The unlimited career paths of accountancy and how to decide which one to take

Half the challenge with a career in accountancy can be choosing which direction you want to go in because it covers such a massive variety of jobs.

Accountants are needed in every country, every company, every charity and every sector, so it keeps many doors open and can lead you into many different career routes.

So should you look to carve out a niche for yourself, or should you keep your options open? How do you decide which path to take? We spoke to Gareth John, who has trained thousands of AAT students in his role as Director at finance training college First Intuition and he has watched them take all manner of career journeys which he says is the most rewarding part of his job.

Why does accounting have so many options?

Gareth himself got into accounting in quite an indirect fashion. When he left college, he had no idea what he wanted to do and went to uni to delay that decision for a bit. He studied Economics to give him an insight into the world of business and keep his options open. This was the same reason he went into accountancy. 

From bookkeeping to financial accountants to management accountants and auditors to corporate finance and tax advisory. These are just a few of the areas you could choose to specialise in. As well as the different areas of finance, you could choose to work for any type of organisation across the world, or even set up your own business. 

Gareth said, “One of the things that appealed to me was not only the breadth of opportunity in accounting but also the height. You can work in treasury, purchase or sales ledger, or work your way up to the board of an FTSE 100 and not even just as a Chief Financial Officer, but you could be an Operations Director, Commercial Director or CEO. Because all business decisions are driven (at least in part) by accountancy decisions, having a depth of financial understanding can lead you in many directions.”

Why the amount of career choice is a good thing

As the business environment becomes more and more dynamic in terms of digital technologies and emerging markets, there’s stability that a career in finance brings. All of its many facets are constantly required across all industries, regardless of environmental changes.

Gareth said, “We work very closely with AAT, and we see two main groups who study with them. One is school leavers, as AAT is a great entry route into accountancy, and the other is career changers. Accountancy has shown itself to be a very robust sector, especially of late. As we move, not just post-Covid, but post-Brexit and with advancements in  green and digital industries, the security that a finance role brings, amongst all the flux, is very appealing.”

Real-life examples of different career paths

Gareth told us about four accountants he knows who have gone on to great things in all manner of different ways.

The traditional path in an unconventional way

“One of the very first students I taught did AAT, then went on to ICAEW and is now the managing partner of the accountancy practice that she trained with. Her firm had never taken people further than AAT, but she made her case for them doing it for her and how it would provide them value. She didn’t sit back and wait to be given things on a plate, and she has done that all the way up to her role in leadership.”

Thought and industry leadership

“One innovative accountant launched one of the first 100% digital cloud-based practices. He is a huge advocate for digital technologies and cloud-based accountancy and has positioned himself as a thought-leader and industry leader. He does this by doing a lot of work helping other people to move forward. He came into the industry with a completely different background. That lack of historical knowledge about working in the industry allowed him to start with a blank sheet from which to lead some groundbreaking developments in finance.”

From finance to procurement

“Many people I know have moved from pure finance roles into other areas of business. Studying accountancy gives you exposure to a wide range of skills in areas such as law, marketing and human resources. This can allow interesting ‘diagonal’ career paths. Namely, a former student of mine who works for a global biotech business recently switched from finance and now works in procurement looking at their global property portfolio.”

A serial entrepreneur

“Another one set up his own business and now owns several successful businesses, including an accountancy practice and an energy company dealing with solar panels. With finance giving you knowledge of budgets, forecasts and organisational strategy, and the ability to review strengths and opportunities in business, the environment and competitors make it a great base for entrepreneurialism. It can also offer you credibility with banks, customers and investors.”

How to decide which direction to go

All the different areas of accounting require very different skill sets, so see which feels suitable for you as you learn.

Having a niche, whether that be a service, sector, or embracing particular technologies, can make you the go-to professional expert, whether for internal stakeholders or external people. This is harder to do if you keep it broad, although many skills are transferable, and these days, people are taking less linear routes and diagonal career paths where they gain as much experience as possible.

Gareth says what’s more important is adopting a growth mindset, a desire for lifelong learning and a willingness to adapt and evolve. Having a solid set of soft skills like communication, time management, negotiation, and the ability to make decisions with uncertain information will set you up better than focusing on one technical skill. And you’ll gain vast amounts of confidence by going through AAT exams. Yes, there’s the technical syllabus, but you’re also gaining the ability to deal with difficult situations like increased workload and stress. You’ll be able to trust in yourself that you can face up to challenges and thrive.

AAT can set you up for a career across many different areas and sectors and be an excellent springboard onto a higher level if that’s what you choose to do.

Further reading:

Sophie Cross is the Editor of Freelancer Magazine and a freelance writer and marketer at Thoughtfully.

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