The SAICA mentoring programme, which started in 2017, is aimed at developing and maintaining an ethical professional culture.
One of the perennial challenges for professional bodies has been how to ensure ethical behaviour of their members to protect clients and the public and to protect their members at the same time. High-profile ethical breaches have occurred in many different professions over the past few decades. The natural response to these events is to review the ethical codes, complaints procedures and deregistration processes. New efforts are made to train professional members in understanding ethics and their professional obligations. Scandals have often led to new regulations, new legislation, and an increase in compliance processes.
In reality, professional practice is complex and pressured. The work environment has become increasingly complex and competitive, adding to the pressure to defer to clients, take short cuts or resort to questionable tactics to maintain income. An important aspect of being a professional is the ability to build the personal power and resilience that can navigate this complexity and the frequent subtle and not so subtle ethical dilemmas encountered along the way.
Training and ethical codes do support this development, but ultimately personal authority, power, fortitude and resilience are learned at the coal face, through tough experiences and being able to make difficult choices, take risks and make mistakes. This is a journey the individual professional takes in their career. Each of us has a choice about how conscious we are about taking responsibility for the quality of this journey. Ethical codes and regulations are external, structured rules-based approaches that attempt to describe and prescribe the required behaviours. Building an authentic professional ethical identity requires an inside out approach. It requires us to take ownership of our professional development journey and to find the ways that we learn best to meet the demands of the profession we have chosen and to work with the challenges presented by the context in which we practice.
The SAICA mentoring programme, which started in 2017, is designed to support members who want to accept this challenge and take ownership of their personal professional development journey. On one level it is a programme that helps more junior accountants navigate their career and professional development. For the more experienced members, it is a chance to give back through the mentoring they provide, and it is an opportunity to develop their own mentoring and leadership skills. At a more fundamental level, the programme is designed to offer support and facilitate the kind of inside-out learning advocated above.
Inside out professional development
Professional development programmes can be designed to provide a space for participants to begin to learn how to take ownership of their own professional learning and begin to shift their attention to how they learn from the inside. There are a few key elements and aspects to the design of this kind of programme:
Safety and strengths-based learning
To change behaviour, we need to be willing to examine ourselves and become more aware of our behaviour and impact. For most people this is best done in a safe, private and confidential space where participants and facilitators provide a container in which participants are freer to explore and experiment. Together participants develop a culture of safety and trust supported by the facilitators and former participants known as ambassadors.
When participants feel safe they are able to explore more openly and honestly – sharing scenarios at work and allowing what emerges to emerge, whether it is through a moment of personal insight or a challenge from a supportive peer. In this approach we may become aware of our blind spots or where we may have not taken professional responsibility in our work. This can feel very exposing and requires a safe environment for this to happen. In most contexts we do not share these thoughts and experiences because we want to stay safe and avoid potentially embarrassing or career limiting things about us.
This awareness approach produces the most valuable learning experiences as well as an insight into the process of learning and developing personal tacit, embodied knowledge. It means that participants are able to share their real experience more fully and wean themselves off the habit of swallowing and suppressing and hiding who they really are. This is an unhealthy habit that can lead to a greater tolerance of unethical behaviour in ourselves and in other professionals with whom we work.
The most surprising paradox of this safe, supportive and accepting space is that it provides an environment that is far more effective at producing professionals who are able and willing to act ethically than any number of codes and regulations that are designed to control behaviour from the outside in.
Personal and shared commitment
The inside-out approach relies on the willingness of the individual to commit and take personal responsibility. This partly relies on the individual to make the choice and it also relies on the facilitators, ambassadors and peers to enrol and encourage their fellow participants to make this commitment. More experienced accountants recognise that much of their success was based on them making this kind of commitment to inside out learning earlier in their career.
Given this experience, the more seasoned participants can guide and encourage others to stick to their professional development commitments. They can use the experience they have had of how effective this approach has been for them in developing a more robust professional capacity, including a strong ethical identity, to inspire others.
Real-world practice, just in time
Learning in the moment is powerful. It is active, alive, where something is at stake, it is real. Learning is ad hoc through engaging with what is available in the field right now. It is current; it is what takes up your attention and your concerns. This aliveness and immediacy create far more powerful learning and learning about how you learn.
Contexts vary and are complex and chaotic – you need a second-order approach and process to make sense of and address each new challenge encountered. Knowledge of codes and professional competencies is part of the learning process but they have limited scope in addressing the complexity and diversity of context and personalities and cultures encountered in the workplace.
Ethical codes and rules tend to make all issues black and white, right or wrong. Real-world practice presents us with dilemmas situations where there are many options and the choice is not clear. These choices can also be scary and career limiting so we need to learn the art of how to act and to pick our battles.
The aim is to develop a habit of lifelong learning not to ingest all the rules of every possible scenario at once. These habits are like a gymnast developing the muscle strength, stamina, dexterity and memory that allows them to gracefully tackle each new apparatus and exercise placed in front of them.
Shared learning and purpose
As well as providing support and a safe container, peers can offer many different perspectives, different experiences, and they come from different backgrounds and may hold different values. This diversity enriches the learning experience and is rooted in the context of the shared professional practice of the accountant in the real world. The choices we make depend on many factors, some obvious and others less so. Where we work on these in a learning community, we broaden our capacity to make good choices and act upon them in any new and different professional challenges we face.
It can also be fun and energising to learn in a group and it provides a sense of shared purpose when dealing with the complex and chaotic world in which we work. In a group we feel less isolated, especially when we are dealing with a challenging ethical issue. Participants on the programme also have a strong sense of a collective purpose to support and grow the ethical reputation of the accountancy profession. The programme also emphasises the ability to collaborate and learning together as a key part of creating a new culture of awareness and responsibility.
The Ethical Choice Model
An example of one of the experiential learning tools we use on the SAICA mentoring programme is the Professional Ethical Choice Model, which is described in the next article. It is a tool participants use to process and learn from current real-world examples together to build the artistic muscle of professional ethical identity.