Top tips for setting achievable goals

The last 12 months have been particularly difficult for students who may not have had as much support from peers and tutors as they would normally.

Now that organisations are beginning to encourage staff back to the office, how can apprentices and students make the most of the new opportunities? How can they set goals in place for 2021, motivate themselves to get back to study and take exams, and start to consider the next step for their career?

Time to boost your workplace learning

Regardless of your chosen route into accountancy, you’ll need to acquire both recognised qualifications and relevant work experience within the first few years of your career, says Jo Howell, Recruitment Manager for Accountancy & Financial Services at Cathedral Appointments.

During the pandemic, obtaining work experience has been particularly challenging, with those lucky enough to have secured remote placements learning to adapt to a new, virtual world alongside even the most experienced accountants.

“Accountancy students should embrace every opportunity for hands-on learning in the workplace, whether that’s an internship or a long-term placement,” she says. “When you feel it is safe to do so, take advantage of the chance to work in an office environment. Not only does this help you to visualise your future career path and build rapport with your socially distanced colleagues, but it also gives them chance to witness your enthusiasm and proactive attitude too.”

If you leave a lasting first impression, you will finish the placement with a growing professional network and – if you’ve played your cards right – a potential job opportunity.

“Stay in touch with your supervisor, engage with your colleagues on LinkedIn and remember to ask for feedback at the end of your placement,” she says.

Setting goals for 2021

As COVID restrictions continue to lift, there’s a real sense of a new beginning – no matter whether you are mid-apprenticeship or halfway through the academic year.

“Students and apprentices alike must harness this, carefully considering where they’d like to be in three or four years’ time,” she says. You can then work backwards to lay the stepping stones which will enable you to reach your goals.

“Remind yourself why you’re studying. Once you’ve taken your next exam, will you be moving on to a module that you find more fulfilling? Are you excited by the prospect of gaining real-world experience in the industry? The key is to choose a career path that you’re genuinely enthusiastic about. Otherwise, it may be time to reconsider your options.”

Upskilling and adapting to a changing industry

COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the areas of accountancy which are the most agile and resilient. Jo Howell says that as a student, it’s wise to consider entering a more stable market, such as a business which primarily operates online or has a growing interest in e-commerce. In this new, virtual world, firms like this are the most likely to thrive.

Browse some of the vacancies that accountancy practices are currently advertising. What specific skills are they asking for? By nature, accountancy is a profession that requires impeccable numeracy and analytical skills, but you’ll also need to showcase soft skills – such empathy, communication and customer service – if you are to successfully secure a role.

“Keep an eye out for new, technology-based skills too, as Cloud-based systems, data security tools, artificial intelligence and machine learning are all making their way into the world of accountancy,” she says. “A solid grasp on the benefits, potential shortfalls and workings of these advanced systems will be crucial, setting you miles apart from the competition.”

Take stock and polish up your CV

Liz Sebag-Montefiore, career coach and Director of 10Eighty, says it is a good idea to review the last 12 months to decide what you most enjoyed doing so that you can arrange to do more of the same. At the same time, look at what caused you frustration and irritation to see if you can minimise those aspects of your work.

“Think of your future CV – what skills would you like to have on there?” she says. “How do you perform at your best – are there any skills you need to develop and who can help you to do this? Ask for feedback, ask what people like about you and what you do, and then ask what they think you should work on.”

When setting goals for 2021 she suggests you make your objectives SMARTER – that is, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time bounded, exciting and reviewed.

“Write down your goals – all the research shows that if you write down your goals, you’re much more likely to achieve them.” Take two hours a week and devote this time to personal development. It can be work related or personal time, but it should be downtime, when you relax and do something you enjoy.

She also recommends that you decide on a skill you are interested in and work out how to develop that skill and spend more time working with that skill.

Another idea is to identify someone who looks like you on LinkedIn, someone in a similar job to you, either in the same or a different industry and reach out to them; see if you can arrange to do be a mentor.

You could also review your LinkedIn profile, revisit your skills endorsements, make sure they are appropriate and align with what you are telling your network about your plans and aspirations. Ask for endorsements.

Getting back to study and taking exams

It may seem daunting to try to get back into the exam and study mindset, especially if you have been working from home without any study companions. However, Liz Sebag-Montefiore says that great things can be achieved with small but regular and consistent steps.

“How do you build a skyscraper? One block at a time,” she says. “Focus on tasks and the objective will take care of itself. Look at what you’re going to do and how you’ll navigate obstacles and challenges. Think about who can support you?”

You should also consider your timescales and build in time every month to do at least one item of professional development work. This will ensure you appreciate as an asset, that you are enhancing your employability.

“Remember nothing is more important than your career!” she says.

Check whether you need to fill in gaps and draw up a personal plan

Learning whilst working is an important part of accountancy training, saysJohn Watkins, Director of Employability at The University of Law. 

“As a Chartered Accountant who recruited many trainees into the profession to study the AAT I am very aware of the on-the-job support that is such a powerful feature of the journey towards an accounting qualification,” he says.

“Whilst I have seen many organisations adapting as well as they can to the demands of home working, including remote supervision, the prospect of some return to the office is very welcome for those at a relatively early stage of their career.

“I encourage an early ‘reality check’ for student and supervisor to ascertain where there may be some relative shortcomings and gaps in development – it is nothing to be embarrassed about and, of course, the same check ought to demonstrate that there are some areas which are far more advanced than would normally have been expected. A personal plan with goals and targets for 6-12 months and then 3-5 years can be motivational – workplace milestones as well as exams.”

Consider the next step for your career

Liz Sebag-Montefiore recommends that you revisit your career plan at regular intervals. If you don’t have one then write a plan for the next 12-18 months. If you do have a plan, then take a good look at how close you are to achieving your objectives and set some targets for the year.

Questions to consider include:

  • What’s your long-term career goal?
  • In terms of skills, knowledge and expertise where are you against the very best person?
  • What’s the next step for you that’s suitable as a steppingstone to your long term goal?

Spending time taking stock of the last 12 months and making concrete and measurable plans and goals for the coming year will help you adjust to the new ways of working and get your career and studying back on track.

Further reading:

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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