8 tips for success – Career advice from accountancy experts

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Accountancy is changing, and so are the people that work in it. Far from being number crunchers, the accountant of tomorrow will need to bring a wide range of communication, strategic and business advisory skills, as well as a deep understanding of the principles of accountancy.

We talked to successful and established accountants to find out what worked in their careers and what advice they had for AAT students.

1. Be flexible and prepared to take chances

Christina Earls (FMAAT) took up the role of President of AAT in September. Having never had the opportunity to study with AAT when she was younger, her accountancy route came via working in the public sector and membership of CIPFA.

“What worked in my career was being flexible in what I did, the roles I had, in the workplace within the finance wider area of work,” she says. “I was a manager before I became an accountant, as I was not given the opportunity to do accounting when I first got a job. I worked my way up in a different career first, and that gave me the experience to develop teams and delegate. Also, knowing where my red lines lay – so that I could sleep at night.”

Reflecting on her career, she says there were a few things she wished she had done differently.

“I wish that I had been prepared to take more chances in roles,” she says. “I never went for roles I did not think I could do 150% first.” She also felt that, on occasion, she had relied on managers who claimed they supported her, only to discover that she should have relied on herself and her judgement alone.

2. Find your niche and be yourself

It can feel as though you need to fit into a specific mould in the accountancy world, and that was certainly how Carl Reader felt when he first started out as an accountant. Carl is Chairman at d&t and Head of Accounting (EMEA) at Practice Ignition. He serves as Chair of the Practitioner Panel at ACCA. He left school at 15 to start as an apprentice hairdresser and admits he “fell” into accountancy after that didn’t work out.

“One of the biggest things for me that I didn’t know at the start of my career is that it is good to stand out,” he said. “It actually helped me far more than it hindered me. But in the early days, I didn’t realise that was the case because accountancy is all about compliance and following systems and processes.

He says that the skills that today’s students need are completely different from the skills that were needed in the past. They are different from the skills that the people who are recruiting them need to have in order to succeed in their own careers.

“Rather than being a processor of data, they need to become a translator of data. They need to not only understand the technical nature of what’s going on, but actually, they also need to understand the emotions behind the recipient receiving the information, whether that’s a colleague in house or the client in practice.”

3. Develop your communication skills

His comments are echoed by Liz Sebag-Montefiore, career coach and Director of 10Eighty, who says that while automation has taken some of the strain of repetitive tasks, professionals realise that leadership qualities, soft skills and emotional intelligence are even more important.

“Given they have visibility over the whole operation, they are well placed to become trusted advisors and provide insight and input at leadership levels providing they cultivate the skills and qualities that will be needed to work at this level,” she says. “A focus on a more holistic advisory role means accounting professionals need to understand change management and risk management in conjunction with good communication skills both oral and written.”

4. Understand how software can enhance your role

Many accountants are considering moving to the cloud, but it will also take time for their clients to be comfortable with a paperless office. Neil Parsons, Managing Director, Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting UK, reflects that when he started out, software was not available to accounting practices or businesses to help them run their operations.

“Yet here I am some years later, managing a business which enables accounting practices to succeed using software solutions. This gives me a great lens on the market, and I certainly empathise with the pain points felt by those within practice,” he says.

For anyone considering a career within the profession, he says it is really important to get a solid grounding in the principles of accountancy and to spend time honing your skills. “Embrace the fact that accountancy is a constantly evolving environment and invest the time to ensure you stay up to date with the changes in your chosen field. Remember that accountancy is a global qualification, so it could also help you to see the world.”

He also suggests that finding a mentor can be a great way to develop both yourself and your career. A mentor will act as a source of knowledge, will help you to set goals and, critically, will hold you accountable for those goals.

5. Become more commercial and analytical

Chris Goulding is Managing Director of specialist finance and accountancy recruitment firm Wade Macdonald, a firm founded over thirty years ago and now works with Blue Chip companies across the UK. An ex-Hays plc Director, Chris has over 20 years of experience in accountancy recruitment and talent solutions, regularly featuring in AAT, ICAEW, Business Leader, and Global Recruiter with industry insights and career advice.

He learnt early on in his career that accountancy was a discipline that required a regular update of skill sets, flexibility and readiness for change. The latest update to the sector is automation, and artificial intelligence (AI) and Chris is often asked by both candidates and clients about the impact AI will have on the future of finance.

“My answer is that while the systems are highly advanced and superseding human efforts, they do not replace human intelligence. Yes, in accounting, automation is taking away much of the data entry and analysis that accountants have spent years mastering, but it isn’t a case of ‘one or the other’. Accounting professionals need to recognise the strengths and limits of AI and start to build an understanding of the best ways for humans and computers to work together.”

New skill sets need to be developed to fit the way in which information is arrived at, interpreted, and presented, he says. With large volumes of data, you need people to interpret it, put forward recommendations, and analyse its implications.

6. Not standing still but developing skills

“There is a gap in this, however, as there is an increased need for experienced and specialist skills and AI is a relatively nascent model – we’re early into the integration of it into finance and accountancy,” says Chris Goulding.

So how can we ensure entry-level staff are gaining the skills needed for future careers? A UK survey of 1,000 finance professionals showed 62 per cent said there was a significant skills gap within the industry – strategic thinking, financial forecasting, and the ability to use technological software were amongst those in high demand.

“Another reason why budding finance and accountancy professionals need to be constantly looking ahead, forecasting future needs and evolving their skills accordingly,” he says.

7. Be curious and open-minded

Christina Earls recommends that AAT students be open-minded and develop new skills and new areas of working in different areas in finance because all roles and experiences are an opportunity.

Equally important is building your professional contacts and maintaining a lifelong curiosity about your work.

“Network, network, network – meet different people, listen and explain to them,” she says. “This builds great communication skills as well as confidence. Be curious, ask questions and develop that professional scepticism that will be essential to you in making professional judgements – this is definitely a superpower!”

8. Networking is key

“I found that building a network of contacts of likeminded individuals, not just in the workplace but outside of it, extremely valuable,” says Heather Hill, immediate Past President of AAT, a member of AAT for over 32 years, and currently serving as a non-executive Director and Trustee of AAT. “A good place to start is AAT’s branch network, where you will meet a cross-section of people who are employees or have their own businesses and who work in different sectors.

Heather’s tips for AAT students on developing their career 

 As your career progresses, identify what further studies you need for your own professional development  

  • Look at the resources available to you through your professional membership and use them 
  • Build a strong network of professionals
  • Take all opportunities possible to attend branch and other events for networking and CPD purpose
  • Adhere to the code of professional ethics;  

Find out more

This new world of accountancy means that training needs to change and adapt to the new demands of the role. As an awarding body, AAT has reviewed the qualifications we offer and Qualifications 22 is the result of our research and development of the AAT qualifications suite.

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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