Integrity in Action

Our core values translate into actions that drive positive change.

S. Scott Voynich, CPA, became chairman of the AICPA board of directors in October 2003. This article is adapted from his acceptance speech, delivered at the Institute’s annual meeting. A JofA interview with him appeared in the November issue (see “ The Profession’s Roots ,” page 57).

have worked in the same community and in the same CPA firm, Robinson, Grimes & Co., for 28 years and have been fortunate to have been influenced by others who taught me about volunteering in my church, in education, in my profession and in the community. Working so many years in one place teaches you a very important truth—that the world we create tomorrow comes from the values, the hard work and the commitment we bring to today’s efforts. That truth brings consistency to our purpose and clarity to our thinking.

I will be thinking about our members throughout this next year. I will be thinking that CPAs have the opportunity to offer this country profiles in objectivity, competence and, above all else, integrity. That we as individual CPAs and as a collective force bring to American business and individual finance an extraordinary commitment to ethics. That CPAs are willing to make the right, and nearly always tough, decisions for their clients and employers. That we have the awesome power to touch lives.

I will also be thinking about change. Throughout the years, our advice to our children struggling with challenges has always been, “Take things one day at a time. If that one day becomes too much, take things one hour at a time. Just hold on—tomorrow, everything will be different.” That’s how the past year has been for CPAs—a tremendous amount of change challenging our ability to break it down to one day and one hour at a time.

Starting from the moment the first financial collapse hit newspaper headlines, our profession has been in the center of a whirlwind. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act has shifted the regulatory environment in dramatic and subtle ways, and its full impact is yet to be known.

We have supported change and worked cooperatively and quietly with the regulators, the PCAOB, the SEC and Congress. The AICPA has been a trustworthy and informed adviser providing regulators and members with quality, professional, front-line feedback. As CPAs we often have the right answers about what is working and what is not.

How else has change affected us? It has made us better—not just as individual CPAs but as members of the profession and members of the Institute. We learned that we could not afford to become complacent about our role in American business. CPAs have to do the right thing, no matter how much it hurts.

Change has made us better because it led us to take the time to reflect about what all this means. As leader of the profession, the AICPA has had to rethink how to best serve the members and drive positive, reasoned change. Over the past year, with no fanfare but with a lot of passion and soul-searching the senior leadership, both staff and volunteer, have been wrestling with core questions.

How can we make decisions that are right for a membership of immense diversity and for a public that relies on the work and integrity of CPAs? How do we balance our role as advocate for an honored profession with our role as advocate for the public interest?

After much debate, and analysis, we have come to a surprisingly simple yet challenging conclusion: We must balance these roles, because that balance, that tension, is integral to the process. And this very balance brings us to one simple principle to guide our path into the future.

With each endeavor, we as leaders of the profession must ask one fundamental question: Does this activity or relationship enhance the value of the CPA and the CPA hallmark? The value of the CPA credential cannot be separated from what is good for the public interest, the capital markets and small business. The CPA profession is woven into the fabric of each.

And, when this simple question is asked, a remarkable thing occurs. Everything we do lines up behind it. Here are some of the efforts under way that are a result of asking that question.

We are refocusing and reconstituting the auditing standards board (ASB) to address the needs of private companies and to develop auditing standards for those companies. The AICPA is taking this step only after extensive study and after considering private company and member needs for appropriate standards and guidance.

The question of whether there should be different audit standards for issuers and nonissuers has been the subject of debate in the profession for many years. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act ended that debate. We recognize that the users of the financial statements in the public and nonpublic arenas are different—as are the uses of the financial statements themselves. This new standard-setting environment will require coordination and cooperative efforts with the PCAOB to ensure we meet the audit needs of our respective constituencies efficiently and in a timely manner. We intend to share talents and resources to achieve our mutual objectives of improving the quality of financial statements and increasing confidence in American business and the integrity of its CPA financial advisers.

We are also restructuring the SEC practice section to serve as a communication and resource center for auditors of SEC registrants. We have approved a new framework for a voluntary firm membership center that can serve as a forum for member firms to express their views and ideas related to public company audit practice. Further, this body will promote those firms’ and the auditing profession’s position before the SEC and PCAOB.

W e are also establishing new specialized audit quality centers—one for employee benefit plan audits and one for government audits. Each will have its own executive committee with authority to establish membership requirements and speak on behalf of its members. Membership will be voluntary and could be terminated by a firm’s failure to live up to the requirements, which could include training, quality controls and supplemental peer review requirements.

These are just some of the changes under way. Others include the ethics bylaw amendments, just passed by a 7 to 1 margin, that will help improve our disciplinary procedures and transparency; efforts to design Web-based resource centers and educational tools; a strengthened commitment to small firms; a highly successful student recruitment effort; fiscal year and workload compression relief; and a grassroots image campaign that pivots around our state society partners.

This has been an extraordinarily active year and it has resulted in changes that have made us better. Our anchor for dealing with change comes from our core values. And of those values, integrity is the driving force.

When I speak about our core values, I always put competence in the middle—integrity, competence and objectivity. I believe integrity and objectivity are the strengths that hold up and give life to our competence. In other words, our value is not given to us because of our technical abilities; our value is attributed to us by the way we practice our profession and live by a code of ethics in all aspects of our daily lives. Integrity—by definition, a rigid adherence to a code of behavior—is key to our profession. We are expected to live by a code of ethics, which serves as the North Star for all of our activities.

