At the beginning of your career, there are many fundamental principles that you “don’t know you don’t know”.
But by tapping into the knowledge of professionals who’ve made their way up the career ladder, some of those early pitfalls can be avoided. So what advice would seasoned accountants give to those at the start of their working lives?
Mark Young is an advisory accountant at HMRC. For Young, the key is to think about your career long-term but not be too inflexible with regards to the overall game plan.
“Early on I was given the opportunity to work overseas,” he says, “but I decided it wasn’t the right thing in that particular moment of my professional life.” Young now sees this as a missed opportunity: “Looking back and putting it into perspective, at worst it would have only been a small blip on my CV – but would have greatly contributed to my personal development. Don’t be afraid to take the opportunities that come along.”
With that in mind, “be true to your ambitions,” Young says. “In particular it’s quite easy to make small compromises to your ambitions that individually don’t amount to much but collectively can result in your potential not being fulfilled.”
Young admits he made “a number of compromises which over time resulted in moving further and further away from accountancy. That wasn’t a conscious decision.” How did he shift the direction back onto his chosen career path? “I was fortunate enough to have a mentor that helped me to see this, and I made the changes necessary to align my career with my original ambitions.”
At a more day-to-day level, what are the lessons to bear in mind? Claire Owen-Jones, an Accountant at Loud and Clear Accounting, gave us her views: “You’ll never learn everything – accountancy is too vast a subject,” she says, “So don’t try; there’s too much to take in, and there’s the risk you won’t feel up to the job.”
Secondly, be flexible in your working habits. “The knowledge that you gain is fixed, but how you work will constantly change. Be open to this. Finding new ways of working is okay.”
Lastly, focus on elements that you’re passionate about. “It’s okay to prefer accounts over tax, and vice versa. Not everyone finds looking at a business’s finances and analysing its performance exciting. Meanwhile, not everyone finds giving advice on current and future tax savings exciting.” For Owen-Jones the important thing is to recognise that this is normal – you can choose your path.
What not to do
Regarding the classic pitfalls to avoid – what do our experienced professionals wish they had steered clear of when they were younger? Owen-Jones offers three dangers to avoid on your professional journey:
- Resisting change. “If you can, try to stay curious and question things; keep learning.”
- Rushing. “Just because software enables you to do things quickly, this doesn’t mean you should cut corners. Attention to detail still matters.”
- Not linking time to money. “You may have a charge-out rate and have to complete a time sheet, but try to remember that the work you do outside of that time sheet still has a value.”
Young adds the long-term viewpoint to this: “Neglecting the importance of obtaining a professional qualification is a key pitfall,” he says.
Young continues: “It’s easy to fall into the trap of prioritising short-term salary gain over obtaining that qualification. You’re in it for the long game, and a professional qualification will reap rewards throughout your career. Plan and prioritise your route to achieving an appropriate qualification right from your first role.”
“Believe in yourself and don’t give up,” says Young. “Every job is hard at first, and it can seem an insurmountable task to develop the skills and knowledge of your peers. But stick with it and you will get there.”
In the meantime, “recognise the value that you add by bringing different views and fresh ideas.” Young shares the story of his first day in a new role where the head partner told him “it’s great to meet such a good accountant.” Young’s response was to query how he could possibly know this as they had only just met. The partner responded: “If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here.”
Professionals at the start of their career can often experience this gap in their self-belief. “When in a particularly challenging situation, I would remind myself that if I weren’t up to the job, I wouldn’t be there.”
The changing face of accountancy
Finally, we asked our interviewees if things are easier or harder for new accountants entering the profession? They answered, ‘a little of both.’ “I think technology has had both a positive and negative effect on entering our profession,” says Owen-Jones.
“When I first entered accountancy, the junior roles ranged from filing through to bank reconciliations. In my last job and in my own business we run paperless offices and use cloud software.”
This means that the ‘traditional’ junior tasks have gone, Owen-Jones says, or have been automated: “For someone trying to get a job with little or no experience, there are fewer basic tasks to be given.” As a result, “there are fewer junior roles up for grabs.”
However, “if you do get a junior role, instead of filing you are becoming Xero certified.” And instead of doing bank reconciliations, for example, you might be producing VAT returns and learning new apps. “So you get to experience more actual accountancy and how it fits into businesses and people’s lives,” Owen-Jones concludes. “I think that’s really exciting.”
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