Accountant turns both left and green

Posted on May 11, 2008


This week I attended a public lecture by Graham Crombie who is a Dunedin accountant and president of the NZ Chartered Accountants.

Organised by the Otago Polytechnic Business School, Graham’s talk was entitled “Thinking about change”. In it he considered a wide variety of factors affecting his accountancy firm, concluding with lessons for the Polytechnic (he is also chair of our governing council). He is heavily influenced by Friedman’s The World is Flat.

The factors described by Graham are almost entirely about globilisation with a technical underpinnng.

connectivity: opening economies

workflow; simplified business processes, removal of spatial constraints

uploading; power to users, changes in value proposition


off shoring

supply chain

steroids (digital and mobile)


informing; changed role of expert (know longer in knowing every detail)

In this new environment, Graham says that what is critical is the ability to add value. He uses the analogy of where you sit in an aeroplane: “We need you to turn left”. That is, despite seat A1 arriving at the destination at the same time as 66H, the service is such that rich passengers see a value proposition in turning left into first class luxury.

The skills he needs from employees are about that value conversation and the ability to pull together a web of resources to deliver that service. In Dunedin, therefore, he says he is not looking for technicians, rather people who are collaborators, synthesisers, explainers, leveragers, adaptors, green, personalisers, and maths lovers. Graham’s firm is now operating on a model whereby compliance accounting is carried out in India, credit management in Australia, psychometric testing by an international firm (I didn’t catch where it was – but that’s sort of the point), and so on. The Dunedin based people are left to be creative and curious, focus on the things that matter for their clients. We should, he says, be focussing on learning to learn, building curiosity and passion in our graduates (as an aside, we hear this argument a lot from CEOs when asked about graduate skills. When we ask the recruiters the same questions they agree, but say this must be built on a platform of technical skills).

Did you notice the “green” in the list of desired attributes? Graham says that this is “going to be key” and “the strategic design of future business is going to be about responding to the challenges and opportunities of sustainability”. There’s a bit of a twist here for me though, he talks about the challenge in terms of bringing up the third world: “not enough planets to lift the their standard of living to ours”. I thought this ironic, given his value proposition arguments, we need to be careful to examine the impacts of our level of luxury before denying it to others.

Is there an inherent contradiction between sustainability and Graham’s turning left? If by green business we mean the incorporation of some practices such as responding to green consumers but without any substantive change, are we missing the point? Is this greenwash, or as Barnes describes Triple Bottom Line accounting: “an opportunity to obfuscate”? Graham acknowledges that this is indeed the challenge. He talks about those first class passengers being the ones who have insisted on carbon offsetting but recognises that “substantial corrections are needed”.

I’m very pleased to hear this talk from Graham.  I hope he finds a way to turn left and turn green at the same time.