There are two additional elements in the definition of integrity: completeness and unity. This means quite clearly that integrity is not something you carry with you only when you meet clients or walk through your office door. It’s a way of living, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Integrity is what allows you to sleep at night and what gets you going in the morning. It means you finish what you started—completeness—and you start and finish it the right way.

Integrity also means working collaboratively with any affected parties to create something that leaves the world better off. And it means you come together to resolve differences and forge a united front. There are those who speak about the diversity of our membership (industry, government, education, public accounting) as if it were a weakness. In fact, that diversity is a strength. Those who don’t understand have never been to a family reunion. Have you ever been to a family function where you warned each other about getting prepared for Uncle Albert or Aunt Ann? You know, the relative who challenges the sanity of the family gathering if you aren’t prepared for him or her. But, somehow it works and works well because you have a common bond—you are family. Our common bond, our unity comes from our common set of core values. Our diversity becomes our strength when leveraged with those common core values.

Ethics. Completeness. Unity. These aspects of integrity must be behind every endeavor as we work to refocus and reposition the AICPA. And they are the very reasons change makes us better.

This is the extraordinary heart of our profession, the passion each of us shares wherever we work, and why, no matter what divides us, we can all come together on one corner of solid ground—our commitment to integrity, our conviction that integrity must drive our actions. And our pride that those three letters—CPA—convey this knowledge in a shorthand we all understand.

First, we must correct misconceptions. We, as leaders of this profession, must never miss an opportunity to end misconceptions. We must get the facts out to the public. As my daughter, a second-grade school teacher, says to new parents at the beginning of each school year, “If you agree not to believe everything you hear about what is going on at school, I’ll agree not to believe everything I hear about what is going on at home.”

Recently I was on an airline reading professional materials for an upcoming meeting when the lady in the seat next to me asked, “Are you a CPA?” I answered that I was and she sighed in relief and said, “Good, maybe you can answer my question. I heard a national figure whom I respect state that accounting matters have a lot of difficult, gray areas requiring many decisions. I was so disappointed because I was sure that must be wrong. Accounting is black and white, isn’t it?” I looked at my watch and smiled. I said, “This is a three-hour flight, you have the window seat and I have the aisle. I should have just enough time and control of the environment to answer your question.” In fact, it only took about ten minutes.

I found out that she ran an ad agency so I related the judgments she makes every day on whether or not her client’s products and services will live up to the ad campaigns she designs and the decisions she has to make about what she can and cannot claim. Decisions that require thoughtful, professional judgments based on a set of core values. Judgments like the ones we have to make every day in the financial arena. When I related it to her world, she got it.

Since that flight I have wondered how many people she told and how many people they told. While we all recognize our behavior is important wherever we are, we sometimes forget our silence also has an impact. When we miss an opportunity to speak up on behalf of our values and our profession, we have a negative impact. Whoever we touch will touch another—and so on down the line for good or bad. It’s time to stop missing opportunities to spread the word about who we are. Integrity in action—it comes at price that we all must pay.

S econd, we must create a unified profession. Before I joined the AICPA board of directors five years ago, I was probably not unlike some of the conspiracy theorists who believe the Institute is controlled by the large firms or that I would have little impact on the agenda. When I joined, I found that thinking to be absolutely incorrect. I have been honored to engage in debates with some of the best and brightest minds our profession has to offer and to occasionally win some of those debates, not because of my technical ability but because of my perspective. You see, in every instance, I have encountered members passionate about getting the right answer for the profession, not about winning some personal benefit. The diversity of our board is key to our strength and unity. In addition to our president and three extraordinarily talented public members, we currently have seven members from small firms, three from medium firms, three from large firms, four from business and industry, one from government and one from education. The truth is that all of us on the AICPA board have an equal voice and an equal share of responsibility for making our profession better.

And as the final driver of change, we must finish well. Anyone raising a family understands this point. What we invest today in building values and shaping behavior must be a constant daily effort. We can’t let up no matter how close we think we are to the finish line.

Over the past 18 months as we adjusted to our new environment, it has been painful to be criticized publicly—while behind the scenes, without credit, we have been working quietly with regulators and legislators who continue to seek our help. As I’ve traveled the country, I have heard members say: “That’s not right. Don’t put up with that.” But my first question has always been: What’s best for our profession? Which is better—to get a moment’s satisfaction but lose the possibility of bringing about the right kind of change? Or make sure the right thing is done and get no credit for it? I choose the second option. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do and it gives us the best opportunity to finish well.


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I have always told new employees at our firm that if we do our job right, we will know our clients better than their doctors, lawyers, priests, ministers, rabbis and sometimes even their spouses. When we guide a client, a small business, an employer or employee, we touch upon the most intimate information they have to share. Our clients and employers trust us to shape their futures and when necessary to lay down the hard truths because CPAs are known for integrity.

I call on you to look not only at your own lives, but also to your fellow CPAs, your state societies, your AICPA to ask—how can we work together to enhance the value of the CPA and the CPA hallmark? How can we take our core value—integrity—and translate it into the kind of action that drives positive change? How can we come together to correct the misconceptions? How can we ensure that, working together, we finish well?

Now more than ever, CPAs must live by the spirit as well as the meaning of integrity. We must embrace the fact that “CPA” stands as much for a way of living as for a professional endeavor and we cannot separate the two. There is only one answer—and it is what I will be thinking about all year long—integrity.


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