Meet the mentor: Chris Conway, Managing Director of Accounts and Legal

Continuing with our series of conversations between AAT students and inspirational accountants, Chris Conway, Managing Director of Accounts and Legal, shares lessons in leadership with Anna Gibbons.

Both AAT student Anna Gibbons and Accounts and Legal managing director Chris Conway fell into accountancy by accident. Gibbons got a job at a mobility company, which gave her a taste of working in a finance team. She enjoyed it so much that she decided to study with AAT. “I’ve always liked the money side – the process and precision of it – and I guess it just appealed,” she says.

What skills are needed to run your own business?

Anna: How different is it coming into a management role at a smaller company compared to being in a large corporate environment?

Chris: It’s totally different. You go from being a cog in a huge business – with your work divided project by project, depending on the client’s needs – to running the business itself, so the decisions you’re making change pretty radically.

Anna: Did working at Kingston Smith prepare you for leadership?

Chris: Yes and no. Obviously many of the core skills are there, including of course accountancy, but you take on all these other disciplines too. At Kingston Smith, we never had to worry about new business. It was all based on relationships. Now it’s a huge part of my job. I had no idea how to deal with, say, marketing. I had to learn. I never knew how many hooks you need to have in the ocean.

How do you manage your team?

Anna: How do you make sure you manage your team effectively?

Chris: We have departmental meetings every Monday morning. You need to be engaged in every facet of the business so that you’re aware of what’s actually going on and so that staff feel engaged with the business and its goals. It’s so important not only to know what you need to know, but also to know what your team needs to know.

Anna: What do you most enjoy about your work?

Chris: I love developing people. Apprentices are worth their weight in gold. We have two in particular who are excellent, and always up for a challenge. Some people who come through the door think they know everything before they’ve done a day’s work, but clearly that’s not the case.

Anna: You work with a lot of start-ups – I guess you can relate to them. What are the lessons there?

Chris: Our situations are certainly similar in that you see a lot of people turning their hand to things that might be new to them. You see that time and time again in new businesses: the founders having to radically expand their skill sets. In an accountancy firm, you expect to be doing someone’s accounts, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. You need to add so many strings to your bow.

Anna: Software takes care of a lot of things now anyway I guess?

Chris: That’s why studying AAT is a good move – it gives you that grounding in the fundamentals of accountancy. There’s not much point going into this if you don’t have a grasp of the nuts and bolts of accountancy.

What makes a great accountant?

Anna: What, to you, is the difference between a good and a great accountant?

Chris: Technical knowledge is important, but I don’t think it’s everything. What’s key is the ability to speak to a client in a way they understand. You could throw a stone at the 38,000 accountancy practices in the UK and you’d hit someone who’s technically competent. But you’d be incredibly fortunate to hit someone whose clients are universally satisfied with the service they’re getting. That won’t be because the accountant doesn’t know what they’re doing. It’ll be because the client is just getting something to sign every month. If you’re a great accountant, you explain what you’re doing, advise the client, talk through the options and make recommendations.

Anna: Does that come through experience?

Chris: It’s understanding the problems yourself and being able to communicate in an engaging way with the person who needs the information you have. If you can do that, you’ve got it cracked, because you will immediately set yourself apart from most other accountants. It’s a generalisation, but we hear it a lot from clients: if you’re paying for something that you don’t understand, it doesn’t feel valuable. However, if someone says to you “I’ve done your accounts. Why did you spend so much money on marketing? Revenue didn’t go up at all. What happened?”, then that will feel valuable.

Anna: It sounds like accountancy and consulting are coming together.

Chris: Absolutely. For me, they’re one and the same. It’s the model of accounting going back a hundred years, when your accountant was your business adviser. Then we had this phase where accountants signed things but took no risk. Now people want advice again – all within regulations, of course.

This article first appeared in our Summer 2018 issue of 20 magazine.

Andrew Lowry is a contributor for AAT's student magazine, 20.

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