the public sector and we support indeed many organizations across the world. And, you know, at the core of what we do, we act in the public interest. Therefore, we must operate clearly with integrity and we should operate to the highest standards of ethics in line with our professional code of ethics, which I hope you're all familiar with. I think we would all agree that decisions, the best decisions that are made are those that are rigorous on analysis, robust in debate, and that the decisions are made putting the public interest or the interest of all stakeholders ahead of the personal interests. And it's also, I hope we recognize that our profession clearly is a people-centered profession, that is people at the heart of organizations. So it is obvious that we need to ensure that we have a diverse, inclusive, profession that clearly respects everyone's views. And that is why it matters to our profession. It actually also matters to all other professions, but, you know, in our case, we are purely a people centered profession and therefore ethics, which ethics equality. And, and I would actually say that, diversity equality and inclusivity or inclusiveness is actually also, you could argue is an ethical issue. And as ethics is at the heart of what we do and how we operate it is of course, pretty obvious. I hope that DE&I is so important to our profession. 
Loreal: (05:26)
Absolutely. Thanks so much for that, Alan. If we shift gears a bit more building on the importance of this for our profession, what can, and should individual accountants do to promote and support diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplaces? 
Alan: (05:45)
Well, as I've said, you know, all professions should, in fact, all aspects of society should be promoting inclusivity, diversity and equity, that goes saying. But I would love to start by saying one thing, which pleased me, what, on Wednesday morning, when I read the press, the president Biden had signed for executive actions on Tuesday, aiming to increase racial equality across the nation. I was very pleased to read that, but on the other hand, I was also saddened that it needs a presidential executive action to address the issue of racial inequality. Honestly, in societies today, it should not need a presidential act of that kind, but if it needs it it's been done and I applaud your new president, and I hope that everybody takes note of the importance of this. But let's go back to our profession in terms of promoting D&I. First of all, I would say it starts with leadership. Leaders have to demand that their organizations embrace diversity, equality and inclusivity everywhere. But just by saying it doesn't mean it gets done. So it's about leading by example, our professional leaders need also to make appointments that reflect society, which means more diverse, more inclusive and more equitable. Cause these are the basic principles of humanity. They then need to hold their own teams accountable to ensure that they live up to those values. They need to set targets, they need to set objectives, and they need to measure that the organizations are moving in the right direction to achieve these. Personally. I'm not one that believes that you need to set quotas and things, or I didn't for many, many years, but I now realize based on what I see around the world, that unfortunately it's probably time to do so and to hold leaders to account for meeting those targets. That because they're not, arborous your targets they're targets, which mean that we reflect, as I said earlier, our society, because that's what we want to see around us. So it starts with the leadership, but it's not only about leaders as individuals. We must show tolerance for DE&I, but we should also show intolerance to behaviors that do not hold up, uphold those values. We should call them out. We should speak up. We should not accept it. And maybe what I heard you say Loreal is that people are leaving our profession. Sadly might be a reflection that they are speaking out. They are raising the issues, but they do not have the confidence that there'll be addressed and therefore they decide to leave. And I think that's very sad. It's very sad for the individuals. It's very sad for their organizations because they're losing access to talent, which will make the difference in terms of how they perform, and it's very sad for society at large, that people have to walk away, excuse me, walk away because they don't feel that they are valued as equals. So that's how I feel about this. It's got to be leaders, but it's got to be all of us, because it's so easy to say, let somebody else take care of it. We can't be passive bystanders in this discussion. We've got to be part of the discussion, and we've got to be part of the actions that need to be taken to address this. We are in the 21st century, and we should not be talking about this as an issue today. Sadly, it clearly is, but I believe we can do something about it. 
Loreal: (09:57)
Absolutely. Thank you. That, that came across so clearly in the research that we have been conducting for the past few months and what our respondents went so far as to say, which is in perfect alignment with your remarks, that it will take a village to make the amounts of improvement that's truly needed in DE&I, and in this instance, of course, particularly in the US but it's not a US specific problem. Of course, the entirety of the accounting ecosystem is viewed the professional accountancy bodies, the leaders, the academics practitioners. and so as we bear those things in mind, how can we ensure future accounts and see leaders? So the next generation of leaders with our profession and around the world, understand the importance of DE&I, how do we ensure that that message gets received? 
