Corporations, control and true callings – why do accountants leave industry?

Corporations, control and true callings – why do accountants leave industry?

AIMs Accountants for Business managing director Henry Edjelbaum on the motivation behind making the switch from industry to practice

When you start training as an accountant, you have to answer one big question – industry or practice? This one question probably has more impact on an accountant’s career than almost anything else they will come across, and might end up defining their entire working life. Accounting is a bit of an oddity in the financial world in that there are two extremely different subsets working under the same “roof”. Industry accountants and practicing accountants might both still be accountants in the technical sense of the word, but their worlds might as well be night and day. An auditor working for a corporation leads a very different working life to an account manager at the local firm, with a very different skill set required.

With all these differing factors, you would expect that an accountant would stay in the world they know – why leave when all your training has gone towards that side of accounting? Yet every year, there are some accountants who get so sick of the industrial world that they throw expectations to the wind and jump head-first into the world of practice, where they have few skills and even less knowledge. Why?

Corporate Control

The vast majority of accountants that work with AIMS come from an industry background and made that leap. If you were to ask them what drove them to it, you would get one stand-out answer: control – or rather, a lack of it. In many cases, the life of an accountant in industry is notoriously rigid – you are at the firm to do a specific job for a specific set of clients, with a specific set of tasks you need to get done day-in, day-out.

For some accountants, that might be their preferred way of working – you know exactly what you need to get done and you do it. For others, though, this confined way of working is anathema to them. Sometimes you have to do work that you don’t enjoy – that’s just life. But being forced to do work you don’t enjoy, with no option for you to influence what you’re working on? It’s easy to see why this wouldn’t appeal.

By contrast, the practice world presents opportunities for a far more open-ended career, especially if you go into a small or solo practice. Working with businesses in practice, especially smaller businesses with less established systems and organisations, means that every day offers different tasks to do and different responsibilities to fulfil. One day you might be helping fill in a tax return, the next you might be helping a business completely re-organise their payroll structure. For accountants who prefer more structured work, this kind of organisation is as frustrating to them as industry is to others. However, for those accountants sick of industry, practice presents a huge opportunity to utilise their skills in multiple different ways, and to have control over what they do on a day-to-day basis, rather than just having work assigned to them from above.

Responsibility and recognition

Just having control of their working life isn’t the only driving factor behind moving into practice, though. There’s also the linked, but distinctly different, drive of wanting to have real responsibility. In industry accounting it’s not uncommon to see large teams of accountants all working on a singular project underneath a small group of managers. Now, this isn’t an issue in and of itself – many hands make light work, after all. However, when everybody is all working towards one big project, it’s easy to feel like you’re a “cog in the machine”. When what you’re doing is just a tiny piece of an overall project, it doesn’t really feel you have any responsibility at all – especially when in some organisations, all the credit for the project will go the managers, not the workers.

On the other hand, in practice, you are often handed much more responsibility. While again this holds truer for smaller or sole practices, even in larger practices teams are normally much smaller, and the personal responsibility much greater. While this often ends up with each individual having more work to handle (or indeed, if you’re a sole practitioner, having to handle everything), for some accountants it’s an opportunity to really take pride in their work, and see exactly how their contributions have an impact on their clients. Similarly, when you’re congratulated for your work, you know exactly how much work you put into that client, and how those efforts have been rewarded.

Is there anything else?

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of the myriad reasons accountants go from industry to practice. Just like changing any job, there are a huge variety of reasons behind why an accountant might choose to make such a big career move. However, over the years, AIMS has seen these two reasons repeated time and time again as the driving force behind our accountants moving into practice. The two common factors are simple – control of your working life, and recognition for your own effort.

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