NOTE: This article also appears in the Q4 2018 issue of South Carolina CPA Report magazine.

By George W. DuRant, CPA/ABV, CFF, ASA | SCACPA Member Since 1976

Alex Honnold is an American rock climber and the only person to have free-soloed (climbed without using ropes or protective equipment) El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. According to New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens, who marveled at a documentary about Honnold’s daring climbs called “Free Solo,” Honnold is “a perfectionist who understands that the achievement of one supreme thing depends on the mastery of a thousand small things.” Stephens thinks this perfectionism may come from Honnold’s mother, whose motto was, “Good enough, isn’t.”

Being “good enough” does not cut it if you are 3,000 feet up on a granite wall without a rope. One misstep and you are done.

Metaphorically, CPAs live on a wall called trustworthiness. Hanging on to that wall is our supreme thing.  On a personal level, the rope that saves us is virtue or character; for the profession, that rope is an effective system for accountability.

Without pretense, we call ourselves “trusted advisors.” Trust is our calling card, our value proposition. Our relevance going forward might depend far more on how well we continue demonstrating trustworthiness than on how well we adapt to artificial intelligence.

What does it mean to demonstrate trustworthiness? Think of a person who consistently demonstrates courage, moderation, justice and wisdom in things big and small.

Marc Benioff, billionaire founder and CEO of Salesforce, believes demonstrated trustworthiness in small and big things is becoming the critical factor for business success.  In a recent interview, Benioff said:

“When will every company say that our highest value is trust?  …for companies and CEOs that are not able to say that, then let me tell you what is going to happen to them; their employees are going to walk out… their executives are going to walk out … their customers are going to walk out… So, if your highest value is something other than trust, let’s say its power and all you care about is the monetization of your company, your social network, or whatever it is, but it is not really about the trust and integrity that you have … you have got a serious problem.”

The profession is fortunate that notwithstanding some well-publicized betrayals of the public trust, investor confidence in CPAs who audit public companies remains exceptionally high at 81%, according to the Center for Audit Quality’s 2018 Main Street Investor Survey. Presumably, there is a similar level of trust in CPAs who perform tax and other nonattest services. Most CPAs, regardless of practice area or employment in the public or private sector, demonstrate trustworthiness every day.

Trustworthiness is a fundamental theme for most every business’ code of conduct, regardless of industry or profession.

That is the case for the public accounting profession and the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct. Internalization and enforcement are critical components for protecting the profession’s reputation and circumscribing instinctive self-interest motivations. Fortunately for each of us today, we practice accounting subject to a robust system for oversight and accountability built over the past 40 years. For example:

  • The National Student Marketing Corporation debacle and the Continental Vending case, both in 1970, and the accounting fraud scandal of Equity Funding in 1973 led to the 1976 Metcalf Report that precipitated the creation of the AICPA’s Division for CPA Firms and its Peer Review Program.
  • In 2002, Congress responded to the Enron/Arthur Andersen failure with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which established the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board.

Today, it would be a mistake to doubt the seriousness and effectiveness of the Peer Review Program, the PCAOB, the South Carolina Board of Accountancy or the AICPA’s Professional Ethics Executive Committee for enforcing and fostering professional trustworthiness.

When Accounting Today asked what one thing would you tell a new accountant, KPMG Chairman and CEO Lynne Doughtie said in September, “Really understand your core personal values and ensure that garnering trust and acting with integrity are cornerstones. Letting these values guide your actions will strengthen your decision-making, foster openness and collaboration, and allow you to carry out your critical role in protecting the capital markets.”

Barry Melancon, President and CEO of AICPA, responded: “The core values of our profession create huge opportunities for the profession and those in it. The world has a shortage of trust and our reputation and commitment to ethics and competency produce a trust relationship with the stakeholders of the profession. This trust provides opportunity as expectations rapidly change.”

These are serious people thinking seriously about trustworthiness in small and big things as the supreme thing for achieving success.

On a lighter note, Dan Ariely in his bestseller, “The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty,” tells a joke that provides some self-reflection on how we tend to settle for “good enough.”

Eight-year-old Jimmy comes home from school with a note from his teacher that says, “Jimmy stole a pencil from the student next to him.” Jimmy’s father is furious. He goes to great lengths to lecture Jimmy and let him know how upset and disappointed he is, and he grounds the boy for two weeks. “And just wait until your mother comes home!” he tells the boy ominously. Finally he concludes, “Anyway, Jimmy, if you needed a pencil, why didn’t you just say something? Why didn’t you simply ask? You know very well that I can bring you dozens of pencils from work.”

Hats off to those who practice “Good enough, isn’t” and demonstrate their trustworthiness.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George DuRant has been a member of SCACPA since 1975.He is a member of the AICPA’s Joint Trial Board. He is a sole practitioner in Columbia, South Carolina, and limits his professional practice to litigation services, including matters involving accounting professional ethics.