Cecile Bonino, Principal, Global Engagement at IFAC spoke to Hilde Blomme, the Deputy CEO of Accountancy Europe, a leader with a global perspective and an unwavering commitment to shaping the future of the accountancy profession. With a career that spans continents and a wealth of experience in navigating intricate policy landscapes, Hilde stands as a testament to the transformative power of international expertise, technical acumen, and resolute leadership. Join us in exploring the facets of Hilde's journey through the lens of education, diversity & inclusion and the future of the profession.
Cecile Bonino (CB): Hilde, could you tell us about your journey from your accountancy education to your current position as Deputy CEO of Accountancy Europe?
Hilde Blomme (HB): My journey to become and accountant and auditor started at university, with courses in accounting and auditing, which honestly at that time did not inspire me very much. Maybe something should be done about this to increase the attractiveness of our profession. My first job was in finance, at Euroclear, a provider of financial market infrastructure services in Brussels, Belgium, which I did not like, it was not intellectually challenging. In the early nineties I rolled into working in a mid-sized accountancy firm, which brought with it a challenging learning curve and an inviting opportunity to qualify as an auditor, which turned out to be what I was looking for. So in 1995 I qualified as a Belgian ‘Reviseur d’Entreprises’ or auditor. After moving to work at PwC in New York in 1999 I became a Certified Public Accountant in the USA and in 2007 a Member of the Association of Chartered Accountant (ACCA) in the UK. After leaving PwC London in 2003 I was looking to return to Belgium and joined what is now Accountancy Europe, first as Director of Practice Regulation and now as Deputy CEO since 2013.
CB: How did your educational background prepare you for this role? What skills do you find particularly valuable in your leadership role?
HB: For my first position as Director of Practice Regulation at Accountancy Europe, the professional expertise I built up over the years was crucial. As you know, Accountancy Europe is an association of 50 professional accountancy institutes and chambers from 35 European countries. The competences and experience obtained from my various professional qualifications were very important to get into the world of professional bodies and understand what their purpose is, what their expectations are, and how they fulfill their mission. My years in practice as an auditor contributed greatly to perform the more technical work which forms part of my role. What I had to learn on the job, and at times with trial and error, was the management and leadership skills that come with my role as Deputy CEO, for which professional qualifications do not really prepare. Maybe they should in the future.
CB: You are a real source of inspiration for many women in the profession, in particular with the younger members of your team. Did you have a mentor when you started your career? Or someone who inspired you?
HB: A mentor would have been great, but I never had one in the formal sense of the word. What I had were a number of people who I worked for or who I worked with who basically played such a role. Some taught me both hard and soft skills, others encouraged and helped me in performing my job well and a few really believed in me and created opportunities for me to excel. You could compare this with cross fertilization: they inspired me but I seemed to also inspire them.
CB: Given your expertise and experience, what trends do you foresee in the future of accountancy education, and how should aspiring accountants prepare for them?
HB: First of all, there is not the ‘trend’ but the necessity that we are all working through right now and it is responding to climate and sustainability challenges. In the European Union and beyond, the transformation to sustainable business models has or should have started for companies to become climate-neutral by 2050. This also entails achieving other Environmental, Social and Governance friendly transitions. Our profession is in the midst of this, mainly but not only by helping companies to either prepare for sustainability reporting or by providing assurance on such reporting. This also means obtaining the necessary theoretical knowledge and practical exposure to sustainability matters. For the sustainability transformation to be a success, not only the private sector but also the public sector should transition, something we should support as a profession but which is still too much in its Infancy.
Another ‘trend’ which is accelerating is responding to ongoing technological transformation, like artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, application programming interface, machine-readable reporting, data analytics ... This impacts the way accountants and auditors work and the tools we will use in the future. It is profoundly changing the business model of many companies, requiring our profession to invest in keeping-up with technologically advanced clients.
Finally, our profession should reflect on how to continue to fulfil its societal role. Stakeholders, policy makers, regulators and legislators at times challenge us and we should take up this challenge, step back, look at ourselves and respond appropriately.
CB: Do you have any advice on assuming leadership positions and driving positive change? Are there any specific strategies or approaches you found effective in navigating challenges or obstacles on your way up the ladder?
HB: My motto has always been to first excel in the work that I do. I was expecting, or at least hoping, that recognition would then follow. This was definitely not always the case but it worked more often than not.
Secondly, I always tried to stay myself, speak when I could deliver value and be silent when not. I also do not take myself too seriously, which I believe helps a lot when working in a team.
In addition, I attempt to use common sense in approaching as many matters as possible, life is already complicated enough.
