Why accountants are worth celebrating

aat comment

The impact of accounting is felt across society, and it’s time we acknowledge how valuable good accountants are to us all.

Oscar Wilde once said that “A fool is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. 120 years on and it’s just as true now as it ever was. Basic accounting practices are, of course, vital to the efficient running of any business, but the wider impact of the work of accountants across society goes way beyond simply keeping score.

“There’s always been this horrible stereotypical image of accountancy, but they’re sort of boring number crunchers, where maths is what it’s all about,” says Prof Andy Lymer, Professor of Taxation and Personal Finance and Director of the Centre for Personal Financial Wellbeing at Aston Business School.

“And I think that’s a stereotype that – if it was ever true, and I’m not sure it ever was – is mainly tied up with this idea of them being auditors, where job is just to make the numbers add up.”

Keeping accountable

AAT’s Accountable campaign is so important to us because we’re aware of the benefits of good accounting practice.

Find out more here

Beyond the numbers

And while Lymer doesn’t go around shouting about the importance of bookkeeping, he says its impact is absolutely felt across individual businesses and society as a whole. “Huge percentages of accountants these days are really increasingly becoming data analysts,” he explains.

“Their job is about taking an abstracted set of information and describing what it means in the complex world of business. They have to help business managers, business owners – those who need to make decisions about how a business operates – visualize the data to make sensible decisions.”

And by doing that, he argues, more businesses survive and thrive and contribute to a healthy and robust economy. And that in turn not only delivers growth but also adds to confidence among investors, banks and regulators that companies are – for the most part – properly and ethically run.

A question of trust

Libby Walklet runs her practice under the name The Ethical Bookkeeper. It’s an apt moniker, given her belief in the importance of trust that is fundamental to the accounting profession’s license to operate. “If you go back to the 2008 financial crisis, and then with more recent scandals: they just highlight the need for greater transparency and accountability to rebuild the trust in the profession and allow for informed decision-making.”

Walklet offers the recent bankruptcy of shared office provider WeWork as proof of the importance of sound financial management and how investors, employees and customers are all hit when it falls down.

“If you look at what’s happened there, where they had high levels of borrowing as the pandemic hit, they had built a business on borrowed money; and when something goes wrong, and interest rates go up, it’s not sustainable.

It’s simple: if you get it wrong, you’re a weakness, but if you get it right you’re a strength, you’re a barrier. And that’s such an important job.

Libby Walklett FMAAT, Director, The Ethical Bookkeeper

“So the question is, who is advising them? Who’s advising them not to borrow. There were real people sitting around in a boardroom discussing this. And why is nobody looking at the potential risk? The risk rates can fluctuate. So even that in itself was a risk. So what were the accountants behind them? What were they saying? Or did they flag the risks while the company ignored them?”

Maintaining confidence

So as the creditors line up and headlines are written, once again confidence is shaken in business. It’s a factor that Andy Lymer, someone at the sharp end of training the next generation of accountants, believes gives training providers a great opportunity to create more self-aware accountants, able to deliver immense value to society.

Lymer says that one of the first questions he asks of new accounting students is simply: why are you doing accounting?

“And often the answers you get are stereotypical: ‘I think it’ll be a good job’, ‘My parents think I’ll earn lots of money’, ‘I’m good at maths’. So one of the first things we do at Aston in that first year is put them through a course focusing on the skills that you will need to have to be an effective accountant within society.”

That involves bringing representatives in from a whole range of professions to help students understand the impact of accounting on the bigger picture.

“They can tell students how accounting helps us do what we need to run a better business. Because people have this really weird view that accounting is somehow limited to auditing or the tick and bash of basic management control. And even people who do accounting as a career sometimes just need their horizons raised to see how they contribute to a healthy and ethical society.”

The bigger picture

Whether that means ensuring the correct tax is paid in order to contribute to government coffers, advising on what possible support the business might qualify for or spotting opportunities to grow and employ more staff, the accountant underpins it all.

“Accounting is the language of business,” Lymer says. “It’s what enables you to talk about what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going to do it. How do you get from here to there? How do you communicate? How do you conceptualize? How do you abstract? How do you focus? How do you enable people to ignore the things that aren’t important and drill down to the things that are? How do you get people to predict what the future might look like by learning from the past? In essence, that’s what accountants do – and the impact can be enormous.”

It’s a role that Libby Walklet takes very seriously. “We’ve got a responsibility to keep up to date with all the new legislation, and with things like AML, again we’re key to that fight.

“It’s simple: if you get it wrong, you’re a weakness, but if you get it right you’re a strength, you’re a barrier. And that’s such an important job.”

Keeping accountable

AAT’s Accountable campaign is so important to us because we’re aware of the benefits of good accounting practice.

Find out more here

Christian Doherty is a business journalist and freelance writer for AAT.

Related articles