Light after darkness

How Professor Brendan Lyon paid the ultimate price

Professor Brendan Lyon knows better than most that there’s always light after darkness.

Over the past five years, wading through hell in his professional life, infrastructure professional Professor Lyon withstood immense corporate and political pressure by sticking to his core principles.

The Professor of Practice at the University of Wollongong (UOW) has no regrets about maintaining his ethics and character, in the worst of times.

“At the start of my career a company director named Mark Birrell, who is one of my greatest friends and mentors, gave me a simple ethical framework to apply across my career: ‘Would you still say or do something in two years’ time, if you were working somewhere else?’,” Professor Lyon said.  

“It has been some of the best advice I have ever received and has served me well throughout my career, particularly in tough times.”

Those tough times have recently come back into focus when Professor Lyon gave evidence at a Senate Inquiry into consultancy firms.

The inquiry followed a tax advice scandal involving PwC, where a former partner passed on confidential government information to clients.

Professor Lyon gave evidence about his own experience as a former partner of KPMG, which he joined in 2018.

Professor Brendan Lyon

“I thought being a partner would be something very respectable and respected. I thought of accounting firms as being very rigid, and very proper places,” Professor Lyon said.

However his experience was anything but proper and in 2021 he lost his job at the accounting firm when he refused to change a report he’d prepared for the state government.

In a recent interview for ABC’s 7.30 Report Professor Lyon said he was being told every single day that either his work had to change or not be delivered at all.

“It's a bit like a glee club, everyone wants to talk about sales and outcomes. No one ever wants to talk about the problems because that's going to get in the way of more sales,” he said.

At the Senate Inquiry in July (2023) Professor Lyon said consulting firms trade on conflicts.

“How can you be advising two sides of everything?” he asked. “The big four sit in every boardroom cabinet across Australia but face no oversight and operate beyond the law.”

“Australia needs fundamental change to ensure we are well served by an accounting profession that is respectable, reliable and well-regulated.”

Professor Lyon would like the government to appoint a dedicated federal regulator to enforce professional and ethical standards on the accounting profession. He also believes there needs to be a royal commission and a range of measures introduced to improve transparency and increase penalties.

“There needs to be a royal commission to examine the role, structure and regulation of the accounting profession and to identify any systemic economic risks,” Professor Lyon said.

A new chapter

Despite the challenges of the last few years, Professor Lyon’s experience in the private sector is serving him well as a Professor of Practice at UOW.

Professors of Practice are traditionally senior executives who bring a wealth of real-world, practical experience to the role and can be engaged in both teaching and research activities. 

UOW Executive Dean of the Faculty of Business and Law, Professor Colin Picker, said Professor Lyon brought to the job an extensive record of hard work and results in the business world that would translate into research and teaching.

“Business and Law’s commitment to real world and practice-informed research and teaching has taken a great leap forward now that we have a Professor of Practice to further enhance the expertise and relationships that already exist within the faculty,” Professor Picker said.

“Furthermore, the appointment of Professor Lyon into that role additionally connects that commitment to one of our other principles – that of teaching and research focused on socially responsible business and law.  Professor Lyon’s unique experiences and proven commitments will ensure that the faculty continues to lead in these spaces.”

When Professor Lyon speaks about his role at UOW, his commitment to instilling good values and intentions in his students is clear. He recently gave the guest address at the Faculty of Business and Law graduation ceremony at UOW in April and told the audience it’s important to stand up for what they believe it.

“Whatever you choose to do – remember the distinction between who you are – and what you do. If there is a material gap between who you are and what you are being asked to do, be prepared to resign – or to be sacked,” he told the audience.  

“Take risks, make mistakes, make decisions, gain experiences. If you are honest, your mistakes will be honest. If you are accountable to your errors, you will learn and adapt and people will trust you, respect you and want to work for, with or around you. 

“Jobs, roles and titles are transitory but your name is permanent. If you act professionally and with integrity, you’ll always have people’s confidence and be regarded for professional diligence and fairness.”

Professor Lyon appeared on ABC’s Four Corners on Monday 7 August 2023 at 8:30pm. The episode 'Shadow State' is available to stream on ABC iView.

Sydney Business School, UOW is committed to responsible and sustainable business practices. Discover the broad range of postgraduate business courses on offer.