Finally, questioning yourself is a good thing to do, especially when matters do not move as fast as one would like to.
I am not really a big fan of theoretical coaching and mentoring programmes to prepare for leadership positions, I am more a person who thrives in an environment where I learn by doing.
CB: Attractiveness and retention are two very hot issues for the profession. Do you have any views on how to make the profession more appealing to the younger generations?
HB: There seem to be both external and internal factors that need to be considered related to attractiveness and retention. On the macro level, a lot of businesses struggle to attract talent, not just our profession. This is partly caused by an imbalance in supply and demand, as there is a shortage in university graduates on the market: it is my understanding that there are more jobs requiring degrees than people graduating with degrees.
On the micro level, we should start by listening to the younger generations and accept that the ‘old recipes’ might not work anymore in the future. Lots of youngsters do not look for lifetime employment at the same firm, which diminishes greatly the appetite to invest years in studying and training for a professional qualification. They also do not want to invest more than 10 years of their life with a poor work life balance and modest remuneration to maybe maybe become a highly rewarded partner in a firm one day, they want much more ‘instant gratification’. They finally want to associate with an employer in terms of societal role, values, ethics, culture... all matters which have at times been under public scrutiny in our profession.
I am convinced that our profession remains attractive, that its societal role is growing, that we can build much more flexibility into our ways of being and working. Therefore, we need to listen and respond to the challenges youngsters bring and change to address them.
CB: I know that your family is very important for you. How did you manage to strike the right work-life balance?
HB: I have 2 kids, Daphné, now 27 and a medical doctor, and Thomas, 25, an engineer working as a consultant. We lived abroad, in the USA and UK until they were well into primary school. With long hours in the audit practice, a banker-husband often travelling and without family around, we ‘survived’ with live-in au-pairs until the kids were in secondary school. Even with that, I had little work-life balance, but that was much lower on the priority list then than it is now. A rather demanding and discipline-oriented upbringing might have contributed to this. In addition, my husband was very supportive of me having my own career, the kids were thriving and becoming ever more independent, so this positive atmosphere kept me going. It helps that I like doing housekeeping work, especially cooking, as it is relaxing for me although it at times felt like I was having different full-time jobs at the same time.
CB: Accountancy is often perceived as a traditionally male-dominated field, particularly in some countries. Did you encounter gender-related challenges or biases during your career progression? How did you handle these? Have you noticed an evolution since your early career days?
HB: When I started my career almost 35 years ago in an accountancy firm as a young graduate, my colleagues would be a mix of males and females. However, the further up in the hierarchy, the less women were in positions of authority, for instance as a partner in the firm. That did not really deter me, I think I was lucky to work in environments where I was able to make my career thrive based on merit (and hard work) rather than gender.
But I got the odd comment that I ‘had my first baby too early in my career’ and that for sure I ‘would not come back to work after my second baby’, apparently a common feature in the USA where childcare is sparse. Luckily, these comments did not come from superiors who were determining my career. As far as reacting to such comments, I just ignore them. But I did not fully succeed in forgetting them.
I have seen these things evolve over my almost 35 years of career. Such comments now are and would also be perceived as completely inappropriate. And as far as career progression, diversity and especially gender diversity is now a high priority, but it has not always been like this!
CB: Could you share specific initiatives Accountancy Europe has undertaken to promote diversity and inclusion within the accounting profession? Are there any personal experiences or anecdotes that have shaped your commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion in your role as Deputy CEO?
HB: We definitely try to do this, starting within our own house! When we talk about diversity and inclusion within Accountancy Europe, this means not only gender equality but also diversity in the size of the firms represented, large, mid-sized, small, but also diversity in country of origin, in age...
One example: the composition of Accountancy Europe’s board is quite different today than it used to be with regard to gender equality. 15 years ago, it consisted of eight men. Currently, four of the twelve board members are women equally participating in decision making as their male counterparts.
These numbers might seem discouragingly low, however, a positive change in gender equality can be observed although collective efforts should continue to sustain further progress.
Another initiative is being transparent on diversity. A few years ago, for International Women’s Day, I published an article titled “Is the accountancy industry a white, male dominated space?”
I reported that among the 50 professional accountancy institutes that Accountancy Europe represents, the majority are still led by men: approximately 85% of their presidents were male and 15% were female. But the percentage of women in a leadership position increased more than twice if we looked at their chief executive officers: nearly 40% women act as CEOs or equivalent.
It seems to me that looking back, the thought of a woman holding a senior level or Board position appeared despicable... to men.