Elena Churikova, Senior Manager at IFAC spoke to Alta Prinsloo, the CEO of the Pan African Federation of Accountants (PAFA), a visionary leader with an extensive global experience and expertise in strategic planning, capacity building, and partnership development.
A famously hard worker, Alta is often busy making a remarkable professional mark. In her down time, she enjoys spending time with her family, reading, and crafting.
It was a special privilege to interview Alta, who during her time at IFAC hired Elena and was her boss, mentor, and role model during her early years with IFAC. Alta is a changemaker, whose dedication and passion for the accountancy profession has a global impact. She spoke to Elena about building a fulfilling career, overcoming obstacles and drawing power from the experiences and insights of accomplished executive leaders.
Elena Churikova (EC): Hello Alta! Let’s start from the very beginning of your professional journey. Could you tell us what inspired you, or how you decided to become an accountant?
Alta Prinsloo (AP): My parents worked tirelessly to provide me with the necessary resources to achieve my goals. I come from a family that did not have a tradition of attending university, so their determination to see me succeed instilled in me a strong work ethic and the motivation to make the most of the opportunities that came my way.
When it came to choosing my career, I did not have access to extensive guidance. However, I had an intrinsic drive to succeed. In school, I discovered my passion for accounting, which led me to pursue a degree in accounting at the University of the Free State, South Africa. I had no idea that this decision would ultimately lead me on the path to becoming a chartered accountant. Looking back, it might seem like the best decision I ever made, but in reality, it was pure luck. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice that has shaped my professional journey in a profoundly rewarding way.
EC: An accounting education has served you well so far. You have had an amazing career with opportunities to work in different sectors, including Big Four, banking, and not-for-profit local, regional, and global organizations. What are the key skills and qualities that have contributed to your success?
AP: This is a difficult question for me, as I rarely talk about myself. I believe actions speak louder than words. Nevertheless, let me do my best to respond.
As a professional accountant, definitely technical competence and ethical integrity. Followed by resilience, a positive attitude, and perseverance. And I am intentional. I set clear goals and then work relentlessly to achieve them.
I am curious. This drives me to learn continuously and adapt to an evolving landscape. I like to solve complex problems, navigate challenges, and find effective solutions. Over the years I have worked hard to improve my communications skills – a skill that was not part of my education and training.
I like to connect the dots. Strong professional relationships and a robust network has opened doors to new opportunities and provide necessary support and insights. It has also given me a global perspective.
As a leader, I aim to inspire and guide my team and advocate for diversity and inclusion.
EC: You are a real source of inspiration for many women in Africa and globally. What is your advice for women aspiring to have a fulfilling career and/or to become strong leaders?
AP: Mindset, strategy, and actions are essential to staying true to your values, beliefs, and unique qualities, while progressing professionally and overcoming gender-related obstacles. Acknowledge your worth and the value you bring to the table. This includes having confidence in your skills and expertise and embracing your strengths, vulnerabilities, and experiences. Adopt a growth mindset, view challenges as opportunities for learning and growth, be resilient and persevere through setbacks. Mentors and, more importantly, champions (or sponsors) are essential to career progression; they come in various shapes and forms and are not limited to the profession or workplace. Lead by example, showing that gender does not have to be a barrier to success. Mentor and support emerging female leaders, and advocate for inclusive policies and practices that promote diversity and gender equality.
EC: Alta, you’ve also been a really great mentor to me, personally. Could you please share why mentorship and networking is important?
AP: I am deeply grateful for the vast number of diverse individuals who have crossed and continue to cross my path in a professional and personal capacity. Each of them has contributed or is contributing to a better me, either because I want to be more like them or less like them.
Mentors (formally and informally) have provided me with invaluable guidance and support as I navigate my career. They have generously transferred their knowledge, skills, and expertise; and built my confidence. While they have been essential to my growth, it is the champions (they are not mutually exclusive), i.e., those who advocated for me, eliminated obstacles to my career progression, provided me access to their networks, and used their influence on my behalf, who propelled me into positions of greater responsibility. They were both female and male.
A strong professional network is very important. It creates a sense of community and belonging, helps you to stay informed in an evolving landscape, and can open doors to various opportunities, such as job offers, partnerships, and collaborations. Networking exposes me to different perspectives, ideas, and experiences.
EC: Accountancy is often perceived as a traditionally male-dominated field, particularly in some jurisdictions. If you encountered gender-related biases during your career progression, how did you manage them?
