How to build on strong bookkeeping foundations

Gareth John, executive chairman and director of First Intuition’s Accountancy Training College, talks to senior accountants all the time about which accountancy skills are most valuable.

Indeed, we asked a number of senior accountants what accounting knowledge matters most as you progress through your career, and they all agreed that the answer was knowledge of bookkeeping.

That bookkeeping knowledge is the foundation on which so many tasks in accountancy rely. But bookkeeping skills alone aren’t enough to really propel your career ahead – that knowledge needs to be paired with crucial soft skills in order for you to excel. Here are the key traits that those senior accountants say will really complement your bookkeeping knowledge as you progress through your career.

Bookkeeping plus strong communication skills

Having a technical knowledge of debits and credits is important, says Joanne Wilkinson, FD of North Brewing Group, but it won’t matter if you aren’t personable: “Being human about numbers is key.” Sam Ellis, head of finance at InterWorks Europe, stresses that this includes the ability to listen, as well as talk. “If you aren’t able to communicate well – even with the best will in the world, all the talent you could ever wish for and all the best ideas – you can easily find yourself floundering,” he adds.

Paul Bulpitt, co-founder of accountancy firm The Wow Company agrees: “Specifically, you need to be able to take complex ideas and explain them in a way people can understand and gain insight from.” Part of good communication is the ability to put yourself in stakeholders’ shoes, says accountant, author and mentor Anna Goodwin: “Many business owners feel unhappy and fearful about their numbers, so it is essential that you can put them at ease.”

Bookkeeping plus an analytical mind

If you can use your analytical thinking to dig into the books, you’ll be highly valued, says Ellis. “The analytical aspect implies good reasoning and logic, and backing everything up with credible data. Curiosity is exactly that – constant questioning and asking why, what if and how.”

Analytical thinking is a skill that you can practice, and being curious is a habit that you should definitely cultivate, says South African accountant Peter Sean Magner: “You won’t always know the answer but, with a questioning mind, you will be a lot closer to figuring it out. It amazes me how many people struggle to think through problems.”

Bookkeeping plus creativity

While an analytical mind will help you dig into data and identify problems, creativity will help you zero in on a solution, based on your reading of the books.

Again, you can learn to think creatively, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a creative thinker to begin with. One aspect of creativity is being able to take existing knowledge and adapt it to new situations, which is especially helpful when you’re first starting out. “Accountants have the knowledge but frequently don’t think far enough outside the box to devise unique solutions for a business,” says Goodwin. “It is essential to think about a business in a holistic way – and not just the numbers.”

One of the best ways to learn to think more creatively is to observe and ask questions of more experienced accountants.

Bookkeeping plus confidence

Accountants often aren’t the most confident people. But you’ll need to feel confident – and have an analytical approach – if you’re going to get to the heart of an organisation’s problems and communicate the solutions effectively. Confidence can also help you make connections that will aid you in your career, says Goodwin. “Accountants on the whole prefer to be tucked away in an office, rather than getting out there. When I network at events, I don’t often come across accountants,” she says. But remember: the more you get out there, the more natural it will come to feel.

Bookkeeping plus presentation skills

Presentation and communication skills are linked, but, while it’s one thing to be great at writing emails, good on the phone and personable in meetings, getting up in front of a group of people and presenting to them is a whole different kettle of fish.

You need to use your bookkeeping knowledge to pick out the salient points for directors. And you’ll need to think visually when preparing those slides. “It’s crucial that you, the keeper of core financial data, present it clearly and simply,” says Andy Cotgreave, author of The Big Book of Dashboards.

So make text large and easy to read, and stick to conveying one key piece of information at a time. Use colour to highlight the bits that are most important. Speak clearly and slowly, and make eye contact with your audience. And make sure everyone has taken the information in before you move on.

A good way to develop your business knowledge is simply to ask questions of clients or the non-accountants that you work with, and ask them if there are specific areas where they need help.

The content team are the owners of AAT Comment.

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