How did a successful lawyer end up in the top job at one of the leading accounting professional organisations?
For Ainslie van Onselen, CEO at Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ), the transition to management started with an ambition. Roles on various company boards held in tandem with her legal career had whetted van Onselen’s appetite and, with her two children now in primary school, the Sydneysider found herself at a fork in the road.
‘I could put my foot on the pedal and continue with my law career, or take the opportunity to do something different,’ she says. ‘Instinctively I felt management was what I’d be good at and enjoy. You can’t really pull the levers as a director; you can only oversee. I wanted to pull the levers.’
Finance appealed, and she’d already laid the groundwork.
‘As a litigator I’d often had to brief forensic accountants on quite complex commercial transactions,’ van Onselen explains. At first, not knowing how to read a profit & loss statement, she took a one-day course with the Law Society. ‘The more I started interacting with forensic accountants, the more I liked it,’ she says.
Continuing her learning with a graduate diploma in applied finance, followed by a master’s, van Onselen ‘felt I had found my thing’.
Moving to Westpac, one of Australia’s Big Four banks, in 2013, she joined under the Equilibrium programme: a platform giving opportunities to women. This dovetailed with a lifelong passion. A farmer’s daughter from Donnybrook in Western Australia, van Onselen had gone to a state school, pitched in with the hard work and held onto her father’s words when he told her: ‘You can be anything you want to be’.
‘He believed in fairness and giving someone a chance. Male or female, it didn’t matter – if you had merit, you got an opportunity. I’d expected that in the business world, and was a bit confounded when that wasn’t the case.’
We are only as good as our communities’ trust in us – our future rests on that
Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ) was founded in 2014 following the amalgamation of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia and the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants. The organisation represents more than 128,000 members in Australia, New Zealand and beyond.
In 2016, ACCA and CA ANZ entered into a strategic alliance. This provides global and local networking benefits, and increased career and employability support, and has enabled the two organisations to work together to shape the profession, building a shared reputation and influence on behalf of members of both bodies.
Van Onselen, who joined CA ANZ in May 2020, was attracted to the organisation’s core values. ‘CA ANZ lives and breathes its values,’ she says. ‘Its code of ethics underpins everything it does, and that aligns with my values.’
She also appreciates the global relevance of the accounting profession. Those attributes match the mission of ACCA, which entered into a strategic alliance with CA ANZ in June 2016, joining forces to shape the future of the accounting profession.
The two bodies’ shared commitment to maintaining and promoting ethics in the profession is an opportunity van Onselen relishes. ‘Our joint research shows that holding members accountable to a code of ethics is regarded as the number-one thing that differentiates the profession,’ she says.
‘We are only as good as our communities’ trust in us – our future rests on that. Looking at audit issues around the world, it is clear that consumers and investors still have strong confidence in the audit services professional accountants provide. It’s important we instil that in the members coming up, and to skill them up on what ethics means.
‘Between the two of us we have nearly 900,000 current and future accounting professionals. That collective voice is so critical in ensuring our members understand ethics and integrity, and that the trust in the community continues to grow.’
Collaborate for success
Since arriving in the role, van Onselen has been setting the strategy for the organisation to 2025. That strategy has been presented to the board and is ‘now about execution,’ she says.
Her leadership style is collaborative. ‘We’re all in this together – it’s not just me or the board setting the goals – and I’m a big believer in transparency,’ she says.
‘At CA ANZ, everyone has a voice. If you really want to be innovative, if you want to move the dial, then you can’t just be “yes” people – we need to challenge each other.’
If you really want to be innovative, if you want to move the dial, then you can’t just be “yes” people – we need to challenge each other
Wellbeing is vital
The pandemic, which forced everyone to work from home, gave her insights into the lives and responsibilities of staff outside of work, which also informed the ramping up of health and wellbeing initiatives.
‘We’ve introduced wellbeing days, have had physiotherapists and mental health experts via Zoom if staff need that, and have established a code for anyone in the organisation to come into the office if they’ve got a situation at home which could be potentially unsafe,’ she says.
‘I’m also a big supporter of diversity and inclusion – not just in the physical sense, but diversity of thought and perspectives.’
In terms of gender equity, van Onselen advocates the importance of including men in the conversation, as ‘we are not going to be a really inclusive society unless we have male champions of change’.
Diversity and inclusion is not only ‘the right thing to do’, commercially: there’s a very sound business case for it. ‘If you treat people fairly you will have higher loyalty, and they will perceive better value,’ she says.
While the gender gap among CA ANZ members is closing (the ratio of 42% women is expected to rise to 45% by 2025), more will be done under her watch to improve the numbers of Australia’s Indigenous and New Zealand’s Maori populations, currently standing at 3% and 16% respectively.
The organisation recently developed a First People Plan, including its first Reconciliation Action Plan, to be implemented next year with strategies to address that inequity, including providing scholarships for both of these demographics.
She’s mindful that some membership bodies around the world are seeing a decline in numbers and, while both CA ANZ and ACCA are bucking that trend, ‘we want to make sure that continues, and to do that we have to stay relevant’.
Advocacy is a ‘massive’ part of this, which includes building prominence in thought leadership and matters of public interest.
She also sees a big joint opportunity at the forefront of the fight against climate change. As two among 14 accounting bodies to last year join the Prince of Wales’s Accounting for Sustainability Project (A4S) – representing 2.5 million accountants and accounting students across 179 countries – she believes that accountants can be pivotal in shaping the future of people and the planet.
To van Onselen, that means a lot, both professionally and personally. ‘It means I can look my children in the eye and say I’m doing something to help our community.’