How to prepare for your future as a qualified accountant

“Students should never wait until they pass assessments before they begin planning their future careers,” says Adrian O’Connor, Founding Director, Global Accounting Network.

“I would advise them to start the preparation a year or so in advance. As part of their career planning, they should be looking at getting a good all-round skillset through their training, and then ideally move towards the areas which interest them most as they become closer to qualifying.

“As they get very near, they should already be aware of what opportunities are available to them once they qualify. At this point they should arrange to speak with a select few recruiters to benchmark what is available in the market place.”

Start planning early on

For many people, the idea of a career in accountancy is synonymous with practice. However, it’s crucial that early-career jobseekers understand the whole spectrum of opportunities available to them.

According to a recent report from the Financial Reporting Council, Key Facts and Trends in the Accountancy Profession, collectively, over half of all members of all seven major accountancy bodies work within industry and commerce, with in-house roles typically offering more consistent hours, more control over workload and greater flexibility.

There are no hard and fast rules about what an employer looks for in new recruits as this will, of course, depend on myriad factors including role, company size, and specific circumstances, says O’Connor.

Be prepared to compromise

“Many of the people who fly in their career have done so by making the right choices in the early stages,” O’Connor says.

“For example, we placed a newly qualified candidate in a FTSE 100 business, where the initial role was a bit of a compromise. However, while that role was not their ideal job, they understood the skills they could gain and the prospects this would create made the sacrifice worthwhile. The lesson being that sometimes focusing on the mid to long-term makes it worth being flexible early on.”

Be clear about your ambitions

Rowena Barnwell FCCA is director of client services at inniAccounts and a chartered certified accountant with over 30 years of experience. She has advised hundreds of business owners and has held a variety of partner positions, and has experience of running her own business.

“Over the years I’ve managed my own career and helped others manage theirs,” she says. “Deciding which way to go is never an easy question to answer. So much of it is about ambition and personality and it’s why I advise people to think about where they see themselves in the future.

“Some people want to specialise, in which case that determines qualifications and practices they can join. Others want to run their own business, which requires all manner of other skills from HR to marketing.”

If you see yourself as a VP at an international bank then you will need more than accounting qualifications, you’ll also need experience of running a business. Those sorts of roles require a good aptitude for managing change and understanding the wider economics, locally and globally. That means thinking about roles outside of, but linked to accounting, and thinking about qualifications like MBAs.

What culture are you looking for?

Barnwell says that in a large practice, for example one of the big four accountancy firms, you are likely to move between disciplines broadening your skills.

“The culture will be broadly the same at large companies, and there will be room for your ambition to grow and come to fruition,” she says. “You’ll get plenty of access to mentoring, coaching and support to do qualifications.”

Smaller practices tend to have a very different culture to the bigger firms, which suits people who want to grow their career at a different pace or enjoy dealing with smaller clients. Small firms generally offer support to obtain qualifications, and they can be a great way to get hands on experience.

“If you decide later on that you would like to move from a small practice to a large firm, or vice versa, you will need to consider carefully the cultural differences that you may encounter,” she says. “It’s not impossible if you are prepared, but generally the cultural differences make it difficult to settle into a very different style of working.

You might find as you get into your career that you are drawn to industry from general practice. Lots of companies look for accountants from general practice because they have rounded skill and experience.

“Speaking from personal experience, I was certainly attracted to going into industry, but I realised while interviewing for roles that it wasn’t for me. It’s therefore worth keeping your mind open and trusting your instinct if you think you could be going down the wrong path.

Sometimes focusing on the mid to long-term makes it worth being flexible early on

Use your contacts

“One of the first decisions newly qualified accountants have to make is whether to stay or leave their current organisation,” says James Brent, Business Director, Hays Accountancy & Finance.

You’ve already developed good working relationships with your current managers, so it may be useful for your progression to sit down with them and map out some objectives that match your expectations and ambitions.

“As organisations are finding it more and more difficult to attract and retain talent it is likely they will be more willing to invest in you rather than recruiting a new hire,” he says. “Use this to your advantage if you’re wanting to stay and develop your career with your current employer.”

If you decide to stay, across a period of time you can expect a promotion, pay rise, and will see your role gradually changing and more responsibility given to you as you progress. Embrace this as a new opportunity to build on your knowledge and focus on what’s next.

“If you do decide to leave, you may be offered a counter offer, and in this situation it’s useful to sit down to explore your progression options with your current manager before you consider leaving,” he says. “Don’t however let this keep you away from having discussions with other organisations to see what they have on offer and how it compares.”

Practice or industry?

Another key decision you will have to make at the beginning of your career is, whether you want to work continue working in practice if that’s where you started, or industry, and vice-versa.

“Practice offers a more client facing role as you work with a portfolio of clients across different sectors and industries,” Brent says. “The longer you remain in a practice role, the harder it is to leave, however if you have your sights set on being partner think of how realistic this might be at your current practice.”

Industry accounting will allow you to have a much closer working relationship, as you support the business as it grows, focusing on core areas of one business rather than working with multiple clients.

“In industry you would be expected to develop more business and commercial skills. When considering this move think about whether you would prefer the variety that comes with working in practice or the exposure to a more operational role within industry.”

If you decide to go for industry, then stand out from the competition by targeting roles in industries you’ve already had experience in.

The best way to figure out what career options you have is to make career map, take a broad look at where you want to go and how you are going to get there. Think about what skills you need, and can your current employer offer that?

“Once you have a clearer idea of your road map, you will be well on your way to paving out a successful career.”

Find your own niche

Antonio Scamardella set up his own business, AJ Bookkeeping, a year and a half ago after getting frustrated by a lack of progress in his career. He now looks after 250 clients and over 60 limited companies. He provides bookkeeping services to small businesses, sole proprietors and business partners.

“It only took me three to six months of some marketing and social media sharing to get the business up and running,” he says.

“For me, the competitive edge of my business is that I speak English, Italian and Romania, and many of my clients come to me because they like to speak about tax and accounts in their own language.”

Many of his clients need to understand the rules around double taxation, and foreign residents who want to set up a limited company in the UK.

“I also have local clients who have a problem and want to call me and feel that they are being looked after,” he says.

He has been so successful that all his business is now word of mouth.

“I always return calls and emails. It is hard work, but worth it.”

Develop a broad range of skills

In today’s competitive business environment, professionals need to demonstrate they bring more to an organisation than just their qualifications, says Marc Trup, Co Founder of Arthur Online, a property management platform.

“In order to get a job in this field, it’s important to have a number of additional skills to help you stand out,” he says.

“New accountants need to understand their role inside the company and how businesses operate, so not just the financial services side of their work. Employers will value proactive individuals who can participate in every aspect of the company’s business strategy and contribute to further corporate objectives while working with other departments, so it is important to understand what goes on in the company at large.”

Analysis and critical thinking is a major part of any accountant’s role, he says.

“You will need to analyse finances within the context of current regulations and come up with reasonable suggestions to solve problems. Developing an understanding of the current legal framework and keeping up to date with the changing regulations will be critical in the process of making appropriate decisions and recommendations to clients.”

Keep an eye on the future

“You need to think beyond your accounting skill and where the industry is going,” says Barnwell. “For instance, we are adopting artificial intelligence. As things become more automated our accountants will need analytical skills so they can sense check the machines.”

Automation also means clients and accountants will have more time to think beyond the day to day, so accountants need to be able to provide the strategic advice that will help people grow their businesses.

“No matter where you go, you will need good communication and interpersonal skills – accounting is about trust and people will buy people.”

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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