Practice careers: which way now?

practice careers cover

One of the great advantages of working in an accountancy practice,
irrespective of its size, is that there will always be plenty of opportunities
to try something different. Whether it is a switch from audit work to
consultancy or tax advice, or a change of sector from, say, non-profit
organisations to banks and financial institutions, opportunities can be easily

But you shouldn’t expect such moves to land in your lap. You have to get out
there and find them, because you won’t be the only one looking to widen your

Accountancy practices ceased being merely audit firms a long time ago, and
despite the worries over conflicts of interests, which forced a number of the
larger firms to move out of management consultancy work altogether, there are
still more opportunities now than ever before to switch jobs without changing
firms. And a good breadth of experience will stand you in good stead as you
climb the promotional ladder. So where should you start looking?

The growth of merger and acquisition business has kept corporate finance
departments constantly on the lookout for talent. Increasing tax compliance
means that tax advisers need all the help they can get, while the threat of
fraud or a possible economic downturn make busy forensic accounting and business
recovery departments attractive to recently qualified professionals. Internal
audit is sexy in the wake of Sarbanes-Oxley, and corporate and social
responsibility services are also growing in popularity. There are also the
structured finance departments, pension and actuarial practices and public
sector groups, to name but a few.

Nor do you have to stay on the client-facing side of the business. There is
always a demand for qualified staff in a practice’s training department, or you
might even consider a spell in marketing and business development.

Clearly, not everyone is suited to all these possible roles, but partners and
directors have a number of common requirements from those who want to join the
ir particular areas.

Sam Weston, a human resources director at Grant Thornton, highlights the
required strengths. ‘You will need good client handling skills, strong
communication skills, equally strong practical skills and the ability to defend
your own opinion,’ she says.

She adds that standing your ground is particularly important when working in
a corporate finance department, where you might be asked to give an opinion that
the client simply doesn’t want to hear.

But above all else, Weston says that people who want to move into such areas
need to demonstrate keen commercial awareness.

Creativity will also figure high on the wish list for a prospective new
partner, no more so than in tax. ‘You will need to be able to interpret tax laws
and not just look at the numbers,’ Weston says.

Grant Thornton, like many other practices, takes steps to ensure that newly
qualified professionals are made aware of opportunities in the firm through a
one-on-one career planning meeting.

Likewise, KPMG’s director of learning and development Akber Pandor urges
newly qualifieds to talk to their peers and managers so they can take an
informed decision. Through a system of ‘people management leaders’ KPMG staff
are taken through a five-stage process to ensure that moves, both internally and
externally, are carefully considered by staff.

The first stage is to understand yourself: think about your strengths and
particular skills. Second, think about where you want to be in the future.
Third, research all the available options, both internally and externally. After
this, you can clarify your options and finally take an informed decision.

Pandor says the concept of people management leaders – where senior managers
at KPMG pull back from client work and are dedicated full-time to developing
their staff – is proving a popular career move in itself. ‘In financial services
we are now having to turn people away,’ he says.

Pandor says that the firm’s advisory services – not to be confused with old
style management consultancy – are also proving very popular. They include
transaction services and private equity, which are flavour of the month. Other
areas of the broad advisory service include restructuring and forensic

As Pandor says: ‘Forensic accounting takes auditing to a very different
level. It can get you out of the routine work and into nonrecurring project
work. People love it.’

And, as Weston observes, forensic accounting would suit those with an
inquiring mind who are not happy just to take matters at face value.

Finally, don’t forget about audit. Pandor says that his firm is busy
reselling audit to its own staff. ‘The job is so different now from when I used
to be an auditor. ’But he adds that KPMG learnt a long time ago that you can’t
keep everyone in audit.

So the opportunities are clearly out there, but you need to hunt them down.
The smart people will identify growth areas before the rush. For instance, if
you think the current interest in private equity will not last, why not move to
corporate restructuring to help pick up the pieces.

Above all else, though, talk to partners, find out what sort of person works
in those areas and ask yourself: ‘Is this me?’

Move up without moving on

You don’t have to move to develop your career. It is always possible to build
up a specialism within your own department, which could be on the technical side
or an industry sector.

According to Tim Forster, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ head of UK experienced
recruitment, the cross-disciplinary nature of much of a firm’s work means that
staff can be exposed to different parts of the firm without having to change

‘You might not have to actually move to start getting experience of different
areas,’ he says. ‘But you need to be proactive, and make it known that it’s the
sort of work you want to do, and work the network that you know. Then people can
make formal decisions and change direction later on.’ Secondments are an
effective way of, as Forster says, ‘dipping your toe in the water’. He says:‘
Short-term secondments are not a one-way ticket – they give you the opportunity
to try something out.’

International secondments are particularly popular, not Only with
individuals, but with their practices as well, and will be seen as a
career-enhancing move.

‘We push it quite hard. Most senior partners have done a stint overseas,’
says Forster. ‘It is seen as a great way of broadening your network, and it is a
great retention tool for us. People like doing it and like to feel they’ve got a
home to comeback to.’

Practices will also place considerable emphasis on continued learning, either
on the job or through more formal routes. Make the most of these opportunities.

As well as the more run-of-the mill courses, KPMG, for instance, can offer
its high-fliers an executive MBA, run in conjunction with Edinburgh Business
School and ENPC in Paris. Likewise, PwC offers its own business diploma with
input from London Business School.

Participation in such courses will go someway to answering the conundrum of
experience. PwC’s Forster says that some of the more specialist areas, such as M
&A, are more likely to take on those with prior knowledge of the area.

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