Why an era of uncertainties could be prime time for AAT members

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AAT’s new CEO, Sarah Beale, sets out her agenda and her expectations for AAT and its members.

The last two years have been the worst of times, but they have also been the best of times to shine a light on what AAT – and its members – stand for.

Businesses have been shunted into a brave new online world and forced to learn how to pivot on a sixpence. Employers – and even the government – have come to realise that qualifications and skills are a winning combination they need. Even students have been hungry for change, as they seek out ways to start professional careers without going to university. 

All of this amounts to an opportunity – an invitation. And Sarah Beale, the energetic Cumbrian who is now chief executive of AAT, is determined to seize it. 

“There couldn’t be a better time to be an AAT-qualified accountant, or to be working toward that,” she says. The world now requires more innovative and flexible accountancy skills than ever before. AAT members are in the best possible place to make a difference.  

“Employers are seeing far more value in someone who can be practical and productive as well as demonstrate academic ability. The skills we have are practical and have very real, positive impact to today’s challenges – that’s incredibly exciting.” 

AAT has been shortlisted for the Tolley’s Taxation Awards 2022

AAT has been shortlisted for its “Accountable” campaign to raise standards across the accountancy profession by dealing with the problem of unregulated accountants and tax advisers.

Vote here

AAT-qualified CEO 

She says “we” purposely because Sarah Beale studied AAT and has had a similar journey to many in its membership. 

She chose to be an AAT trainee over going to university and regards it as the foundation of everything she’s achieved since. Just like many members, she has side-stepped to different departments in organisations, and even into different sectors, to broaden her experience, ultimately securing the role of chief executive of the Construction Industry Training Board. 

Her journey has given her “the kind of passion that comes from genuinely believing in something”. It’s also given her an unshakeable belief in the combination of skills and knowledge that AAT is centred around. 

“I’ve worked in practice, charity, third sector environments and highly commercial environments. The skills our members bring to each of those types of business are highly sought after. I know – because I’ve been a boss searching for skilled people that can add value.” 

There are several ways in which Beale wants AAT to become more significant to members, from building industry-leading CPD, that ensures members stay at the top of their game, to successfully lobbying for recognition of their skills and contribution.  

She explains: “We’re acutely aware that we want to add value to the membership proposition. Part of that process will involve being open to new ideas and having a more active dialogue with members, because they are the best people to tell us what will make a difference to them.” 

As the agenda is transformed into a plan, she will want the organisation to go out to achieve its ambitions with fresh energy and vigour: “We will work faster, bigger and bolder,” she promises. 

Listening hard 

Beale is under no illusions that listening to members will be crucial to success.  

“We need to be open to new ideas and speaking with members as much as possible, because they are the best people to tell us what will make a difference to them,” she explains. 

“The more we can gauge from them, the better,” she adds.  

“We want to work together to understand what kind of themes they want our support on; what areas they would like us to develop for them?” 

“As we build that picture, we can give members and students access to the things that will really give them the edge, as and when they need it – whether that’s through portals of information, help desks, alerts to emerging trends and topics, and support for digital skills.” 

More influence 

In addition to equipping members and students with everything they need to drive their careers, Beale is keen to strengthen the influence AAT has in the wider world – whether that is through “people’s lives, the accountancy profession or the economy as a whole”. 

“What I find really attractive about AAT is that all the parts are already there,” she enthuses. “It’s practical. It’s something you can apply in the real world, and use to add value – at multiple levels. AAT delivers products and services that can have an impact on an individual, their employer, the accountancy space and the economy at large, because we are such a significant player in a significant sector.” 

“There are many ways we can help the profession generally,” she adds. “That might be by creating a really good pipeline of talent – attracting younger people and career changers into our sector and making sure they know the career opportunities that are going to be available to them, how they seize those opportunities, and the doors that could be open to them.” 

The bigger picture 

Beale also has ambitions for AAT to have a louder voice on government issues – becoming a major player in shaping government policy around accountancy, tax, further education and other areas of interest to members. 

She points to AAT’s recent Accountable campaign, which compellingly made the case that unregulated accountants (which account for a third of the sector) should be members of professional bodies, as an example of the role AAT can play. 

The campaign – supported through contributions from members via AT magazine – helped convince the government not to impose compulsory Professional Indemnity Insurance on unregulated advisers, a move that would likely have pushed up premiums for everyone, without raising standards.  

“We wanted to make a distinction between people who are unqualified, uninsured, not undertaking CPD and not offering the professional service our members do,” says Beale. “We needed to make sure that message was loud and proud.” 

“That’s how we can be a partner and exert influence on government, making sure the educational policy, professional policy, and funding align to what our profession needs.” 

AAT has been shortlisted for the Tolley’s Taxation Awards 2022

AAT has been shortlisted for its “Accountable” campaign to raise standards across the accountancy profession by dealing with the problem of unregulated accountants and tax advisers.

Vote here

AAT in demand 

In an increasingly borderless and globalised world, Beale believes this evolution of AAT will also put it in good stead to enhance its appeal internationally – becoming a more prominent entry point to the accountancy profession outside of the UK as well as here. 

For now, however, her focus is on prioritising existing members. 

“We have to have a look at our international offer, for sure, but for now, it is absolutely about a return to our potential and existing members, influencing government, and trying to create that diverse talent pipeline that we need. 

“It feels like the government is recognising what we offer: the level and the quality. It feels like businesses now need what we offer more than ever. And it feels like people want the quality service and the market that our regulation provides.” 

“I can see opportunities. It looks like the stars are aligning for both AAT and members.” 

Accounting Technicians’ Strong identity 

AAT-qualified herself, Sarah Beale is clear that AAT-qualified professionals benefit from a “stronger, more defined identity”. 

“It is a really credible membership to hold,” she says. “AAT members have a set of truly transferable skills and they are skills that don’t date. That stands members in great stead with organisations throughout the economy.” 

That’s something she very much wants to amplify during her tenure as AAT’s chief executive. 

“We’ve got a role as a membership body of letting society know the difference our members make,” she says, adding that greater recognition of the AAT identity will lead to “a bigger portion of the pie” in terms of focus, funding, and coverage. 

In her own words: Sarah Beale 

“I am a really hard worker and when I decide to do something, I give it 100%. To be at my best, I have to believe in what I’m doing. [My role] must have a purpose and it has to mirror my own values so my effort feels effortless and what I’m doing feels worthwhile. 

“What I’m good at is creating a vision, taking people with me on that journey and creating a plan to get there.  

“I also want to let people contribute their skillset to that, to make it really work and achieve true inclusivity. 

“AAT is a business with a purpose, and not just for profit. That’s what drives me. AAT lives by what it says, and it values its people and its members. That’s really evident, even from the outside.” 

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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