7 ways to succeed as an accountant

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Accountancy is changing, and your AAT training and qualifications are changing to reflect that and prepare you for your first job.

When you graduate, what skills and experience will enhance your career the most?  We look at what students need to develop in order to have a fulfilling and successful accountancy career in a changing world.

1. Embrace technology but know where to add value

“Many students and graduates already have a better grasp of cloud and accounting technology than their predecessors, as well as a good understanding of the importance of lifelong learning and upskilling,” says Neil Parsons, Managing Director of Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting UK.

“This provides a brilliant foundation to flourish in what is becoming an increasingly digital and data-focused regulatory and compliance landscape. However, it’s not enough to simply master accounting technology.

“To excel in the world of finance, today’s graduates must be focused on the value-add they can provide while technology and automation are taking care of the reporting and back-office tasks,” he says. “They need to be prepared to innovate with the real-time data that is now at their fingertips to open up new opportunities for their clients. Critical thinking combined with today’s advanced technology is where newcomers to the industry will really make their mark, and the possibilities are truly endless.”

2. Build relationships within your profession

Whether your relationships are externally focused, working more closely with clients, or based on the conversations you have with your team, your boss or your peers, the fact remains that trust, empathy and curiosity are critical in establishing these relationships.

“From starting out in the industry, you may progress to manage your own team or support and advise clients on aspects of their business; whatever the situation, communication skills are critical,” says Sophie Austin, HR Partner at Monahans. In addition, employers are increasingly looking for “soft” skills, such as an ability to think strategically and critically, and clients want objective counsel and to be challenged supportively where necessary.

“Of course, these skills can be developed, and doing more “extrovert” activities, like networking, will help develop confidence,” she says.

3. Enhance your emotional intelligence

Working with clients, business partners and colleagues all requires a good understanding of people skills and a willingness to see a situation from another person’s point of view.

“Emotional intelligence also comes with the experience of working alongside others,” says Sophie Austin. “Understanding how to communicate with different people and get the best out of those around you, recognising your impact on other and taking on feedback without seeing it as simply criticism.”

4. Develop your critical thinking skills

Critical thinking skills are essential if you are aiming high, says Liz Sebag-Montefiore, Co-Founder and Director of 10Eighty, a career and talent management consultancy. Critical thinking is the ability to look at a situation and clearly understand it from multiple perspectives while separating facts from opinion and assumption.

“We are talking about clarity, precision, logic, focus and objectivity brought into play as we collect data, evaluate information and make decisions,” she says. “In business it’s important to be able to balance emotions with objective evaluation approaches, especially when dealing with controversial or complex issues and topics.”

5. Embrace your advantage as a digital native 

Adam Zoucha, MD EMEA at accountancy automation company FloQast, says antiquated systems, a reliance on ‘bean counting’ and repetitive manual tasks are unlikely to be aligned with the opportunities that today’s Gen Z candidates are looking for.

 “Newcomers to the finance sector are increasingly expected to understand and embrace the technology and tools that can facilitate faster, more accurate reporting, as well as enhance team collaboration in today’s hybrid workplace. And this is no bad thing,” he says. In recent research, over half (51%) of UK finance directors said they wanted their roles to include more strategic work, and even more wanted to be involved in transformational activities (54%). Manual tasks came bottom of the pile.

6. Upskill regularly

The pandemic created the greatest acceleration of technology for companies in decades and this has prompted the wheels of transformation to turn, says Adam Zoucha.

“Having access to both automation and the skills to implement it, will help the younger generation of accountants accelerate through the ranks more swiftly; and even more importantly lead to more satisfying roles. By removing the burden of manual processes, automation allows teams to produce predictive analytics and data-led narratives that can support and influence C-suite decision-making,” he says.

7. Make the most of networking

A lot of people don’t enjoy networking but it is an important skill to cultivate, says Liz Sebag-Montefiore.“To do it well, you need to recognise that networking works on reciprocity – you get out according to how much effort you put in.”

No-one is a perfect communicator and whether you’re advising clients, or acting as a line manager, there is always support and guidance to be sought from others and improvements to be made, says Sophie Austin.“I count building your network as a continual example of upskilling, given how crucial it is for any career,” she says.

“With less of a focus on in-person meetings, consider LinkedIn. It’s a very powerful tool for developing your network and providing access to a huge amount of content to expand and develop thinking. Nor should you purely focus on your external relationships – think about your internal network and how strong relationships can create opportunities in your career, from collaboration on projects to getting a promotion.”

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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