From the classroom to the CEO: How a career in accountancy could be your route to the top

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Did you know that the average FTSE CEO is a chartered accountant? Or that the finance professional at the top of the accountancy rich list is worth a whopping £2,930 million?

We’ve already looked at some of the amazingly alternative jobs you can get with an accounting qualification, which show that the doors open to you are broader than you think. However, if you’re more motivated by prospects of big bucks and leadership success, you might think that accountancy only means balancing the books for someone else.

Well, you’re wrong. The simple fact that over half of FTSE CEOs began their career in finance, or that London’s chartered accountants enjoy above inflation pay rises shows there is big money to be made, and it could be the path for you to work your way to the top of the pile.

So what is it about accountancy that shapes great leaders?

You have the tools for business…

Accounting is the best route to corporate success, simply because it is the basic tool of business. There is demand for leaders with financial skills and background due to rapid changes in technology, regulations, and globalisation of business. Being an accountant means being able understand the technicalities and compliance issues, as well as broader implications of financial decisions. You are able to offer solid advice during mergers and acquisitions, and generally guiding a business towards profit gains – proving you have nearly all of the strategic insight and savvy required to lead a company yourself. Throw in qualities such as people management skills and eternal resilience, and you have what it takes to be a brilliant CEO of a global corporation.

…plus diligence and hard work

Yes, we said accountancy is a road, not a magical transporter to success. No successful person has got to where they are without putting in the leg work, starting right from the bottom. And no one knows more about hard work and patience than those studying, passing and utilising their accounting qualification, right? It’s good to know that all that hard work and perseverance has the potential to pay off in a big, big way.

Those who’ve done it

Here are just a few former accounting students who have made their way to the top:

  • Yong Daniel Zhang, the new CEO of Alibaba, is a great example of an accountant-as-leader. A certified public accountant, he started his career with stints at PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Arthur Andersen before making his way up to CFO, then Chief Operations Officer at Alibaba. He is said to be known for his “quiet and calm” demeanour, and has been brought in at a time when the e-commerce powerhouse is facing challenges of an estimated $90 million market value loss due to a slowing Chinese economy and increased competition.
  • Ian Livingston is another former Arthur Andersen employee who broke through to become CEO at a major corporation, in this instance BT. He was also the youngest person ever to be Finance Director for Dixons back in 1997. There he helped launch Dixon’s PC World and Freeserve, paving the way for a role at the helm of a world leader in telecoms.
  • British Airways CEO Keith Williams began as a tax accountant, and when he landed a role at Apple in 1991 he found himself doing a lot of business advisory work. Williams credits his financial background for bringing him to the top but also stresses the importance of doing things outside of the traditional finance role along the way. That ethos is evident in the BA graduate programme in finance, which introduces recruits into lots of different areas of the business.

So, when you close your eyes and picture yourself in the boardroom, remember that your accounting qualification is a very valuable first step on your journey there.

Kayleigh Ziolo is a freelance journalist and writer based in Ireland.

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