I blame Monty Python. It may be 30 years since the Pythons’ serial lampooning of accountants – but their mischievous legacy lives on. Ask people to link dullness to a particular profession and accountancy consistently tops the poll.
Before I dig my grave any deeper – I should stress that I don’t share this view. The days of the faceless ‘bean-counter’ are long gone, with accountants now expected to offer far more than their core number-crunching expertise.
A promotion to partner or finance director is increasingly dependent on an individual’s wider commercial skills – in particular, an understanding of business dynamics such as profit generation and margins combined with greater sensitivity to customer needs.
And that’s not all. Aside from demonstrating commercial awareness, accountants also have to be confident people managers. Traditional hierarchical reporting structures have been swept away. The emphasis is now on team working and consultation with colleagues. Junior employees have become more demanding. They expect their seniors to listen to them and to take an active interest in their career development.
In short, today’s senior accountant is expected to fill several roles: practitioner, financial controller, marketer, salesman and mentor.
New skills don’t just appear; they have to be learnt. You can’t expect things to change simply by chanting the ‘people are our greatest asset’ mantra. Moreover, accountants, like other professionals, have to acknowledge the links between new ways of working and improved bottom line performance.
There is increasing evidence that highlights the critical relationship between people and business success, but too many organisations continue to lose competitive advantage by not addressing this issue effectively. When Karl Marx was asked if he was a philosopher, he said: ‘I am not a philosopher, and the reason for that is that philosophers only describe the world. My job is to change it.’
The big question is how should tight development budgets be allocated to achieve maximum returns for the business? As business psychologists we’ve had the opportunity to assess and develop the leadership talent of more than 9,000 managers across a range of sectors worldwide. This database allows us to compare leaders in accountancy with other sectors.
Many organisations use 360 degree surveys as a means of managers getting feedback. Bosses, colleagues and subordinates all have a chance to comment on an individual. Our latest study analysed the survey results of 250 people from sectors including retail, financial services, utilities, engineering, legal partnerships and accountancy firms.
The group was split 70:30 between men and women, with nearly three quarters described as ‘managers’ and the rest ‘senior technical specialists’. The study itself focused on the open question ‘He/she needs to learn to …’ in order to identify common development needs and gain a picture of the individual.
Accountants share some characteristics with leaders in other sectors – they are equally assertive, communicative and confident in their own abilities. They are also similar in their need for improved delegation skills, although accountants are slightly less developed in this area. There are, however, some notable differences.
First the good news. As relative strengths go, emotional intelligence is high on the list. Accountants have a relatively strong ability to change their style to suit different groups, control their emotions, and are open to, and tolerant of, the feelings of others. They also score well on information sharing. Employees who can, and will, share information are crucial in today’s knowledge economy and the accountants are relatively advanced in their application of this. And unlike many of the other sectors, listening is a relatively strong skill for accountants. This may reflect the need for precision in a field that rewards objectivity and the ability to ensure relevant information is attained before decision-making.
But the study also highlighted areas where accountants were relatively weak. Just over half the accountants appraised needed to improve their awareness of business dynamics such as profit generation, margins and pricing.
They were also seen as lacking a broad appreciation of the operations of different parts of the business and market.
The sample of accountants also tended to have a limited understanding of client needs and were therefore less effective when responding to them.
Accountants also need to improve their ability to accept and act upon adverse criticism without letting it upset them.
Despite the stereotypes, today’s accountants are becoming more effective communicators: they listen and they are learning to adapt to flatter, more collaborative management structures. But it is crucial for their own success and that of their business that they improve their commercial understanding and become more entrepreneurial in their outlook. This ability to think broadly and strategically in order to navigate the ever-evolving corporate landscape will add significant value as the sector continues to grow.
Becoming more sensitive to changing client needs means accountants will also be able to give clients what they want at an emotional as well as a practical level. Those who provide this level of individual service will reap the benefits of client retention and on-selling.
Acquiring commercial and client know-how is a straightforward exercise. It can be developed through experience and coaching. The question is whether accountants can accept this feedback as constructive and drive themselves to expand their repertoire.
Andrew Parry is a consultant at business psychology firm Kaisen Consulting
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