Standing Up for What We Stand For

The Institute’s new chairman urges CPAs to live by their core values.
BY WILLIAM F. EZZELL

t’s a great honor to represent the members of this distinguished profession. As you know, during the past year the Institute, under the leadership of President and CEO Barry C. Melancon and Past Chairman James G. Castellano, launched many initiatives. Some were responses to the crisis thrust upon us while others were introduced because of their importance to the public interest and to our profession. I will support all these programs and strive to implement them quickly and efficiently.

But because we already face substantial challenges, it would be impractical for me to propose further initiatives. Instead, we must devote our resources to developing the right response to existing priorities. For example, we all—including corporate America—will feel the effects of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. Accordingly, I will work with great vigor to prevent the act’s provisions from inappropriately “cascading” to the state level and applying to all areas and practitioners that serve nonpublic companies.

I also will remain a champion of much greater consistency in state-based regulation. For both CPAs and the clients and employers we serve, it makes sense to have the CPA certificate stand for the same set of qualifications—and for us to abide by the same regulations—whether we live in Kentucky, California or another state.

But words alone won’t drive the change we surely need. So, as a leader I will promote action and achievement—determination, not defensiveness. And together we will move forward and not relive the past. We’ll focus on execution, engagement and getting it right—now.

GETTING BACK ON TRACK
Like it or not, our profession has taken some hits and we have serious work to do. To accomplish our initiatives and move forward, this year must be a time of restoration on three fronts:

Restoring belief in ourselves and in connection with our core values.
Restoring our reputation among those we are committed to serving.
Restoring our sense of shared purpose in the profession and in the AICPA.

First, let’s get something straight. I’m with a Big Four firm and am an auditor by training. In addition, I’ve done considerable lobbying on behalf of my firm and the profession for fair and appropriate legislative and regulatory oversight. I realize many CPAs think their problems stem from the large firms. But even I—with my big-firm background—am appalled by the allegations leveled at our profession. In fact, because much of the heat has been focused on the large firms, I’ve taken those charges personally.

Still, I’m proud to be a CPA. Like you, I think those responsible for accounting and auditing irregularities should answer for their mistakes, and they will. Like you, I say there’s no excuse for failing to live up to our profession’s standards. But at the same time, we, as members of that profession, have a choice: We can remain stuck in place and feel bad about what has happened. Or we can move ahead and drive the process of restoration. To do so, however, we first must be truly in touch with who we are and what we stand for.

Let me explain. Do you remember how good you felt when you got your first job offer? “I’m going to be a CPA!” you said. And remember how proud you were when you passed the CPA exam—the toughest professional entrance test—and what it felt like the first time someone you admired in the profession recognized you as a peer.

For some of you that person was a teacher, as was the case for me. Those of you who are educators may not fully realize the very deep and lasting impression you make on your students. When I went to the University of North Carolina, Julius Terrell was the toughest and most terrifying professor in the entire accounting program. No matter what, he gave only two As per class. One day, soon after I passed the CPA exam, he called to congratulate me and asked about my career plans. He also invited my wife and me to join him at the school’s next football game. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like much. But I took it as proof I’d reached a point in my career I’d previously only dreamed of attaining. Dr. Terrell’s words and actions helped me understand I really was a member of the profession and that others recognized my achievement. Do you remember little milestones that have meant so much to you? Well, take hold of those memories and share them with others because you are a typical member—the face—of our profession.

Someone once said, “We have not passed the subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we have stopped saying, “It got lost,” and instead begin saying, “I lost it.” For our profession, adulthood means accountability. While there have been notable and unfortunate exceptions, accountability has always been an integral part of how we define ourselves. We stand for trust, objectivity and integrity, and we take responsibility for our mistakes.

With that in mind, there are important lessons we need to learn as a result of last year’s events. We must make sure CPAs everywhere—including those yet to enter our profession—truly understand and live by the core values that make us great. Let me underscore two words: core values. You know the power of a drumbeat. Well, mine will proclaim our core values, and I plan to play it in as many corners of our country as I can.

Standing up for what we stand for is the single most important mission we can undertake this coming year. That means all CPAs must ask themselves tough questions about the values of our profession, our ethics and the way we instill in new professionals the commitment that has distinguished our profession for the past century. And we must ask those questions without being crippled by shame or anger. We cannot allow the actions of a few to defame all the noble men and women who make up our profession. Remember, the day-to-day face of 99.99% of 350,000 CPAs remains, as always, the face of honor.

