12 questions to:

Joanna Zakrzewska, ACCA, CIA, CFE

Joanna, thank you very much for agreeing to participate in 12on12.

Let’s start with competence. Co-chairing the 30% Club Poland social campaign, I often hear that positions should be awarded based on competence, not gender. I fully agree. The current situation contradicts this completely. In 2021/22, women accounted for 58% of students and 64% of university graduates. Despite this, at the end of 2021, they held only 16.6% of positions in management and supervisory boards combined of 140 largest listed companies. What do you think causes this disparity?

Research indicates that the main reason for lower activity of women on the labour market is their greater involvement in family life, as well as stereotypes regarding the roles of women and men in society. As a result, we are dealing with awareness barriers limiting women’s access to managerial positions.

We both have three prestigious international certificates, including the common to both of us ACCA/FCCA title. What inspired you to do this certificate and how have you benefited from it?

My adventure with ACCA began when I started working after graduation. I started my first job in an audit company, where the natural path of professional development was to obtain the certification of an international statutory auditor. ACCA certification provided an opportunity to gain practical business skills, take up employment abroad, and was also a confirmation of knowledge in the field of financial management. Going through the certification process, I not only consolidated and expanded my knowledge in the field of finance, but also shaped my mind-set and tools so useful in my professional life, such as:

  • values and ethics that guide me in business,
  • a practical manager’s workshop that allows you to effectively learn about business from numbers,
  • international work standards that make it easier to find oneself in any work environment,
  • the need for continuous development, thanks to which I constantly enrich my competences, broaden my perspectives and derive satisfaction from what I do.

The term „Accountant” in Polish is often translated simply as person responsible for bookeeping. In my opinion, the profile of a person who has passed all ACCA exams and received the ACCA certificate, and then obtained the FCCA diploma, means much more – a person with extensive competences in the area of finance, able to comprehensively manage financial aspects of a company. What is your stance on this?

Definitely yes. In my opinion, today’s financiers need to be versatile, flexible, open-minded and digitally agile in order to be able to anticipate and react to the ever-changing environment. The times when the work of a person responsible for finance in a company was defined accounting are long gone. Today’s financial leaders have a lot more on their plate. They are expected to both work with the managing director on critical strategic projects and to deal with changing commercial patterns, regulatory environment and increasing investor scrutiny over sustainability and ESG issues.

I believe that by the end of this decade, the financial function itself will change significantly. Requirements for financial managers will also change. The expectation to lead a rapidly modernizing function, changing environment of investors and stakeholders and growing importance of working closely with the company’s key decision makers point to the fact that financial managers of the future will not only need to have leadership skills or vision, but even more actively engage in creation and implementation of the company’s strategy.

ACCA is not indifferent to these challenges. The organisation notices changes and supports both its students by updating the knowledge and curriculum, but also the entire financial community by getting involved and speaking out loud about important issues such as sustainable development. At meetings, congresses or conferences, in addition to discussing the problems faced by accountants around the world, we have the opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas on how to shape the profession of „accountant of the future”. If you are interested, I refer you to last year’s ACCA research report „Professional accountants at the heart of sustainable organizations”, which analyses the future of the accounting profession. It’s a must-read for professionals who want to lead their organizations towards a more sustainable future. https://lnkd.in/e96rcPyT

„Every accountant has an important role to play in creating a better world” – this is the guiding principle of the activities currently undertaken by ACCA and it is hard to disagree with it. The world is facing ground-breaking changes, compounded by economic, political, social and environmental challenges. The global nature of accounting and the critical role of accountants working in and for organizations mean that the profession is unique in its ability to drive change and help build a better world.

ACCA is not only a title, it is also a community. You are the head of the ACCA Council in Poland. How diverse is the group of our members in Poland in terms of professions, location or gender. How many people in Poland already possess the title?

Number of members in Poland came in at 2,178 as of November 30, 2022, of which 53% were women and 47% men.

Some 70% of the community are employed in business, 13% are employed in public practices and financial services, respectively, and 3% are employed in the public sector.

Most of our members live in voivodeship agglomerations: Mazowieckie, Małopolskie, Śląskie, Dolnośląskie and Wielkopolskie.

However, the diversity in terms of professions is really wide: among us there are many CFOs, financial and internal auditors, CEOs, controllers, reporting and analysis directors, accountants, business and strategic advisors, heads of regulatory authorities, members of supervisory boards, directors for risk, forensic auditors, compliance managers, persons employed in managerial and managerial positions in departments related to financial and accounting services, including in shared services centers.

This is of course not a complete list.

The breadth of the professions mentioned by you, performed by ACCA members, is impressive. Among them there are persons working in internal audit or detecting irregularities. You hold both the title of CIA (Certified Internal Auditor) and CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner). How has the knowledge gained from these certificates been useful to you in practice?

Each of the certifications we are talking about here are professional certifications, and thus very practical.

Obtaining these three certifications gave me a broader perspective going beyond corporate finances and allowed me to look at entire organizations, including global international corporations, where we usually deal with complex, multidimensional issues affecting various areas in the company.

