17/03/2015 - 05:00

Malley trumps the me-too approach

17/03/2015 - 05:00

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Alex Malley may not yet be a household name, but he is working as hard as he can to make it one.

ENIGMATIC: Alex Malley brings passion and energy to his role at CPA. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Alex Malley may not yet be a household name, but he is working as hard as he can to make it one.

There’s a book, website, video interview series, television appearances and board game; above and beyond the usual effort put into the development of a business persona in the mentoring game.

I’ve seen plenty of versions of this over the years, from global phenomena such as Jack Welch, Richard Branson and Donald Trump to those who inhabit the local speaking circuit, filling a more geographically constrained niche with a simpler product.

But there is a big difference between Mr Malley and almost any of those other names – the strategic purpose behind his efforts.

I had the good fortune to interview The Naked CEO author last week when he was in town for CPA Australia, the organisation he heads.

Like many others I am sure, before I met him I thought the book and associated paraphernalia was about its author.

Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that this one man-show is about the CPA brand, part of a five-year strategy to shift the image of this staid accounting body with a history dating back to 1886.

And that makes his leadership and the backing of his board look very smart indeed because accounting, like many traditional professions, could benefit from an update in this day and age. As young people are offered ever-richer choices, the humble bean counter has to compete with so many colourful options.

I went into the interview with Mr Malley expecting to discuss the book and its notable target audience – young people early in their careers.

There was plenty to be gained from that discussion and I think the book is very well targeted to the young professional, clearly a market CPAs want to capture as much as the rest of us. It is also a demographic cohort that many in management must deal with on a daily basis as employees.

Notably, the CPA Australia CEO has a background in academia and is very much more at home than most in dealing with young people and the things that trouble them – more so than your average business leader, I suspect. As a result there were plenty of tips about how to appeal to gen Y and the millennials following them.

But what I took from our interview was far more than that.

The creation of the public Alex Malley persona was a branding strategy that had put a real person at its heart. That must have been a big decision for the CPA Australia board. Sure, Sir Richard (Branson) does this sort of thing for Virgin, but his name has always been synonymous with that of his company. CPA Australia has never, to my knowledge, had a face, let alone one called The Naked CEO.

Cleverly, the two were kept quite distinct in the early stages of developing The Naked CEO/Alex Malley, avoiding the risk of a premature backlash against the parent organisation.

In the end, though, Mr Malley said the two were increasingly merging in areas such as the internet, where the acceptance of (and high interest in) his mentoring style and high-profile approach – such as a rare interview with astronaut Neil Armstrong – was able to rub off positively on the CPA Australia brand.

In some ways, this is a Qantas/Jetstar approach to doing business, but with more than just the back-end integration.

Mr Malley said the idea was born of frustration during the GFC, when business leaders simply were not standing up and saying what was wrong or what could be done better. He felt someone had to show some leadership by stepping into that space, and CPA Australia was a credible organisation from which such a person could come.

Not all leaders have the charisma and energy to make this work, however. It is rare to see an industry association leader do more than face the media occasionally to represent a political position. No matter how well they speak, it is grey by comparison to the CPA Australia model.

The disruptive style attacks the problem in a different way.

No longer do we see the head of a traditional accounting body commenting on government tax policy. Instead he is talking about young people and the things they need to do; not just to get ahead, but to build a richer life on which they can look back on proudly and say that was worth it – whether they were an accountant or not.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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