This magazine’s first encounter with Olivia Kirtley took place in 2014 at the World Congress of Accountants in Rome. The lighting at the Santa Cecilia room in the Parco della Musica had almost been turned off while technicians hastily finished packing their equipment, marking the end of the congress. She sat down with The Accountant without a PR person to help by whispering the answers, without pre-arranged questions, and with no time limit.
Five minutes before she sat down with us she’d spent two hours on stage, handing out awards, delivering a speech to the 4,000 delegates and bringing to an end the four-day congress. This was the culmination of a six-day packed schedule for her of congress sessions and IFAC meetings.
We had tentatively asked for the interview thinking we would probably be declined after such a hectic schedule – we were not. And at the time we reported that “she answers frankly with her fist or fingers often knocking on the table to emphasise a point – The Accountant’s audio recorder remembers it well!”
Which prompted us (maybe a bit cheekily) to headline the article: Olivia Kirtley interview: Iron fist, velvet glove.
Last October when she collected her 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award from The Accountant and sister publication International Accounting Bulletin, Kirtley hinted at that headline and I asked if she had minded it. She said: “No I liked that you mentioned I was banging the table with my fist – I’m passionate about these things.”
The passion hasn’t faded two years later as she steps down as IFAC president and in the long phone interview she gave to this magazine from Washington DC, many were the instances where Washington felt just a stone’s throw away as her voice rose to emphasise her points (p4-9).
Between those two interviews, Kirtley and The Accountant met only once, in Mauritius at the African Congress of Accountants. Once again she surprised us, as we organised a round table on gender diversity in the African professions, but had only notified her a few hours prior in a quick passing comment that she should join in if she could. Of course, she took the time to pop in and take part in the discussion.
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Her legacy as president of IFAC still needs to be fully weighed and maybe there will be positives and negatives to balance out. But for those of us who on a daily basis face the opacity and controlling nature of most PR departments (I’m generalising of course – some do their job well), and senior executives afraid to talk (even off the record) or to be quoted without prior checks (don’t try, we don’t do that), it was refreshing to have a president of the profession who was that open and that passionate.