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Comment: Nine seconds to make or break

Time is relative. When Usain Bolt runs 100 metres in a little over nine seconds, time flies and feels like a fleeting instant of dream. But, when six professionals sitting on a panel meet a question with deafening silence for nine seconds, then time painfully drags on in embarrassment.

This scene took place at The Accountant and International Accounting Bulletin annual conference in London in October. The day’s last panel, which included representatives from EY, Deloitte and PwC, was tackling the question of ethics and the future of the profession in a digital age.

At the same time, the audience could ask questions through an online platform, which were visible to all once they had been approved by a moderator. They were picked up by the panel’s chair, ACCA director of professional insight Maggie McGhee.

Countering the usual fluff coming from panellists that technology would make accountants better and more relevant, one anonymous member of the audience asked how unethical behaviour such as the allegations surrounding KPMG South Africa affected the overall image of the profession and what lessons could be learnt from that example in particular.

As KPMG was the only one of the Big Four not represented on the panel, I added a similar question using exactly the same wording on the recent social media storm on EY CEO’s link with USA president Donald Trump. I did so anonymously to avoid censorship by the moderator, but that is a story for another day.

McGhee skilfully combined the two questions into a broader and less controversial one: “What do you think the firms can do to maintain their ethical standing within society at large, as well as with their clients?”

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

Nine seconds of silence was the answer before laughter engulfed the room and Deloitte director of audit innovation Katie Canell took the bullet for the rest of the panel and expertly – it must be admitted – answered.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Silence can be too.

If the profession refuses to face up to these questions and truly address them, the reputational difficulties it will encounter will only increase as it moves from a “pencil and quill profession” to a “digital profession”, as there will be fewer and fewer places to hide.

Nine seconds – enough time to bring discredit and enough time to make a Jamaican kid a legend. I wonder how long it would take to take a drug test for doping and... I hope that those nine seconds of dream will never come down to that.

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