I didn't attend the Spring Council meeting in Hawaii last week, but after reading new chairman William Ezzell's inaugural address and then talking with him at greater length during a phone interview, I sensed that something bold and new and yes -- maybe even exciting -- is happening at the American Institute of CPAs.

For one, Ezzell is the first official to firmly place the brunt of the blame for the past year's stomach-churning, Enron-fueled roller coaster ride on the profession itself and make it clear that it's up to CPAs to restore their reputations.

And he emphasized that words alone won’t achieve the desired result.

"My leadership will be about action…and implementation," he said. "About determination…not about defensiveness. About moving forward…not about reliving the past. My focus is execution and engagement. In getting it right…right now!"

Following a year of AICPA back-pedaling and back-door lobbying, assurances that 99 percent of the profession was above reproach and calls for the SEC and others to correct underlying financial reporting problems rather than focus on accountants, it was refreshing to hear someone finally say, if not in so many words, "The buck stops here."

As I mentioned in my weekly newsletter last Friday, what politicians and the powerful fail to grasp, time and time again, is that an empathetic public is nearly always ready to forgive, forget and move on as long as those who wronged them admit their guilt, negligence or folly, and seem sincerely willing to learn from their mistakes.

For years, the AICPA has repeatedly tripped over its own hubris, when a simple – "We’re sorry, we screwed up" could have worked public relations wonders.

So if nothing else, Ezzell has his finger on the pulse of public opinion and understands that a more self-effacing approach is a vital step in restoring the profession to its respected stature.

He goes on to expound on his theme of restoration and to call on every CPA in the country to truly understand and live by the profession’s core values, both inside their firms or corporations, on the cocktail circuit, and in their very hearts and souls. He urges firms to spend more time teaching new hires about ethics, and to make more of an effort to reward whistleblowers.

Although the AICPA’s new fraud standard has already received some drubbing as too little too late, Ezzell holds it up as a symbol of the profession going forward. From now on, he warns, the profession’s efforts must go "over and above what any legislator or regulator is telling us to do."

In my humble opinion, that’s leadership, and it’s been sorely lacking at the AICPA for quite some time. If Ezzell can spend the next year delivering on the ambitious vision outlined in this speech, he may very well go down in history as the man who helped save the profession.

 

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