Brown shoes

One of the themes I'm pursuing this year is access to our profession for the brightest and the best, regardless of background. I was therefore keen to attend the recent annual reception to celebrate the work of Access Accountancy.

Access Accountancy was founded to ensure that everyone has an equal chance of accessing the accountancy profession based on merit, not background. One of the speakers at the event was Bernadette Kelly, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport and Social Mobility Champion for the Civil Service. Something she said really struck me. She talked about how she had made changes to her life and behaviour to fit in with her colleagues when she joined the Civil Service. Someone behind me said he’d been chastised for wearing brown shoes with a grey suit to work because “it wasn’t done”. Even in 2018 it seems, there are unwritten rules for fitting in, for being “one of us”.

The conversation made me reflect on how many of us try to adapt our lifestyles – our interests, pursuits and behaviours – to the professional communities we are looking to join. It’s a case of unconscious – perhaps conscious – compliance in wanting to fit in.

Two days after the Access Accountancy event, I had the honour of welcoming guests to the annual Pan Accountancy lunch at Mansion House, the very heart of the City of London. That morning I had given the keynote address at a workshop on digital challenges facing practitioners. With these things fresh in my mind, I focused in my speech on digital disruption and social mobility.

And I have a permanent and embarrassing reminder of how I was rushing between meetings with little time to think that day, in the photograph of me with the Lord Mayor, Baroness O’Neill and LSCA President Helen Brennan. The photograph records for posterity that in my haste to leave Moorgate Place I changed to a grey suit, but made a grievous error in failing to change my shoes: they were brown.

There is a serious point: If we are to attract a new generation of Chartered Accountants who will sign up to our core principles of ethics and professionalism (which I discussed in my last blog), but who will also embrace the digital future and challenge the way we do things, we need some who don’t comfortably fit the mould - who will ask why we do things the way we do, and who will seek and push for change for the better.

To thrive, we need such direct challenges from within our profession on the purpose and practice of audit, on what is acceptable and unacceptable in tax advice and on the role society expects us to play generally. That is why we need to attract strong and fearless voices as well as enquiring minds: the brightest and the best, regardless of background.

That the event recorded in that photograph took place inside Mansion House is perhaps appropriate. The building is after all a symbol of what makes the City of London strong: a world-class community that thrives on and does not fear diversity or change, whatever your shoe colour. A great role model for business and the professions.