A way of life

One of the greatest privileges of being president of ICAEW is welcoming newly-qualified ACAs to our profession. Last Saturday I travelled to Liverpool and then on to Manchester to speak at two such ceremonies. I spoke – as I always do – about our five fundamental principles: integrity, objectivity, competence, confidentiality and professionalism. I like to emphasise how, if we live by these values, we earn the trust of the individuals, businesses and the wider society we serve. This trust can lead people to share things with us that they can share with no-one else in their personal or professional lives. At times, such trust can be a burden.

At the ceremonies on Saturday I spoke about the importance of trust in the profession as a whole, but also about the trust we build individually with others. The next morning, I received a telephone call from a client which made me reflect on trust at an individual level. My client - let’s call him John - called to tell me that his father had died the night before.

I had acted for father and son for around ten years. In the early years the issues we had faced were routine: the annual audit of the family company, tax planning and general compliance.

Then the company faced a downturn in business. The advice turned from compliance to saving the company and scores of jobs. We had difficult conversations with the bank. But it was the weather that dealt the fatal blow and trade melted away. The company was placed into receivership. A lifetime’s hope, ambition, hard work and success became another example of what the textbooks would call a ‘completed business cycle’.

Such descriptions ignore the human consequences. There was tension between father and son. Things were said - but they were said to me, not to each other. They were confidential. I felt the burden of confidences that could not be shared without integrity being lost. I lost sleep over the misunderstandings that I knew were at the heart of the confidences, but which cast a shadow over the relationship between father and son. I did my best to clear the misunderstandings, but there was an ethical limit on what I could say.

And then the father, a fiercely independent man, fell ill. We all knew he would not recover. Over a period of weeks, I tried to engineer an opportunity for a conversation and a reconciliation. Initially I thought it would be impossible, but a few weeks ago there was a breakthrough. The misunderstandings were resolved and father and son became closer than ever. With all the facts known, I was able to explain how difficult my position had been.

The morning after my visit to Liverpool and Manchester the telephone rang at home. It was John. His father had died the previous evening. They had been together at the end. John said that the funeral would, as his father had wished, be for family and close friends only. Then he added some words that meant everything to me: that they had both always regarded me as a close friend and that I would be welcome.

And that took me back to my words at the new member ceremonies. Being a professional isn’t just about having technical knowledge and applying it: it is much more than that. It is about acting with integrity, respecting confidentiality and remaining objective. It is also about something deeper, something much harder to define, but sometimes you live through an episode that makes it easier to explain.

Last night I raised a glass to a good friend, greatly saddened by his loss but humbled that he and his family had regarded me as a good friend too. 

Professionalism is a way of life, not just a set of rules. Sometimes it is difficult, but the rewards are immeasurable.

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