Women in Business Q&A: Olivia F. Kirtley, President, International Federation of Accountants (IFAC)

05/21/2015 05:03 am ET | Updated May 20, 2016

Olivia Kirtley, CPA, CGMA, became president of the IFAC Board in November 2014. She previously served as deputy president from 2012 to 2014 and was first elected to the Board in November 2007. Ms. Kirtley also served on the independent IFAC Task Force on Rebuilding Public Confidence in Financial Reporting in 2002 and 2003.

Ms. Kirtley is a business consultant on strategic, risk, and governance issues. She is also a non-executive director of three public companies - U.S. Bancorp, Papa John's International, Inc., and ResCare, Inc. She was previously vice president of finance and chief financial officer of a global manufacturing company and a joint venture of Emerson Electric Co. and Robert Bosch GmbH. Ms. Kirtley spent the first decade of her career with Ernst & Ernst/Ernst & Whinney (now EY) in both audit and tax.

In 1998, Ms. Kirtley was elected chairman of the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). From 2000 to 2003, Ms. Kirtley was chairman of the AICPA Board of Examiners, where she led computerization of the Uniform CPA Examination with substantial changes to the content and structure. Ms. Kirtley is the recipient of the AICPA's highest honor, the Gold Medal, in recognition of her exemplary leadership and service to the accountancy profession. In 2010, she was also named to NACD Directorship 100 by the National Association of Corporate Directors as one of the leading 100 corporate directors and governance professionals in the U.S.

Ms. Kirtley has a master's degree in taxation from Georgia State University and a bachelor's degree in accounting from Florida Southern College.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
As a child growing up in a small rural town in Kentucky, I was fortunate to have parents who told me I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard. From an early age, I had jobs during summers and school holidays. By the age of 16, I was managing a swimming pool and supervising a crew on a farm. It wasn't until I left my small community for college in Florida that I realized how unusual this was for a woman at that time, much less a young girl. I very much enjoyed making decisions and being in charge, so I was determined that my gender would not define my choices. In college, I had numerous student leadership roles and was the only woman in my class who graduated from my business school in accounting.

I've been incredibly fortunate to have many opportunities to lead throughout my career, both in employment and volunteer roles. I've also traveled extensively and worked in different cultures, experienced the ups and downs of economic cycles, and seen first-hand how leadership - both good and bad - can impact the success of organizations and individuals.

I think all of these experiences have made me a person who considers leadership to be an honor. I've learned that the primary role of a leader is to serve - to help others succeed in whatever they do and to facilitate the achievement of agreed-upon strategies and goals.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at IFAC?
My background is a bit different to previous IFAC Presidents. I'm the first to come into this role as a professional accountant in business, in addition to having public accounting experience.

I spent the first decade of my career with one of the large international firms--but my last three decades have been spent in the corporate world, as a CFO; as a non-executive director of publicly listed companies; as an audit committee chair; and as a consultant on governance structures and risk management.

The one role I haven't had in the financial reporting system is that of a regulator... but I can assure you, I've spent plenty of time with them, particularly as an audit committee chair.

I believe my experience in so many different roles gives me a unique perspective on the issues impacting our profession. I am a member of the profession. I am client of the profession. I rely on the profession. And I want professional accountants around the world to be the best they can be - for our profession and in the public interest.

What have been the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at IFAC?
I first joined the IFAC Board in 2007 - just before the global financial crisis. The last seven years has encompassed extraordinary financial and sovereign debt issues. They are still ongoing in many countries. IFAC has dealt with some exceptional challenges as a result, including working with member bodies, policy makers, and global regulators to identify ways that the risks of corporate failures and financial crises can be mitigated going forward. We have not always agreed with regulators on the best way forward, particularly when calls for action inspire changes with potential unintended consequences, but we continue to engage in dialogue and speak out in the public interest.

One of the most exciting challenges has been IFAC's focus on professional accountancy organization development around the world. Last year IFAC was granted several million dollars from the UK government to support the growth of the profession in countries that desperately need accountants to help support strong, verifiable, financial reporting that will help attract inward investment. We recently announced the first three countries that will benefit from this grant - Rwanda, Ghana and Uganda.

And on a personal note, I was elected President officially at the World Congress of Accountants in Rome in November 2014 - a humbling and exciting experience- and my first official role was to make a speech at the Vatican, to which Pope Francis had invited World Congress attendees for a private audience. The challenge came when I learned just a few days before that my speech had to be made in Italian! Pope Francis was very gracious and encouraging as I worked through my remarks, and his speech to our group was most inspiring, regarding the importance of accountants in fighting corruption and poverty by encouraging accountable and transparent financial systems.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in financial services?
First of all, there's no substitute for competence, so devote yourself to learning and expanding your knowledge, not only of financial services sector, but also of business generally. But competence must be accompanied by confidence, which can only be gained through experience. So my primary message would be to raise your hand, take the risk of accepting new challenges and opportunities. There are several studies that say men accept assignments or seek promotions when they are only partially prepared, whereas most women do so only with a much greater level of preparedness. Don't wait until you think you are 100% prepared - few of us really are. Go for it. The experience you'll obtain will be invaluable and lead to bigger opportunities in the future.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
That's an ongoing challenge, and I'm not always successful. But I try to use the 80/20 rule - striving to have the proper balance at least 80% of the time. That has been more difficult at certain stages of my career and family. However, having an infrastructure at home allowed me to spend quality time with my children and husband which has always been a top priority. The other challenge is being disciplined about disconnecting from all the connectivity we have - email, smart phones, and tablets. That is something I could do better at, and I'm trying to be more disciplined.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

There are at least two big issues, other than the confidence issue I mentioned earlier. They are legacy workplace issues - i.e. not changing to accommodate greater use of remote technology and allowing more flexible office time - and unconscious biases of both men and women. We must tackle both of these issues to increase our success in retaining women and hiring them into senior management roles.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've been lucky to have been inspired by terrific people - both men and women - throughout my personal and professional lives. From parents who gave me every encouragement, to a husband who was my biggest encourager while he excelled in his own career as a physician, to professionals in all walks of life. My involvement outside my workplace, in the accounting profession and non-profit organizations, was particularly significant in providing some wonderful mentors.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
They are numerous. There are several women world leaders, past and present, who have demonstrated outstanding leadership on very complex situations. Among the several current women executives that I admire is Sheryl Sandberg. She has not only been a leader and visionary early adopter of new technology that's transforming the way we live, work and interact with each other, but she's also given back by writing a terrific book to encourage other women along their leadership journey.

And leadership isn't always about age or experience. We have much to learn from young women too. Who could fail to be impressed by the poise, bravery and boldness of Malala Yousafzai? She was shot for being a girl who wanted an education - and continues to campaigns for girls' rights to an education. She is an utterly amazing young woman and gives a whole new meaning to leading by example.

What do you want IFAC to accomplish in the next year?
IFAC is the global voice of the accounting profession. As regulators ponder changes to financial reporting and audit processes, I'm looking forward to engaging with as many as possible.

I'm looking forward to further progress in our program to support the growth of professional accountancy organizations in developing countries; supporting diversity and inclusion programs in the profession to help build talent; and looking at ways in which we can further encourage technology solutions for sharing best practice and information with our peers all over all the world.