Don’t let a good mistake go to waste

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Errors in a field as high-stakes as finance can feel career-ending. Here are some accountants and bookkeepers who made them work.

As every accountant and bookkeeper knows, accuracy is paramount when it comes to company accounts and finances. A seemingly small mistake can quickly escalate into something bigger further down the line, potentially leading to inaccurate statements and forecasts.

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It’s therefore important to admit to mistakes as soon as they happen so they can be rectified with minimal damage. But it’s also important to see them as learning opportunities, too, not just to ensure the same mistake isn’t made again, but to improve and develop.

Even if a mistake at work feels mortifying or frustrating at the time, it’s possible to reframe it – once the error has been addressed – and see it as a valuable experience, whether it was a mistake made with accounts, or a career mistake, such as working with a toxic company.

So with this in mind, we spoke to a few accountants and bookkeepers about the mistakes they’ve made in the past and how they ensured they didn’t go to waste.

I returned to a company I used to like but it became toxic

Andy Murray MAAT AATQB, Finance Manager

I once returned to a company I used to enjoy working for, but it turned out to be a huge mistake.

I took the role because it was a step up in responsibility and it seemed a great career move. But I was taking over an existing employee’s role who was then given less responsibility in order to reduce their stress levels. They were extremely disgruntled about this and made my life extremely difficult.

I found out later that this colleague had been causing issues with other colleagues for years, but management had failed to address their behaviour.

Unfortunately, it quickly became a bullying situation and I ended up having to take sick leave due to stress, despite other colleagues being so warm and friendly. I filed a grievance with HR and the chief executive but nothing was done. I left the role after just nine months.

After the experience, I swore I would never let it happen to me again. I saw a counsellor and a life coach and their help made me see things in a different light: it had not been my fault and it had been a poorly managed company that allowed this behaviour to continue unaddressed.

I am now much more assertive in the workplace and I address things as soon as there’s an issue. Unfortunately, a similar situation with an unpleasant colleague did happen again during an interim contract, but this time I was firm with my approach and made it clear I wasn’t putting up with their behaviour. I continually shut down any aggressive conversations and refused to engage.

All this has given me the confidence to deal with toxic behaviour – I now have the skills and resilience to deal with it.

Verdict: Dealing with bullying behaviour after I returned to a company I had previously enjoyed working for has given me the skills and assertiveness to deal with similar situations should they happen again.

Failing accountancy exams taught me the difference between confidence and arrogance

Emily Coltman FCA, Chief Accountant, FreeAgent

The biggest mistake I made in my career was failing two of my ACA exams through lack of preparation fuelled by over-confidence. Those were the first professional exams where I’d been allowed to take texts into the exam so I didn’t prepare enough – I figured I’d have the texts there to help.

I’d been a straight-A student in school and have a degree from the University of Cambridge, yet I somehow managed to come unstuck when it came to getting my accountancy qualifications.

I was gobsmacked that I’d failed and absolutely gutted. I decided I was never going to do any more exams ever again! Later, I calmed down and decided I wasn’t going to let failing two exams by a few marks stop me.

I eventually retook the exams and passed both of them – I finally had the magic letters after my name!

Looking back 20 years later, I actually think that failing those exams has made me a much better accountant than if I’d passed first time.

It taught me that accounting is really difficult. There’s a huge amount to learn and it’s always better to check and check again if you’re not 100% sure of your facts. The UK’s tax system is four times as long as the complete works of Shakespeare, so nobody will ever know it all by heart. You have to constantly look back and double-check information to make sure you’re learning and interpreting it correctly.

It also taught me the difference between confidence and arrogance – a crucial skill when you’re explaining all things finance and tax to non-accountants. And finally, it taught me how important it is to learn from failure so you come back stronger and more determined.

Verdict: Failing exams taught me the difference between confidence and arrogance, and also how important it is to learn from failure.

I took a job because of the good location but there were unethical practices

AAT member, management accountant, public sector organisation

I went from a good job in the public sector to work for a manufacturing company because it was nearer to where my family and I were planning to live. It turned out to be a mistake. There seemed to be unscrupulous goings on in the company which were financially benefiting a particular employee.

Management turned a blind eye because they felt sorry for this employee and their personal situation. I felt really uncomfortable with this practice of course and did voice my concerns when I left the company but I don’t know if anything was done.

Eventually, an ideal opportunity arose in a nearby public sector role so I applied and got the job.

Although it was a mistake to take on the role at the manufacturing company, I did actually end up learning a lot about payroll. The company paid me to attend a payroll course in London which I found really beneficial and still remember a lot from it.

Verdict: I worked for a company because of the location but their unethical practices made me uncomfortable – I did end up learning a lot about payroll though!

Speaking of mistakes, did you miss out on our popular Spring tax update masterclass?

Fear not – we’ve recorded the session, which is now available on-demand for you to purchase and watch at your leisure.

Watch on-demand

Would you like to contribute to future articles like this one? If so, please get in touch with Annie Makoff-Clark at [email protected].

Annie Makoff is a freelance journalist and editor.

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