Alan: (10:47)
Okay, well, first of all, we need to talk about it. We need to be honest with ourselves. We need to confront the facts and the evidence, and then be committed to do something about it. So, you know, I am what I see from my perspective that increasingly this subject is on the agenda of the accountancy bodies around the world. And, you know, the sheer fact that IMA together with CaLCPA, how was your panel discussion on diversity, equity, and inclusion on, I think it was January 14th, if I'm not mistaken and you gave me the honor and the opportunity to speak at that event, and I appreciate that as my thank you for that. I think is a clear demonstration that this is important to our profession. I listened to some of the comments that were made, and I read clearly the results of your survey that you referred to. And I must say that I was alarmed initially at the results on the survey, because I didn't expect to see them. You are right. You mentioned that it's not just limited to the US and, and I've seen some, since I joined your panel, I was curious to know what, what it might look like elsewhere. and ACCA has done a similar, piece of research based on, covering 10 or 11,000 responses to their survey. And the statistics were slightly better than yours, but there were not significantly better than yours. So that kind of validates what you say, that it is not a US specific issue, it's a worldwide issue, and we need to address it, but I would congratulate you for conducting the survey, because if we don't know about it and we don't talk about it, we will definitely not do anything about it. So it it's good you've done it, and I, I'm confident that everyone listening to this podcast and everybody else will commit to take the necessary actions to make a difference. At the end of the day, we want to live in a society that we feel everybody is treated equally, whatever you look like, whatever your color, whatever your race, whatever your gender, whatever your sexual orientations are for me is irrelevant. We are all equal and we should be treated equally, and that's why I think it's important. Particularly they've said we are a people centered organization, and if we miss the opportunity of having access to the talent, that's out there, because we base our decisions on who you are, where you come from and what you looked like and what you do in your private life. We are missing out on a huge talent pool, which as a profession, we will pay the price of down the road. Plus of course, and I think it might, we might come back to talking about attraction and retention and all of that stuff. We will impact those important issues, so that's why it's important. That's why it accounting leaders must take the seriously. It must be a feature of their discussion with their leadership team. They must put in, you know, top reasonable targets to deliver the change, to make the change and to see the change. 
Loreal: (14:20)
Absolutely. One of the key things that came up when we asked respondents about solutions was having to implement metrics, fortunately, or unfortunately. The theme came across what gets measured gets done, and, and if there are supply chain issues, then the whole lot of the organization gets together to resolve the supply chain issue with urgency. And I think the more we further this conversation, then hopefully we're able to treat this issue similar urgency and affect the change that's needed. As you reflect on your career, you've had much more, I'd say international and global experience than most. would you mind sharing with us some of your personal experience, how have you seen DE&I impact workplace culture and business throughout your career? 
Alan: (15:14)
Yes, but I, you know, I'd been fortunate that I've had an international career and I've lived and worked in seven different countries across three different continents, and I've had the opportunity in the jobs I've had to travel extensively around the world. And I have, I'll just start off, you know, and reflect on that. One of the things that it is done for me, by having the ability and I, you know, I'm grateful to my employers in the past have given me the opportunity in the first place, is that it's made me understand the importance of diversity, because we can talk about it in the abstract sense, but it's only when you see what it does and how it impacts people and behaviors, and then how teams are formed and how they perform. Then you really, really understand that it's not just an abstract concept. It's a really real value to organizations and to society to have diversity. I had the opportunity early in my career, to work for an international company in, based in the UK, which, I joined it because I felt that it was an embraced all the values that I honestly, believed in at the time. And some of those values, enhanced even further. I joined it because I felt it was a company that took, diversity and equality seriously, and it needed to, because it was formed in 1888 and most of its operations, but outside the UK in, in the Philippines, in Africa and in Asia when it started, and then lastly in Latin America. So it dealt with diversity, real diversity issues on the ground light from 1888. So, you know, almost 130, 132, 133 years ago. So that's why I joined, but the reason why I stayed, because it wasn't just what I thought it was. It was actually what it was. and I had the opportunity, and as you look at me, I was a young black man in London, going about getting to the late seventies when I started working, in what was, you know, a difficult time in terms of, I can remember my, you know, my parents, a black father and a white mother, marrying in the fifties and living in the UK in the sixties, wasn't easy for them. I remember my grandmother telling me stories about what some of her friends told her when she informed them that her daughter, her only daughter was going to marry a black man in the fifties. It was quite painful for her to see friends that she'd known for, I don't know, 20, 30, 40 years maybe say those kinds of things, but that was what it was like. Now you can respond to this in two ways. You can either allow it to impact you and