EDITORIAL: When a long leash is enough rope

EDITORIAL: When a long leash is enough rope - I've just been to a fraud conference, where I picked up quite a lot of tips. The Institute of Chartered Accountants' 'Fraud - And how to stop it' seminar was packed. It was standing room only for the largest g

by MATTHEW GWYTHER, Editor
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I've just been to a fraud conference, where I picked up quite a lot of tips. The Institute of Chartered Accountants' 'Fraud - And how to stop it' seminar was packed. It was standing room only for the largest gathering of dark suits and short-sleeved white shirts I've ever seen together in one place. The mood, unsurprisingly, was grave, as the profession has received quite a bashing over the past year.

But accountants won't take this new-found opprobrium lying down. Whipping the delegates up into a sense of righteous indignation, Martyn Jones of Deloitte & Touche denounced those in business who 'forget about the basic concepts of cashflow and profit'. And he called for 'those people who lie and deceive auditors' to be severely punished.

(I saw a man from the Serious Fraud Office nod with serious approval at that point.) One of Jones's most telling points, however, was a minor aside about Enron. This fraud was, he said, largely down 'to people from - dare I say it? - MBA rather than accounting backgrounds'. The subtext was clear. If you rely on these free-thinking fly-by-nights from business schools with their rule-bending morality rather than on those solid bastions of probity, good old-fashioned accountants, you're heading for trouble.

How times have changed. Back in the '90s, to announce that you were a humble auditor was enough to get you laughed out of a cocktail party.

Business didn't want accountants, it wanted imaginative entrepreneurs.

It didn't want bean-counters - machines could count beans. It wanted quick-thinking wizards who could increase a field's bean yield by a factor of 10, even if it meant bringing in GM technology and some off-shore, off-balance sheet manipulation of invisible bean futures.

Not one fraud conference delegate was wearing a badge with Andersen on it. In the UK, that once-mighty firm has, in less than a year, been wiped from the business landscape. In this issue, you can read MT's ball-by-ball account of how Andersen went down like a house of cards inside Enron's hall of mirrors.

A family friend spent 12 blameless years working hard at Andersen. She's now at new owners Deloitte & Touche and, although glad still to have a job, feels ill at ease in what is a very different work culture. 'I suppose the biggest change is that at Andersen you had a lot of freedom,' she says. 'You were trusted to be energetic and imaginative and get on with it on your own.'

Therein lay the seeds of its destruction. Things clearly got rather over-imaginative down at Andersen in Texas. When it comes to staff in business, freedom can be like rope. You have to know when the long leash of freedom you allow your staff might become the rope on which they hang themselves and you.

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