AP: I appreciate the opportunity to share my perspective, especially considering my background in apartheid-era South Africa. I grew up in a time and place where discrimination was deeply entrenched, and although – as white female – I initially belonged to a “previously disadvantaged” category, it is essential to acknowledge that the suffering and marginalisation of black individuals in South Africa during apartheid were on a completely different scale. I believe that recognising this historical context is essential. While I may have faced some gender-related challenges in the profession, it is crucial to keep these challenges in perspective. I have chosen not to overemphasise biases but rather to focus on proactively seizing opportunities, regardless of their size, and striving to stand out in my career.
The key is to be persistent, confident, and assertive. I have taken opportunities as they arose, demonstrating my skills, commitment, and value. By consistently delivering quality work and showing my dedication, I have been able to build a strong professional reputation, which, in turn, has opened doors to further opportunities.
While there is still much progress to be made, particularly in Africa, there is a growing recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the profession. The profession is increasingly embracing a broader range of perspectives and backgrounds.
EC: Could you share specific initiatives PAFA has undertaken to promote diversity and inclusion within the accounting profession?
AP: In many parts of Africa, women are underrepresented in leadership positions in the profession. Cultural and societal factors alongside traditional gender roles are contributing to this disparity, which is a challenge for most professional accountancy organisations (PAOs) in Africa.
Three of our 15 Board members are female. This tells me that PAOs in Africa have much work to do to address this challenge. PAOs in Africa must take steps to get women into leadership positions, including mentorship and sponsorship programmes, leadership development programmes, advocacy and awareness campaigns, policy reforms, work-life balance and flexible working arrangement policies, and networking opportunities.
To assist, PAFA launched the Diversity in Accountancy in Africa Initiative; however, with limited resources and many competing priorities our progress has been slow. We have recently reached out to one of our affiliates to suggest a joint study to determine the state of play in Africa. This study will inform the steps necessary to move from commitment to action.
EC: As the first woman PAFA CEO, what is your vision for the profession in Africa and what do you plan to achieve?
AP: Professional accountants in Africa have both a public interest responsibility and a transformative opportunity to lead change. In December 2022, PAFA issued a call on PAOs in Africa to adopt strategies that support professional accountants for people, planet, and prosperity 1. The call highlights five areas of focus:
1. leading sustainability reporting and assurance;
2. strengthening governance, transparency, and accountability in the public sector;
3. enhancing the quality of accountancy services;
4. realising Africa’s growth objectives through the Africa Continental Free Trade Area Agreement; and
5. fighting corruption and economic crime.
Following IFAC’s example, we will soon add 6. attractiveness of the profession, with diversity and inclusion as key component.
My vision for the profession on the continent is one of growth, sustainability, and excellence as a result of these strategies. My vision also involves a profession that is supported by and effective – i.e., sustainable, relevant, credible – PAO in every country. I envision PAOs that are supported by a sustainable PAFA that is recognised, respected, and resourced. In addition, I envision an Africa that is well represented and recognised on international platforms, including in the membership of the international standard-setting boards and structures of IFAC.
EC: Could you please share why you are passionate about accounting and the societal impacts of strong accounting practices?
AP: Accountancy and its societal impacts play a crucial role in shaping the economic well-being of nations and the livelihoods of people. When PAOs function effectively, they create a ripple effect that extends to various aspects of society, producing positive outcomes that cannot be understated.
Effective PAOs are the driving force behind nurturing and supporting high-quality accountancy professionals. These professionals, armed with their ethics and expertise, play a vital role in improving governance, financial management, reporting, and auditing. The benefits of this extend far and wide, including promotion of growth and development, enhanced transparency and accountability, improved public services, effective development assistance, and foreign direct investment.
However, it is crucial to acknowledge that many jurisdictions in Africa face challenges with their PAOs. Some do not have PAOs, while others have PAOs that are not yet sustainable, relevant, or credible. This is a major concern because it hinders the realisation of the benefits I mentioned earlier. By strengthening PAOs in these areas, we can significantly enhance their ability to drive positive societal impacts through accounting.
EC: Could you recommend any books, podcasts, movies, etc. that made an impact on your growth?
AP: The two books that immediately come to mind is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. As introvert, I do agree with Cain that modern Western culture often misunderstands and undervalues the traits and capabilities of introverted people.