hate society because of that, or you can say, you know, what part of what I need to do is to show them that I'm not like that, that I don't hold grudges and I will have, I will show them that there is another way, and that was very much what I think my father tried to do. And that's very much what I tried to do. Of course, 20 odd years later, when I started working, things had moved on a little bit, not as much as I would have hoped, but I didn't have to suffer the racial abuse that my parents would have suffered in the, in the late fifties. So I've had great opportunities to work and live around the world, to learn other languages, to work with people with different cultures, and what it shows you is there are lots of great people around. They may not think like you, they may not look like you, they may not have had the opportunities you've had, but they have value, and your task is to help get the value that they have. And therefore I made it my task to always work in diverse teams, and I was very lucky. I remember, one of my, my first job at Unilever, the head of department was a lady and one evening I was late in the office and she asked to see me and I thought I had done something wrong. So I was a bit terrified, and I went into her office. Her name was Margaret and I went into her office, and so she said, sit down, so I sat down. She  said, there is something I've been meaning to say to you. I was deeply concerned about what she was going to say, beause I had only been in the job about nine months or so, and she said, you and I have something in common now I was thinking, what could that be? And she says, we're both minorities. I'm a woman in a man's world, and you're a black man in a white man's world. And you know, I'd never thought of it like that. I, you know, I hadn't seen her as, I mean, of course she was a woman, but I hadn't, I didn't describe my boss as  a woman. I said, Margaret is obviously as a woman, I never reflected nor did I actually think of myself as, and it's only when she said that I kind of looked around and realized, indeed I was the only black person on the team. Now, why do I say that? It didn't, it didn't in any way. I mean, I didn't face racial discrimination, obviously not because Unilever would never have tolerated that they wouldn't have employed me if I, if they, if that was their value system. But it just made me realize that these are real issues because she had been struggling with that fact herself, because I think she was the most senior female in Unilever, at least, no, probably not only in  the UK, in the world at the time, there were only two very senior females at that level in Unilever at the time, and she was one of them, and clearly she'd not been able to say what she said to me with anybody else. So that was great. The second thing is I, I was a few years later sent to work in Brazil, and I was nominated and I was delighted to go to Brazil. I'd heard about Brazil. I was soccer, crazy or futbol as you call it America crazy at the time. So you want to go to the country that which plays the most beautiful futbol or soccer. So, I just got excited, but I was young, I was single, so I thought, yeah, why not? But there was only one issue. The Unilever in London asked the chairman in Brazil. There might be one issue, and he said, what would that be? And he said, well, he's black. And he said, well, that's not an issue. Brazil is a multicultural, diverse country. And they said how many black managers do you have in Unilever, Brazil? None. So they, so I went there and I was the first at management level, and I think that was, it was great for me because it gave me an opportunity to see another culture, to love another language work with different people, multicultural. It really is, but I think it was probably the first sign that other parts of the Unilever world really understood what diversity was. And I mentioned about, you've got to see it to understand it, and I think my going there made them realize what it really meant. So, you know, fast forward, the rest as they say is history. That's my personal experience. I was very lucky. I worked for a wonderful company, that allowed me to see the world work with wonderful people, learn languages, respect, diversity, understand and  value in different cultures, and that's what drives me. and when I now look at, when I bring into myself to where I am today, in terms of, you know, being the president of the International Federation of Accountants, we have a very diverse board, 22, we should have 23, but we're currently 22 board members, 18 nationalities, multiple languages spoken, extremely diverse, Today, we have, 12 females, and 10. I think it is one female had to step down because of work commitments. But we were, we for the last three years, we've had a female, majority on the board, which is fantastic. We have many shades and colors on the board, which is fantastic, and I do believe the quality of the discussion and the quality of the decision is enhanced by that level of diversity. I can honestly say that I've been on the board now for just over five years, and this is certainly one of the most diverse boards I've worked on, and it's the most fun board I work on at the moment. I mean, I'm on other boards and they're fun too, but this is true diversity in all, in all of its definitions, and I would encourage every organization to look for that level of diversity. It's fun. It's a fun place to be, and you do much, you do much more and you do much better as a result. 
Loreal: (25:20)
No, that's outstanding. I appreciate the aspect of this. We often talk about the less comfortable components of diversity, but I think as we shift our focus more toward the value that diversity brings the value of, of being equitable and being inclusive and people bringing their whole selves to conversations and environments, then, then hopefully people become even more inspired to progress and, and enact change. And so I'll shift gears lastly, here into just this action-based focus. If we, if we could go there. How can the accountancy profession do a better job of attracting retaining and promoting diverse talent? What action needs to be taken? 
