How to manage your career as an accountant

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Rapid changes in finance and accountancy mean that students and graduates joining the profession today will need to embrace technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

In the years to come, they will also need to develop their personal skills and CDP (Continuing Professional Development) as part of their lifelong learning.

What does lifelong learning mean?

Broadly speaking, it means having a mindset to learn continuously throughout your life and work towards personal or professional goals. This may be through formal study and qualifications, voluntary courses, networking and leadership opportunities, or taking on new or wider roles at work. Not only does lifelong learning enhance your career prospects and keep you motivated in your job, but it can also help you develop useful skills that you can use in your life outside work. As the industry incorporates new and powerful technologies, it also means upskilling so that you can provide clients with cutting-edge services and future-proof your career.

For an accountant, lifelong learning might encompass studying AAT to Level 4 and then going on to take further professional qualifications. It could also mean understanding the technology and developing so-called “soft skills” such as effective communication and active listening. As you become more senior and deal with clients, strategic planning and the ability to translate big data into information that clients can understand will also be essential. 

How can I manage my own career as an accountant?

The AAT Learning Portal has a wealth of study support resources which cover the learning mindset, the changes to the industry, s-learning, practice assessments and study tips.

It is simple to use. You select the unit you are studying, choose the type of support you want to try and select the activity you are going to work through. You can evaluate your progress whilst managing all your key resources in one place. You can add review notes to resources so you know which were useful to you, add reminder dates to resources so that you don’t overlook them and view recommendations on topics that may interest you. There is also a wealth of information on study tips, synoptics, transferable skills, apprenticeships and study guides.

What are the benefits of extra qualifications and CPD?

Adding to your knowledge and skills, either through further study or taking on more senior or different roles, can enhance your profile, earn you a potential pay rise and lead to more interesting job opportunities.

Neil Parsons, Managing Director of Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting UK says that most of the day-to-day key skills that accountants need to run operations and satisfy delivery and compliance haven’t changed much over time. However, he says that within accountancy practices, there is an increasing requirement for better communication both internally and with clients.

“Today, accountants must be comfortable with holding open conversations and giving constructive, data-rich feedback,” he says. “Companies expect advisors to show emotional intelligence while also sharing appreciation and taking accountability for their future goals and those of the practice.”

Why is keeping up with data knowledge so important to accountants?

As big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) move into the mainstream, those accountants who can understand and communicate data insights will have a competitive advantage, says Neil Parsons.

“The ability to gather and analyse big data into insight that can help clients is a big differentiator, but not all accounting firms have achieved this yet,” he says. “The right data strategy and software can help advisors to deliver real-time insight to their clients, which may uncover new business opportunities or risks to avoid. With the right data processes and the real-time ability to realise insight, the possibilities are endless.”

He says AI and advanced analytics will take this one step further, helping advisors to identify key trends and use real-time predictions as a basis for critical business decisions.

Nick Jewell, Technology Evangelist for Incorta, a data and analytics platform, says finance teams are under increasing pressure to deliver data and insights in ever-tighter time frames to support business tactics that can’t wait for a traditional once-per-month snapshot of the company’s revenue or liabilities.

“As digital transformation delivers accessibility and analysis of data within the general ledger closer to real-time, it’s become possible for organizations to move towards a more continuous approach to accounting and financial control as a result,” he says. “Real-time visibility into key performance indicators, such as revenue, working capital and operational cash-flow allows finance professionals to monitor these metrics on a continuous basis and identify any potential issues or opportunities as they arise.”

What other skills do accountants need to learn?

Aside from keeping up to date with technology, communication is also going to be a very important part of the future accountant’s job. Soft skills can be learned, and even if you feel that communication is something you need to work on, it is possible to build your skill set, says Ollie Ollerton, motivational speaker and founder of BreakPoint, which delivers a range of corporate and individual training.

“Communication, empathy, teamwork, time management, problem-solving; these are skills that can make someone really good at a job. Some of us will be natural communicators, while others will be better at keeping time, but we can all improve,” he says. “Soft skills can span any kind of business, even life in general. It’s about identifying areas of strength and areas of weakness and committing to either putting these to good use or improving them.”

Identifying your strengths and weaknesses

Hayley Brightmore, founder of due diligence company Knight Transaction Services, has ten years experience as a due diligence specialist at Mazars and Grant Thornton and has worked with a wide range of private equity houses, banks and corporate clients. She won Young Accountant of the Year at the 2022 Young Insider North West Awards.

She says it can be difficult to identify your own strengths and weaknesses in isolation, especially if you are working from home. Being around colleagues is a good way to reflect on areas for improvement and ask for feedback. They might also recognise strengths that take for granted in yourself. 

“Those days when you are in the office, use your time wisely and look for opportunities to learn from those around you,” she says. “Listening to the way more senior colleagues handle tricky phone calls and conversations, for example, can be a great way for younger team members to pick up techniques that they can incorporate into their own work. Being open to learning and asking colleagues to show you how something is done is often much easier when it’s a simple conversation across a desk, compared with a virtual equivalent.”

If you are looking to identify your own areas for development, she suggests you start by asking your manager for an appraisal and ask whether they would be open to a 360 approach which incorporates feedback from all levels of the business.

“As an employer, I make sure all team members are on a clear development path – whatever their starting point – and I make sure everyone is getting regular one-to-ones, no matter how busy things get. Welcoming input from the entire business, not just managers, is a good way to ensure that all voices are heard and gives you a full picture of a person.”

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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