What I wish I’d known before I became a management accountant

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When asked how they started their career “I fell into it” is a modest and common response from many management accountants.

While the job may not be a calling from a young age, those in the field relish the mixture of freedom and responsibility the role can offer.

The role of a management accountant

Management accountants will advise managers on the financial consequences of big business decisions and inform business strategy with their analysis which will look at figures, business performance and any other relevant, even non-financial, information.

Management accountants working in industry may produce monthly reports on how the business is performing. In addition to this they may be asked to create ad hoc reports for executive teams, directors or any part of the business, explains Sarah Foxwell, Management Accountant at estate and letting agency firm Sequence, who also runs weekly reports on performance and responds to regular queries on profits and losses from sales teams.

Creating structure

“That monthly cycle doesn’t exist in most jobs and working to those deadlines is good as you have a separate, identifiable piece of work to finish each month,” adds Rick Gomez, a former management accountant with Europe’s largest dental care provider, Integrated Dental Holdings now mydentist.co.uk, who now works for accountancy trainers iCount.

“I like the freedom I’ve got in my job. You work to a monthly cycle and every day is fairly predictable, but I can plan my life quite well which works for me,” agrees Foxwell.

Get some fresh air

To make sure that doesn’t become “mundane”, both urge management accountants to take the opportunity to get out of the office.

“My bosses have encouraged me to forge relationships internally, increase knowledge, answer questions and show them [internal teams] how much work goes into what the management accountants produce,” says Foxwell.

Gomez says management accountants can really add value in this way: “I assumed that people out in the field would be very financially astute. It’s not until you get there that you realise some are, more than others, but it isn’t their strength.”

Speak in plain English

Management accountants who are “able to talk about finance, commercial and accounting in plain English” can add real value to the job, says Martin Mellor, founder of Mellor Financial Management, which works with SMEs.

It’s a combination of “knowing your numbers inside-out” to show off your skills and build a good reputation, and having the necessary “interpersonal skills” to communicate that information with non-accountancy-trained people, adds Foxwell.

Confidence and personality

“Being confident in yourself and your skills is incredibly important,” adds Nicola Bryant, who as Management Accountant for LEWIS, Scotland’s oldest marketing agency, has a wide remit including daily banking, sales and purchase invoicing, financial reporting and the preparation and production of monthly and annual management accounts.

“You can’t forget to be friendly and enthusiastic too as most people view accountants as boring and serious. I think it’s important to inject a bit of fun. It’s key to have strong Excel skills – specifically a good grasp of formulas is a must. In terms of soft skills, I’d also say that having good problem-solving skills will stand anyone in good stead.”

Being interested in, and confident enough to emerge from behind a desk and a spreadsheet to help the wider business is crucial.

Remember your role

“You’re not just producing and looking at figures for the sake of producing and looking at figures; it’s the use of the information and applying it in a real world situation. My drive is helping businesses improve their performance, and a management accountant can play a really important role in that,” says Mellor, who adds that it offers a “scale and scope” of opportunities of which new starters may not be fully aware.

If I had known about the AAT qualification, this is where I would have started

Open your mind to technology

In his 20 years’ working in financial management, the biggest change for Mellor has been the how the internet has shifted the systems and technology used by accountants, and made them more open and easy to use.

To those considering a career in management accountancy he says: “Be aware of that technology and the things it can do. Don’t be scared of change because in a commercial environment it’s only going to get more frequent. Have an open mind and be willing to go with it.”

Embrace progression

Foxwell had been training to be a teacher, but after deciding to change career direction, she found herself temping as a financial assistant for a lorry-rental haulage firm.

She then secured a permanent position as a purchase ledger clerk with a different business and was promoted within her first 18 months to assistant management accountant.

“I’ve U-turned and worked up from the bottom from minimum wage agency work to quite a respectable wage. It’s really quite hard to progress in accountancy because they want experience and qualifications. I’ve gone really quickly through the ranks, but my studying has taken a little longer, and that’s caused a little bit of friction when I’ve been applying for jobs.”

Be ready to be trained

Pushing for jobs internally has helped her to progress as she’s completed her AAT qualifications, and gained MAAT status: “I’d say to someone starting out, don’t be afraid to stick your head above the parapet. Employers are looking for potential not someone who knows everything already. They want to take you on board and train you in their own way.”

As a former management accountant, Gomez shares his industry experience with his students and says it’s important to manage the expectations of those starting out: “By the very nature of any of the accountancy qualifications you are only learning the most modern techniques. You are almost learning an idealistic view and the reality is that a lot of businesses are nowhere near that – that’s why practical experience is so important. If you are only getting a textbook view of what it’s like and then go into a bog-standard organisation, they may be miles behind.”

Bryant says it’s important to know the training options available to you too: “When I was studying accountancy at school and university, the AAT Qualification was never mentioned. In fact, I had never heard of AAT until I was working at Investors in People Scotland [where she began her finance career]. If I had known about the AAT qualification, this is where I would have started. Hindsight is a great thing!”

Laura Oliver is a Freelance Journalist and Former Head of Social and Community at the Guardian.

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