The ability to look from different perspectives, including through the prism of potential risks, is also useful from the point of view of managing the entire enterprise.

Having these certifications also allows me to more effectively search for more innovative and effective solutions to problems and improvements.

Like other members of ACCA, your managerial experience is also varied and impressive, both in financial management and internal audit. Looking at your career path, what actions, steps, decisions determined your success?

In retrospect, I am convinced that it was very important to realize how important continuous development is for me. Improving the financier’s skills and the need to stay up to date with regulations made the need for continuous development „enter into my blood”, perfectly resonating with my inner motivation and curiosity about the world.

In addition, the work of a financial auditor at an early stage of my career – related to the need to quickly understand the activities of audited companies and assess related risks – made it easy for me to get used to new issues and projects and to diagnose situations/problems/opportunities, which in times when change is the only constant is very useful and helps face challenges as they arise.

On the other hand, starting work in internal audit – as the essence of the work of an internal auditor is the constant search for better and more efficient methods of the company’s operation – allowed me to better understand processes functioning in organizations and prepared me to perform management functions, especially those aimed at improving results and development.

With time, as we advance and mature to the role of manager, leadership issues become more and more important. What does leadership mean to you? What skills should leaders of today have?
I try not to label my actions when it comes to assigning them a specific definition and type of leadership. I rather choose from leadership framework elements which resonate with me the most. Different times also require different leadership. So, what is important to me?

I strongly believe that leadership has a lot to do with inspiration, mindfulness, accountability, the ability to determine results, but also helping employees use their skills to achieve these results. Yes, being a “good leader” starts with how you treat your team: do you see individuals with unique personalities in your team and are you able to motivate them to work together towards common goals. If you are still able to create a cohesive and collaborative diverse work environment where employees feel heard, valued and included, then there is a good chance that you are on your way to becoming an authentic leader… but this is only the beginning.

In my opinion, today’s leaders should also possess a mix of skills that combine emotional intelligence, interpersonal communication, and a technologically advanced mindset. Emotional intelligence is extremely important because it expands empathy towards others, allows you to manage stress more effectively and supports employees in overcoming challenges. Expressing your emotions in a healthy way facilitates communication and develops interpersonal interactions. On the other hand, a technologically advanced way of thinking, in which artificial intelligence or automation are important areas of the leader’s competence, provides a competitive advantage and stimulates innovation.

Being a leader in these turbulent times is not easy and it also requires openness and adaptability. Flexibility – combined best with the ability to learn quickly and think critically – enables leaders to identify, analyze, solve and implement appropriate strategies for emerging challenges on an ongoing basis. If at the same time, the leader is able to help employees use these challenges positively in their daily work and accept the changes, then he will most likely be able to guide employees through these unstable times.

It is also crucial for the leader to ensure that the employee’s personal goals are linked in a fairly clear way with the goals of the company. This is important because it leads to a sense of purpose and meaningful work, as well as supports motivation to work.

Self-awareness of the leader is equally crucial, as it allows to build trust in the organization and at the same time supports the personal development of employees. When a leader shows that he is aware of his strengths and weaknesses – that is, he knows what activities he does well and which … he is better off delegating or developing – he creates an environment that encourages personal growth and honesty. On the other hand, building a culture of trust results in greater commitment among employees.

Moreover, a leader who is also aware of his values; is able to define them and live by them, is ethical and honest, inspires trust not only of employees, but also stakeholders and customers. I mention this for a reason. I believe that leadership based on values will gain in importance. The Great Resignation and the Silent Resignation clearly highlighted the need for more ethical leadership.

Last but not least, I would like to underline the value of mentoring. Authentic leaders should be mentors to their colleagues or subordinates. This is important if we want to make sure that we do not lack true leaders in the future!

When talking about leadership of the future, it can be seen that the previously common form of 'one-man-job’ is being abandoned increasingly often. You can still see companies, associations or institutions governed by 'one true master’ in our country, but more and more often inclusive leaders are put on the pedestal. What does this phrase mean to you?

For me, inclusive leadership is the type of leadership where team members are valued, invited to consider different perspectives, and creates an atmosphere where people feel that their opinions and contributions matter and improve the company.

It is a way of leadership that ensures long-term development of the company, because diversity and real involvement of employees and use of their ideas can provide a competitive advantage for the company.

It seems to me that it is easier to list such features than to put them into practice and reconcile different perspectives. What are your methods for inclusive leadership?

I believe that the methods that work particularly well in the pursuit of inclusive leadership are primarily:

  • valuing diversity and creating space for co-workers to participate personally and fully engage in team work and the decision-making process,
  • leading a team, solving problems, generating solutions, making decisions, introducing changes and innovations so as to maintain a balance between the needs of different people,
  • awareness and courage in overcoming one’s own exclusionary beliefs as well as organizational barriers.

Self-awareness, freedom in building relationships, implementing changes and achieving a common vision help a lot in taking such actions.