Certainly, we must continue to be hard-line skeptics about ourselves and others. We should take pride in our self-questioning profession, but we cannot allow that skepticism to turn into self-doubt. Skepticism needs to be rooted in honesty, and the truth about this profession is we do good and we always have. But the truth also is that we can—and must—do better.

RESTORING THE PROFESSION’S IMAGE
Refocusing on our core values and making sure they permeate our profession are things we need to do together. Let’s presume we’ve begun successfully restoring our belief in ourselves and in the profession. Stopping there would be like preparing a lavish Thanksgiving dinner and not inviting anyone to share it. We not only have to make the right changes, we also have to repair our reputation. But neither legislation nor regulation can win back that reputation; we’re the only ones who can accomplish that.

It may be a tough battle, but we don’t have to start from scratch. We have so much going for us. For example, across the nation—individually and as corporate employees—people rely on their CPAs to, among other things, prepare their tax returns, give them sound financial advice and preserve the stability and vitality of the capital markets. If there is a silver lining anywhere in last year’s events, it’s the validation of the essential role our profession plays in the capital markets and in the economy. And let there be no doubt about it: We are a profession , not a trade. Consequently, we have responsibilities not limited to but certainly including

An unwavering commitment to a code of ethics.
A distinct and evolving body of knowledge.
A sense of duty to the public interest.
Standards of excellence.
A shared sense of purpose.

It is vital that our clients, our employers, our employees, our students and our colleagues appreciate us not just as individuals, but collectively—as a profession. Making that happen is a job that falls squarely on our shoulders. We must get the word out—loud and clear. How do we enhance the public’s appreciation not only of our services but also of the profession as a whole? One thing we can and must do is make it absolutely clear we’re out to get any perpetrators of fraud, no matter what label they try to hide behind.

You’ve heard and read about the renewed initiatives related to fraud. Our efforts are over and above what any legislator or regulator is telling us to do. They’re what we believe we must do to protect the public interest. And that’s a message we must convey to our constituents and to regulators.

In addition, we must personally commit to stopping the profession bashing. Whether it’s at a dinner party or a board meeting, each of us has a key role to play: We must answer head-on the concerns and criticisms of friends and colleagues, clients and the public at large. I hope that a year from now we together will have made it politically in correct to bad-mouth CPAs.

If we are to be truly understood for who we are as CPAs, we and others need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and impose upon ourselves requirements that go beyond the norm and that at times work to our own dis advantage.

FORGING A UNITED FRONT
Our sense of shared purpose—the fundamental interconnectedness of our profession—is based on our diversity. Corporate accountants represent almost 50% of our profession; many work in small or private companies. A majority of our public practice members provide advice and services to individuals and small businesses. Every day, CPAs in government help cities and agencies make better decisions and run more efficiently. Our members in education literally are forging our profession’s future as they train and mentor the next generation of CPAs.

Within the many vital segments that make up our profession are thousands of people with differing points of view. This diversity is both our opportunity and our challenge; from it comes our strength. But we have to be cautious. We cannot— especially now —allow diversity to turn into divisiveness—small firms against big firms, members in industry against firms and sole practitioners, the concerns of members in government and in education about being shortchanged. In moderation, such contention is normal—the professional equivalent of sibling rivalry. But just as in a family, dissension carried too far can become dysfunction. And in the post-Enron environment, that’s a risk none of us should be willing to take. Now more than ever we need to present a unified front. The sense of shared purpose will drive our efforts to restore public confidence in the CPA profession.

But I am not for a moment suggesting an end to dialogue or to differing points of view. Healthy debate is part of our profession’s heritage, and we should embrace it. Here’s what I mean by a unified front. Regardless of where each of us stands on other issues, we must stand as one in our

Total intolerance for wrongdoing.
Determination to correct misconceptions about who we are.
Commitment to our core values.
Enduring belief that we are members of a profession of which we remain fiercely proud.

Much depends on the actions we take. Hundreds of thousands of CPAs —decent men and women who contribute mightily to our country’s economy—are counting on us to do the right thing, to stand up for what this profession stands for. Let’s work together tirelessly for the good of the public and for this profession we all love so much.

William F. Ezzell, CPA, became chairman of the AICPA board of directors in October 2002. This article is based on his acceptance speech, delivered at the Institute’s annual meeting in November. A JofA interview with him appeared in the December issue (see “ Rebuilding Trust, ” page 61).

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