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The IRB: building a board for the future

Author: ICAEW

Published: 11 Feb 2022

The ICAEW Regulatory Board (IRB) is at a critical point in its development. It recently announced the appointment of a new chair and is currently recruiting new members. We talk to serving board members and the chair of the independent Regulatory and Conduct Appointments Committee about what makes an effective board, why diversity – in all its forms – is so important, and what qualities prospective members could bring to the mix.
Become a member of the ICAEW Regulatory Board

There are vacancies for two lay members and two chartered accountant members.

The IRB, which was established in 2015, is responsible for oversight of the regulatory and disciplinary work carried out by the ICAEW Professional Standards Department. Its primary objective is to uphold the public interest, as well as to promote the highest professional standards.

The IRB has 12 members, including the chair. For accountancy oversight purposes, it has an equal number of lay and Chartered Accountant members. For legal services oversight purposes, it has a lay majority where a lay member is someone who is not legally qualified.

The combination of technical experts and lay representatives ensures a broad range of views and insights while keeping the public interest at the centre of the IRB’s work.

Like his predecessors, the new chair, Philip Nicol-Gent is a lay member. He has been a member of the IRB since 2016 and vice-chair since 2017 so has a clear understanding of the role and the effective functioning of the Board. He is also a highly experienced lawyer having been called to the bar of England and Wales in 1991 and the Guernsey Bar in 2003.  

Philip says "I am looking forward to my time as Chair of the IRB. The public interest has been at the heart of the Board's deliberations. As the changes across the accountancy sector unfold over the coming months, we will make sure the IRB plays a central role and ensures that the public interest is reflected in that work.”

“The IRB is now firmly established, and is maturing as a board,” adds Steve Barrow who has been a lay member of the IRB since 2016, “But we’ve reached an important phase in our development, and there are significant challenges facing both ICAEW and the profession.”

“We need to ensure that the IRB has the status, but also the independence, to meet its primary objectives,” he adds. “We need to evolve and keep pace with proposed changes in regulation and changes in how regulation is viewed in general.” This means having an active, effective and adaptive board.

Striking a balance

To meet these challenges, the board needs the best possible mix of people, experience and expertise. “Building a good board has so many different aspects,” says Sara Nathan OBE, chair of the independent Regulatory and Conduct Appointments Committee, which is responsible for the appointment and remuneration of chairs and members of the IRB. 

“Essentially you want the best board, so you need to bring in as broad an experience as possible, because that’s the way to make good decisions.”

This might sound simple enough. But there are many facets to diversity, and Sara warns against taking a simplistic approach. “In terms of the balance of attributes, obviously, the first one is lay and accountant, so you have to have a balance with that,” she notes. “But within that, accountant members need to have a balance between the big and small firms, between service areas, and preferably some geographical balance.”

She points to the need to attract more members of currently underrepresented groups, for instance, women, people with an ethnic minority background, and people with disabilities. While representation matters, it is crucial not to make the mistake of grouping people together under these headings as if they are homogenous groups.

“You don’t want everybody agreeing with each other,” adds Sara. “Decision-making is about consensus but it is also about challenge. So you want people from different backgrounds, with different ways of thinking. And I think we shouldn’t be too reductive about it.”

“Diversity and inclusion is not about the numbers,” adds Parjinder Basra, a current lay member of the IRB, who was appointed in January 2021. “It’s about experience and about the hypotheses that emerge from that experience.”

Attracting members at an earlier stage in their careers could also add to the board’s perspective and breadth. “Certain areas, for example discussions on audit reform proposals, could perhaps benefit from a more recent and relevant perspective,” says Jonathan Williams, an accountant member of the IRB, who also joined in January this year.

“There’s a lot to be said for age and experience as well,” adds Parjinder. “But we need both at this juncture. Practice is changing so quickly out there with technological and other drivers. So if we can appeal to newer qualified members that could be massively beneficial.”

Qualities and motivation

Another key part of the puzzle is the personal motivation of the individual. “As a prospective member, you have to really want to do it,” says Sara. “Lay members have got to be interested in the subject and everyone has to have some rationale for why they want to be there. And they need to want to commit their time, enthusiasm and learning to this project, rather than to any of the other projects they might want to do.”

“So it’s a question of commitment, engagement, and an ability to master the issues,” she says. There are also the specific topic areas to consider. What’s going to be of interest to the board, what are the issues that are going to come up in the next few years? “You also want to address those,” says Sara. “So it’s a very interesting jigsaw to try and complete.”

From his perspective as a relatively new IRB member, Parjinder has his own suggestions for some of the core traits prospective future members require. “They’ll need resilience and the tenacity to stay firm to their beliefs and to be willing to follow through and play the longer game,” he suggests.

An aptitude for relationship building is also useful. “We need to think about how we can work jointly, both as a board and with others, for the public we serve,” he says.

Shake it up

Beyond the general attributes are more specific skills requirements. “When there are several board vacancies to fill, there is scope to look at what you’ve already got, and effectively do a skills audit to see what else is needed,” says Sara.

“From my perspective, the board requires people who are going to push for change, but equally have the expertise to land that change,” says Parjinder. “And that’s not just about diversity and inclusion, it’s about protecting the public in the best way possible and it’s about engaging the public as well.”

Applications

The Regulatory and Conduct Appointments Committee is inviting applications for new IRB members to serve from 2022. The committee is looking for both ICAEW Chartered Accountants and lay members.

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