From accountant to MP: Sarah Olney

Each year, when the government announces its budget it’s greeted by a room of exhausted politicians.

While the Treasury has months to crunch the numbers and prepare, MPs are afforded just four days to debate the details. That’s why, when constituencies choose their representatives, it’s helpful to elect somebody who can thoroughly scrutinise a budget.

Luckily for the residents of Richmond Park, Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney knows a thing or two about balancing books. When she defeated former London Mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith in a by-election last December she was working part time as an accountant. The press branded her victory an upset after she garnered 20,510 votes to the incumbent Goldsmith’s 18,638, overturning his majority. Now, Olney has brought her critical eye and flair for figures to the House of Commons.

“Whatever kind of organisation you work in, the important thing is to understand how money flows in and out, and how it can enable you to get things done,” she says.

Whatever kind of organisation you work in, the important thing is to understand how money flows in and out, and how it can enable you to get things done

After graduating with a degree in English Literature from King’s College London, Olney decided to pursue a career in the finance sector. She started out in events planning for Barclays Bank and went on to serve as chief financial officer (CFO) for two small businesses in the capital. When she decided to stand for political office, Olney was working as assistant finance manager in the National Physical Laboratory’s management accounts team.

Losing a by-election is a devastating prospect for career politicians. It was different for  Olney, who didn’t throw her hat in the ring with the aim of becoming a permanent fixture in Westminster. During the campaign, she told London’s Evening Standard newspaper: “If I don’t win, I’ve got a nice house, a great husband, lovely children and a good job to go back to.” For Olney, gaining a seat in Parliament was an opportunity to stand up for her beliefs.

“I hadn’t planned on becoming an MP. I just wanted to get more involved in the things I cared about,” Olney explains. “Winning the by-election was completely unexpected – I had to call my office the next day to hand in my notice.”

Olney joined the Commons at a critical juncture in the UK’s political history. As the country prepares to leave the European Union, MPs from across the political spectrum want to ensure the British economy remains prosperous. Fortunately, Olney’s time in finance has prepared her for uncertain budget forecasts and tricky negotiations.

“In my second head of finance role, I inherited a massive cashflow problem,” Olney says. “It took several months and a lot of sleepless nights, but with careful management, I was able to bring the problem under control and the company was put on a much sounder footing.”

Part of an MP’s job is to scrutinise government legislation. When representing the views of constituents, skimming over the details is not an option. Of course, when accountants assemble financial records, they also have to avoid errors or omissions.

“The key transferable skill has been an attention to detail,” Olney says of her career change. “In preparing management accounts I’ve had to spot inconsistencies and variances and this has been helpful preparation to help identify weaknesses in the government’s statements.”

Aspiring accountants would do well to follow Olney’s example and get stuck into the work they want to do. She only joined the Liberal Democrats in July 2015 and, less than two years later, she’s one of the party’s nine MPs. Decades of experience aren’t the only factor that will make a good financier, or a great politician. Olney advises that trainee accounts pair classroom learning with on-the-job practice.

“The best way to get started is to combine exam study with hands-on experience as the two complement each other,” Olney advises. “Ideally, try to get a wide range of experience of all aspects of accounting so that you have a good idea of what interests you.”

Accounting may not seem the most straightforward route into politics, but financial acumen is important no matter what your job role. Professionals who can competently manage money are welcome additions to any organisation. Whether you’re preparing accounts or holding the government to account, it helps to be detail-oriented and have your eye on the bottom line. Your clients (or perhaps your constituents) will thank you for it.

Jesse Onslow Norton is a writer, editor and communications consultant at Flibl. A former coder, his editorial work focuses on fintech, digital transformation, policy and regulation. His clients include corporations, governments, startups and SMEs from across the world. Follow him on Twitter @JesseOnslow.

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