Why we’re obsessed with listening to the market

Helen Brand OBE has been chief executive of ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) since 2008. Here, speaking exclusively to the BDLN, she explains how listening to employers is key to ACCA’s success, why firms that care about their wider role in society will attract the best talent, and why the profession should now focus on broader, integrated reporting…

Hello Helen. Thanks for talking to the BDLN. ACCA has become the largest and fastest-growing global body for professional accountants, with 178,000 members and 455,000 students in 181 countries. What is driving ACCA’s success?

A great deal is down to the authenticity of ACCA’s global brand.

We listen hard to the market to ensure we’re not driven by just the latest technical developments, or even by a small group of members particularly interested in one thing. We put a lot of effort into listening to what employers want from ACCA members and students, and we make sure we provide it.

We’re very much a market-driven organisation, and because of that, ACCA is always innovating. For example, over the past year we’ve launched ACCA-X, a free online learning facility that covers two foundation papers, with more to follow. Forty thousand people around the world have registered for ACCA-X since the end of July.

People who join us know they’re entering a global family that’s relevant to businesses all over the world, in every sector.

In the not-too-distant past, ACA’s qualification was perceived as the gold standard. Today, ACCA’s is seen at least as an equal. How have you closed the gap?

The quality and content of ACCA has always been excellent, but because of old, entrenched perceptions, we’ve had to work hard at being especially relevant to potential members and the market. That means being flexible and having different entry points to the qualification, and promoting those entry points vigorously.

What I particularly love about ACCA is its inclusivity. If you go to a members’ meeting, you will find diverse ethnic and gender representation.

And when you talk to employers, more and more that’s exactly what they want. They want diversity of thinking, which creates innovation and ensures that their organisation is not full of people from the same background, school or university.

At ACCA you get a solid, technical understanding across all disciplines, but also diversity of background and input. We’re proud of that – it strengthens the brand.

I read that you are passionate about – possibly obsessed – with delivering best-in-class global customer service. Why is that so important?

It’s a great differentiator. If people have an excellent experience with you, they will stay with you, be your advocates, and enjoy being members. So customer service is critical to sustainability.

At ACCA, one of my aims has been to ensure that everybody, from colleagues who are at the sharp end of dealing with customers to our most senior leaders, is always thinking: ‘How am I serving our members, our students, our employers and our wider customers?’ That has to be at the heart of what we all do here.

We’ve invested a lot in technology, and we’re constantly revising our digital channels and mobile delivery, but customer experience must always be central to our thinking.

How are you trying to attract new members from China and India?

We believe that ACCA should be the number one provider of professional accountants the world over, including China and India. We’ve been working in China since 1988 and have eight offices there.

India is our fastest-growing market, but we’re also seeing demand in other emerging markets such as Bangladesh, Vietnam and sub-Saharan Africa.

And that is the point of our strategy – to meet a need. These economies need professional accountants, and the financial leadership they bring to organisations.

That’s even more important in China now with the economic slowdown.


Over the past 20 years it has been – relatively speaking – easy to grow as a business in China. But in order to grow today, Chinese companies need better financial planning, a greater ability to build the capacity of their people, and more investment wisdom. So there is a growing demand for good accountants.

Also, more Chinese businesses are now looking beyond the domestic market. So they need accountants who are qualified to international standards.

The business world has changed dramatically since 2008. Has the profession kept up?

Yes, it has. Good governance, ethical practices and a positive, inclusive culture within organisations have become even more critical since 2008. Accountants are at the forefront of those things – it’s in their DNA. The profession is also doing a much better job of talking about those strengths and what they mean to businesses.

Apart from the obvious technical skills that accountants have, which are critical in both good times and bad, the emphasis on risk and risk management has come to the fore.

Practising firms have had to become advisors of business even more emphatically.

You see some fantastically talented people at ACCA. What’s your advice to firms trying to attract the best talent?

First, it’s crucial to attract the best and brightest to the profession itself and to make accountancy exciting.

Second, the values of organisations matter more and more. Talented young accountants want to know they’re doing something for a reason, that it’s sustainable and environmentally friendly.

It goes well beyond the numbers.

So firms best able to demonstrate the value they bring to society will attract the best talent?

Yes. Firms’ wider roles and their values are critical when attracting talent. Sure, anyone can have a value statement, but they will soon be found out if it’s not authentic.

And of course, that doesn’t mean the values can’t be commercial.

What’s your advice to students who want to make themselves attractive to employers?

It’s about showing you’re willing to take on a whole range of roles; putting yourself forward; displaying a sense of energy; showing enthusiasm; and thinking about what you can do for this business.

The business will have thought about how it can be attractive. The employee should think how he or she can add value. There’s nothing worse than the sense that a person in the interview room is there because they feel they have to be. You must make it clear that you want to be there and that you’ve clearly thought through what you’re going to contribute.

And once you’re in the organisation, you need to show willingness to stick your hand up and have a go.

Financial reporting standards seem to be getting more and more complex. Is the profession in danger of alienating itself from people who aren’t financial experts?

It’s a danger that has to be taken note of. And that’s why we’ve seen the integrated reporting movement there – which looks at how an organisation creates value in its broadest sense – in order to gain such momentum. A common set of global standards makes sense, but now the focus needs to be on implementation, communication and presentation. It’s important to clearly communicate the state of the business and its likely future performance to all stakeholders.

What three things would you like ACCA to achieve over the next 10 years?

  • To emphatically be the brand of choice globally.
  • For all our members to feel they are being served throughout their careers, particularly digitally.
  • To ensure a vibrant and sustainable future by attracting the next generation of leaders into the profession.


Helen Brand OBE: a brief career overview:

After studying politics at Exeter University, Helen worked for CIMA (the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants), focusing on international development. After CIMA she joined ACCA as director of international affairs, before becoming chief operating officer and managing director of  strategy and development. She was appointed chief executive in September 2008. In 2011, she was awarded an OBE for services to accountancy.  Helen is a London Honorary Advisory Board member of the Women’s Executive Network (WXN) and a founding member of the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC).