Transcend the screen to be successful

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Unable to meet clients and colleagues, and facing a tight job market, AT asked experts how AAT members can become indispensable in their existing roles or prepare for a new one while home-working.

Coronavirus has had a huge impact on accountants. Many are facing a range of new demands, including increased workloads, new and unfamiliar tasks – such as helping access emergency coronavirus funding or managing furlough – and working remotely, which has removed much of their usual interaction with colleagues and those they share ideas with.

For many, there is also less access to traditional learning resources and materials, as companies strive to handle what they see as more pressing issues instead, especially when it comes to soft skills. These are crucial, but less technical, skills, including communication and emotional intelligence.

However, it’s important accounting technicians stay as relevant and valuable as possible – whether they are looking to demonstrate their ongoing value within their existing businesses, or find a new role in a tightened job market.

In short, lockdown has made it much more difficult for accountants to show their value in their roles, more difficult to take on new responsibilities and more difficult to meet the requirements for new jobs.

With this in mind, AT sought expert advice from recruiters, HR professionals and accounting careers advisers on how AAT members can get ahead in this environment and make themselves excel through practical tips and advice.

Common threads

For AAT members facing these scenarios, there are some common steps that can be taken to help remain relevant and overcome short-term hurdles.

In particular, members should bear in mind that keeping abreast of CPD and similar personal development endeavours helps maintain learning and performance, but it must be done in the round, rather than being purely technical.

“It keeps the cogs turning,”  explains Carol McLachlan, chartered accountant and founder of career coaching consultancy
“It has to be rounded and it has to be continuing professional education in its broadest sense. It needs to cover things like problem-solving in a virtual environment, for example.”

Similarly, she adds, it’s key for accountants to avoid the trap of treating virtual and in-person working as binary opposites.

“There are shades of grey, where you would do things exactly the same online as you would in the office,” McLachlan says. “Equally, you shouldn’t assume that everything translates to the other environment as well. That’s one of the toughest things at the moment, because there’s not a lot of empirical research on the best ways to go about things.”

Getting ahead in your current job

For those who are continuing in their current roles, there are still opportunities to develop and improve, McLachlan notes.

“It’s vital to be patient and not to make knee-jerk decisions,” she explains, advising that members maintain a “current CV” that is used as a working document rather than in preparation for a career move.

“Think beyond the technical tasks you can do,” she says.
“With any accounting qualification, the technical skills are taken for granted, it’s what you can do with those skills.”

To that end, McLachlan advises accountants to start a working document “to capture all those transferrable opportunities and experiences”.

“It’s better to operate from a place of safety and invest in your personal development to really broaden and boost your knowledge. Leverage your current job and get the most out of the opportunity you have at the moment by doing a skills audit and figuring out where you have skills gaps. Similarly, you can try out some other things. If you are taking a risk and trying to adopt new skills, it’s actually better to do that in the security of a current job, rather than over-stretching for a new one.”

As finance teams, like other departments, shrink, some more senior-level skills are now required in more junior roles.
It’s something Natasha Kearslake, director at HR consultancy Organic P&O Solutions has noted, particularly around communication: “[Accountants] can’t be passive. The challenge is getting information that they need out of people that they can’t readily observe.”

 Practical steps you can take

  • Create a working document of your skills, expertise and experiences to help focus on your role.
  • Set up regular calls with your line manager to establish clear lines of communication to gain all the information you need.
  • Take advantage of the security in your role to try new skills.

The Change Curve

The Change Curve helps to explain the impact of change, both on individuals and organisations, and provides a useful template to the experience many members have had, or are having, as a result of the pandemic.

By predicting the likely responses to change, you can accelerate development and provide yourself and your colleagues with timely help and support.

As defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the Change Curve recognises four stages in our reactions to change:

  • People’s first responses are often shock and denial, so it’s vital to keep fully informed about what’s going on.
  • Anger and fear often come next. At this stage, handle all the emotions involved with sensitivity and care.
  • People gradually accept their new situation, but they’ll still need time to get used to it.
  • The final stage is total acceptance and integration with your current work or situation.

Taking on new responsibilities

The most obvious impact of coronavirus on jobs for many accountants has been assuming new and additional responsibilities in their work. This can be sudden and put greater demand, not just on time and resources, but on skills, too.

“It’s very much about understanding where their expertise sits and where it doesn’t,” explains Kearslake.

“As accountants have had to navigate through this period of change, what they’ve done is start to go into the softer side.”

That, explains McLachlan, is crucial in taking the major step of communicating regularly and proactively with colleagues, and feeling comfortable in asking for help.

“There needs to be a lot of touch-points and creation of that trust so you can ask questions, but by the same token, I’ve come across a lot of people who feel isolated,” she says.

“That’s what you reallyhave to overcome.”

Practical steps you can take

  • Be proactive in your communication
    with colleagues and clients, particularly where they are relevant to your new responsibilities.
  • Approach a senior colleague who
    can act as a mentor in order to help
    your development.
  • Get clarity on what your new responsiblities entail to ensure you
    are able to deliver on them.

Finding a new job

While the job market has tightened over the last 12 months, the profile of candidates sought has also changed. Specialist recruiter Robert Half has observed high demand for candidates with the financial modelling, data analysis and forecasting experience required to help guide business strategy. It has also noted a significant increase in demand for technically-savvy candidates with soft skills to help businesses rebuild.

“Over the past few years, accountants have had to be more outgoing and commercial,” explains recruitment consultant Tom Wood of Morgan McKinley. That’s become more important since the pandemic hit, as it’s even harder to build client relationships as an accountant when there’s no face-to-face interaction.”

He warns, too, that accounting firms “are being more picky”, partly, he says, “because they know they can be”, but also because it’s harder for them to provide training to new hires.

“They need to be even more trusting that someone knows what they’re talking about,” Wood says, noting that one-on-one feedback and training are more readily available in the office than remotely. “Particularly in the current market, not only do you have to be good in-person, you have to be as technically strong as you can, because it’s more difficult [for employers] to onboard someone when you can’t physically meet them.”

A key part of overcoming this for candidates is ensuring their softer skills are strong and making the most of CPD programmes, Wood says.

“It’s difficult to repurpose or retrain technical skills,” he explains. “The softer skills help and are even more important at the moment. I get the sense that a lot of accountants don’t utilise all the training and CPD open to them. There’s an awful lot that the accounting bodies are doing to make sure their students and members have access to up-to-date information.

“I’d urge accountants looking for work to do everything they can to make sure they’re technically up-to-date and improving their soft skills. When it comes to an interview, if a candidate says, ‘I’ve been doing CPD through AAT’, it shows that not only are you up-to-date, but you’ve got a good attitude to better yourself.”

Kearslake seconds Wood’s assessment. “Emotional intelligence, communication skills, managing workloads well and organisation all become of greater importance,” she says. “These were all desirable traits previously, but they have now become essential.” 

 Practical steps you can take

  • Ensure you are up-to-date both technically and in soft skills by taking CPD courses through AAT.
  • Recommended reading: No Hard Feelings: Emotions at Work and How They Help Us Succeed, by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy.

Calum Fuller Calum Fuller is editor of AT and 20 magazines. He's previously served as editor of Credit Strategy, assistant editor Accountancy and began his career at Accountancy Age..

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