What different skills do you need working for larger or smaller clients?

When you are thinking about your career in the early stages you often have the option of working for a small firm or accepting a role at a large organisation.

What are the pros and cons of each route, how can you decide, and what are the benefits in terms of career development?

Should you go for a small or larger firm when considering your career options?

Both small and large firms have their respective merits and differences and choosing between the two is a very personal decision, says Jo Howell, Recruitment Manager at Cathedral Appointments which places candidates in a range of accountancy and financial services jobs.

“In smaller businesses, your role will be much more varied, though your career prospects may be limited by the nature of how the business operates,” she says. “Larger organisations may have clearer career paths already carved out for you, they give you a wider pool of contacts to network with, and your role may be quite niche. However, that’s the flip side – it can be easy to fall into an area which is highly specialised.”

Typically, larger firms are well-versed in delivering training packages and the whole experience may feel more seamless – simply because they train new recruits so often. This may feel as though you’re receiving more support, as there’s stronger scaffolding surrounding you.

Chris Goulding, Managing Director of specialist finance, accountancy and HR recruitment agency Wade Macdonald, says it is important to assess your strengths and ambitions to make the right decisions accordingly. 

The first thing to consider are your short and moderate-term goals,” he says. “Do you want to take on high-concentrated responsibilities or have many fingers in different pies? Companies of all sizes come with different benefits so, work out whether the company you are applying for will give you the short-term experience needed to get to your moderate-term goals.”

When making your first career choice, much depends on what experience you are after and whether you are looking to hone in on one area of interest or get a wider overview first.

“To figure this out, consider your mid-term goals and decide accordingly. It can be worth taking the time to experience both environments, especially if you are unsure,” he says. “Additionally, your personality may be better suited to a certain company size.”

What if I change my mind about my career choice?

The good news is that times have changed, and you won’t be committing yourself to the company for 25 years or more, says Jo Howell. If it doesn’t feel right after a while, you can try something new. However, if you’re absolutely sure of the direction you want to go in, then go for it and get in early.

Simply put, the most important aspect of how you choose to spend your working days is whether you’re working with good people.

“You will gain immeasurable experience by being surrounded with the right people, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time,” she says. “Once you’ve found your tribe and situated yourself in your natural arena, you’re sure to excel.”

What skill sets are employers looking for in today’s new starters and what type of first role will develop these?

The financial sector looks a lot different what it did 18 months ago, and it will continue to evolve.

“Young talent is the key to accommodating this as the finance demands more digital, data and analytical skills,” says Chris Goulding. “To nurture these skillsets, companies must consider offering their graduates ongoing learning and development (L&D) opportunities to upskill internally and keep their workforce ever progressing.” 

Digital skills have been essential in an era of remote working, and they’ll continue to be, says Jo Howell. You’ll need to be familiar with Teams and Zoom, socially nimble, and more generally speaking, literate in the latest technology. These skills can be gained through work experience, internships and even volunteering.

Jo Lozinska, Employability Manager at The University of Law Business School, says employers tend to look for the same skills and qualities. “A positive and hardworking attitude is all important, reliability, willingness to learn, teamwork, communication skills, accuracy and attention to detail, some commercial awareness and initiative,” she says.

Being in your first job will hone and develop most of these skills to some extent and you will of course get an experience of the technical side of accountancy. When recruiting staff, employers are often more interested in your soft skills as they can teach you the more advanced technical skills.

“Their recruitment processes will reflect this in the type of exercises they use in an assessment centre,” she says. “For example, getting you to work as a team on a particular problem and the types of interview questions they ask.”

How much support are you likely to get when you first start?

A key consideration when you are looking at different options for your first or second job is to think about how much support you are likely to receive in your new role.

“The support offered to graduate and junior staffdepends on the company policy and line manager, not the size of the company,” says Chris Goulding. “Some multinational firms have unfavourable support processes while smaller firms can invest heavily in their teams’ wellbeing, and vice versa. It is worth asking the company on the structure of their mentorship programmes to figure out if the level of support suits you.”

Mandy Watson, Managing Director at recruitment experts Ambitions Personnel, says there is no such thing as ‘the best way’ to start your career. “You only have to speak to a few top finance professionals to soon see that they have all got to where they are via very different routes,” she says.

“Careers generally don’t follow a straight line and that’s what makes it interesting. This should be reassuring to people starting their career or even those looking to change careers.

“In a small company, you’re potentially going to be exposed to a wider range of areas which can help give a greater understanding of what goes into running a business and the chance to broaden your skills. Within a smaller team you’re also more likely to be given more responsibility within a shorter time frame. However, opportunities to progress up the career ladder may be more limited and you could hit a ceiling fairly quickly.

“In a larger firm, you may find the environment to be more structured with more opportunities for formal training. Your career path may also be more defined with a clearer route for progression and you’ll perhaps specialise in a specific area. That said, within a more defined role you may have less chance to be exposed to other aspects of work or the wider company.”

Is it a bad idea to specialise too early?

There is no such thing as bad work experience as skills and proficiencies will always be gained, as will a clear understanding of what you want and don’t want from a company, says Chris Goulding.

When considering specialising in a certain field of finance, it is important to understand what your midterm goals are. Do you want to be in this area in five to ten years’ time? If not, perhaps another opportunity would be more worth your while. However, one opportunity has the potential to open doors to a completely new one, so don’t shy away from stepping out of your comfort zone. At such early stages, all relevant experience can work towards getting to your goals because each step leads to another.

Liz Sebag-Montefiore, career coach and Director of 10Eighty, an HR Consultancy, says going for a larger firm (i.e. a graduate for one of the Big Four) is a fantastic way to get into the industry and working for a well-respected name will stand out on your CV and help with the next role.

“A larger firm is also more likely to have structured mentoring schemes so individuals can work on competencies to develop and learn off their mentor,” she says.  In a smaller company it is easier to get involved in things outside your strict job description.

“With fewer people in the company it is easier to volunteer to get involved in career enhancing projects. That way once you’re ready to leave when you know what you’d like to do, as well as specialising in that particular area, you have a whole host of other skills and talents that you can bring to your new role above and beyond what’s required.”

Jo Lozinska, says it is important to think about what you really want out of a job and your future career. “It’s not always about the money, it’s about work life balance, being part of a team, feeling supported, taking a risk even,” she says.

Key takeaways

  • A large company will offer structured training and progression within an established system of support.
  • An SME may give you more responsibility earlier on, you may get to do a wider range of tasks and work more informally.
  • Look at each company individually and think about the kind of person you are- someone who likes to be a part of a well-established organisation or someone who thrives on more responsibility early on?
  • As you study for your accountancy qualifications what options do you have in terms of mentoring, work experience, study leave and support?
  • Other considerations include whether there is an active social life involving staff. Does the company provide opportunities to socialise with colleagues, does it encourage voluntary work?
  • Think about the culture of the firm, and whether it sits well with your personality, aspirations, and career goals.

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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