Alan: (26:04)
Well, the first thing I would say, and again, it's probably not specific to a profession, but, but it is certainly applicable to  our profession is that the first thing we need to do is people need to see that people like them are in leadership positions, and you know, you can't undervalue the importance of that. If you don't see yourself there, you don't, you don't want to go there. I mean, you know, it's just human nature. You want to be with, you want to see a reflection of yourself to work in a team in an organization. So back to, and I, sorry, I keep going on about people-centered profession, but if we want to have a successful profession, we need to attract the best, the brightest and people that don't think like us, because diversity is not just about color, race, religion, personal orientation, or whatever. It's more than that. It's diversity of views, diversity of experiences, and you're only going to make the best decisions when all of those come together. So that's why I think it's important that we, we, we, what we are seen as is a truly diverse, equal inclusive profession. That will be the first thing that will make us attractive. Now I must say, when I look at, the facts, around the world, we are a profession that is attracting great talent, diverse talent. I think the attraction piece is probably not done because it's never done, but I think we've, we know what to do now. I think the retention is the challenge because people will always join an organization and give it a chance and say, okay, it may not be perfect, but I can be part of making a change, and it won't happen unless people like me, not me personally, but you are there to make that change happen. So you're always going to give it a go. You're always going to say, okay, let me be part of the change I want to see about me, and I can't just talk about it from the outside, I need to be on the inside. So you, you do that. But if you get disillusioned by the fact that no change is happening, or there's no willingness to change, then what do you do? You leave? So, you know, it's back to leadership, getting people in, partly done, getting people to stay needs a lot of hard work. You've got to do the hard yards. It's not just saying it. As I said, saying is easy it is the doing that matters and being sincere, genuine on honest that you want to make a change. So, and retention is critical because we are a profession that is growing. We are a profession that is relevant to all aspects of society under the current world, in which we live, but particularly the epidemic world, what organizations need the talent, the knowledge, the expertise that we have to offer. So it is simply competent of us to make sure that we work hard on the retention. And then that of course is linked to promotions because you join for a reason. But if the purpose is no longer there, you don't stay. And it's not just about promoting people, because at the end of the day, people see through this. You can give people token promotions to make the statistics look good. And look this, you know, you have a picture of the board and it all looks merrily diverse, but if underlying that, it's not actually operating in a diverse way, then that's just a smoke screens, and people see through that very quickly. So I think the promotions need to be genuine. and they, they need to be impactful. now, as I said, I I've personally never experienced an issue of discrimination in the workplace, personally. Things have been said, which were not, right and offensive sometimes, but I put that down to, you know, they need some help themselves. And, therefore we should allow, we should accept that there will always be some residual resistance to this. Okay, but that should not prevent us from understanding that it's the right thing to do and pursue and persevere, to make the changes that, you know, that will make us a much more inclusive, diverse, and equitable society. So it is about leadership, but it's also about what we do individually. We need to have role models. I mentioned Margaret, she was a role model to me. She explained me what diversity, equality, inclusion meant. I never thought about those words, but what she did was just that I wouldn't have ever called it that because now I know what it means, and I've read your reports. I definitely know what it means, but that's what she was doing. She was a role model to me. She didn't say that at the time,. She didn't say, I want to be your role model. I didn't want to be your mentor. That's exactly what she was doing. So we need a lot more role models. We need a lot more formal mentoring to help people navigate through these difficulties because a diverse team, I've always said, this is a very difficult team to manage by definition, because you're going to get lots of different views thrown at you, and it takes longer to understand them, to take them into account and to put them together. It's much easier if everybody says, yes, I agree. Meeting's over, done. Well, you might think that, but it's not necessarily going to deliver the right outcome. So I've learned this, not the hard way I've learned this because I've, as I said earlier, I've been lucky that I always worked in, when I've been leading, managed and led diverse teams. I've made it a mission of mine that I have to make sure I have diversity around me. It makes me a better person, but it's not easy. It takes much more work to do and get right, but the rewards are rich. So I would encourage the profession to embrace it, to do the work and have the fun that comes from diversity, equality and inclusivity.
Loreal: (33:05)
Thank you so much. Allen, I thank you for sharing your experiences and your insights on where we are today and really where the journey our profession is on to becoming more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. We encourage all members of the profession to play an active role in this journey. And we speak on behalf of both of our organizations to say that we intend to collaborate together, and to progress the state of DE&I within our profession. With that, we invite people to continue to listen more. This is the first in a series of discussions, we intend to continue the conversation until now. 
Alan: (33:45)
Thank you very much, everyone. Thank you, Loreal. 

Loreal :
Thank you.
 Closing: (33:51)
 This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like, what you heard and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website