Has mentoring been important on your path to inclusive leadership? Have any people you met along the way had a special influence on you?

I remember as if it was yesterday – although it has been a long time since graduation – prof. Jan Antoszkiewicz, a lecturer in heuristic methods, who carefully created space for his students to solve problems, generate solutions and create innovations, allowing us to face our beliefs and make decisions in a friendly, error-free environment.

So I am fully aware of how important support is and what vital role mentoring can play in development. And not only for the mentee but also for the mentor 😊 It may be worth mentioning here that for many years I have been involved in mentoring processes as a mentor (first as a co-founder of the Professional Women Network, but also as a Vital Voices mentor), helping others to use their own potential. This is an inexhaustible source of satisfaction for me. However, I also highly value the opportunity to learn from my mentee,

In my opinion, mentoring is a fantastic process that supports development of all parties involved. It is a process that gives courage, provides motivation and allows you to broaden horizons, and good mentors should be an integral part of every leader’s development.

An aspect of diversity that is of interest to you is also diversity by age. We currently have many generations on the labour market with a different way of looking at the world and its future. How to combine them and bring out the best aspects of each generation?

Communication and mindfulness are key here. Of course, there are many differences between generations, which have been an increasing problem in recent years, especially since in some companies we have as many as 5 generations.

When many different generations work in the workplace, there is a real risk of conflict and misunderstanding. Concerns about climate change or political unrest have led to hostile reactions between different age groups in some cases. That is why a clear communication plan, distributed through various channels, is very important, ensuring that all stakeholders are reached. For example, while some generations may prefer to receive information by e-mail, others may expect printed instructions.

Another challenge of working with different generations is remuneration. Different phases of an employee’s life can affect their pay and benefits package. Younger generations can focus on training or flexible working hours. Older generations may expect higher salaries and other benefits, but this is not obvious, which is why mindfulness is so important. Managing generational diversity in the workplace can be a challenge, but if we want to make this task easier, it is worth considering the following actions:

  • Avoiding generational stereotypes
    Stereotyping co-workers based on their clothes or social media usage is definitely not the way to go.
    While being aware of generational differences is helpful, I would also avoid labelling people. It is better to use as many individual meetings with employees as possible to learn more about them and, as a result, get the best out of them.
  • Sharing knowledge
    Each generation has something valuable to pass on to others, which is why I believe that sharing knowledge fosters the development of mutual respect among employees is is a source of positive synergy for the company. Particularly practical seems to be the use of mentoring, which makes each person feel appreciated and has a chance for development.
  • Using company values to build a strong team
    Strong company values are the key to inspiring and attracting Millennials and Gen Z employees, while providing engaged older generations with a mission that mobilizes them to act.
  • Creating hybrid work environment
    By combining office and remote work, you can satisfy the preferences of virtually every generation.
  • Integrating the team
    Integration activities are one of the fastest, and at the same time proven, ways to overcome generational barriers. They not only allow employees to relieve stress, but also facilitate building bonds and creative problem solving.

These are, of course, only examples of proposals supporting diversity.

I know you follow sustainability issues in the luxury goods market. I am curious how you perceive the approach of the leaders of this market to sustainable development?

The idea of sustainable development is based on meeting our needs without compromising the ability to meet the needs of future generations.

I am of the opinion that the luxury goods industry has for a long time done little for sustainability, claiming to be saving the planet, because by definition it produces sustainable products that are passed down from generation to generation. Some brands still haven’t changed their approach.

For some time, we have been observing that corporate social responsibility and customer trust have slowly become key factors driving purchases, so there is no room for slow action or greenwashing. With the increased availability of information, consumers can more easily make purchasing decisions that reflect their ethics and values. Research shows that customers are much more likely to buy a product when the company stands for an issue they care about. As the alignment of values between brands and consumers becomes an increasingly important factor influencing purchasing decisions and brand loyalty, companies wishing to maintain their luxury status must adapt to ethical, sustainable and responsible practices.

I also think that with the planned introduction of regulations related to ESG, companies producing luxury goods – and not only – will have to recognize sustainability as one of the fundamental issues and redefine the concept of luxury.

And with increasing demand to produce products that meet high ESG standards, luxury goods companies will need to find a way to present their products as something other than indicators of wealth and social status, while maintaining these prices.

And it’s already happening! Brands are looking for new ways to show they are sustainable, from using recycled materials and engaging in fabric innovation, to rethinking the value of the fashion shows and lavish stores.

To a large extent, these changes in the industry are caused by the pressure of socially conscious Millennials and Generation Z, the need to deal with climate change, but also the effects caused by the pandemic. Doing sustainability work has replaced the need for speed for many companies just as the pandemic hit. It turned out that this crisis was an opportunity for the best brands to stop imitating „fast fashion” and return to their original identity.

Among other things, the Armani brand has made a conscious effort to „do less and do better”, moving away from the industry trend of accelerating production cycles and releasing multiple collections each year. I think that’s a good direction.

Let’s hope that such trends will become our new reality.

Joanna, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!

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