Career development: reaching for the top

When I was considering starting my career a number of senior, seasoned
business professionals told me that accounting was one of the best business
educations. Indeed, a glance at the senior executive profiles of top FTSE
companies reveals the prevalence of accounting qualifications in British
boardrooms. Clearly, accountancy is a path to the top, but how does one get

The single most important dimension that differentiates new recruits is
attitude. Intelligence is clearly important, but a critical threshold exists
above which marginal benefit rapidly diminishes.

Of course, accounting is one profession where performance is so
quantitatively measured through the examination requirements. Passing the
examinations is essential to continue a career as an accountant, but your
ability to score highly and separate yourself from the field – a function of
intellectual horsepower – does materially impact your early career options.

The right attitude

Prize-winning performance is of benefit only for a short time, however, and
the reality is that most exam-based credentials are important to get you in the
door, but matter little beyond that. What does matter are the same universal
principles that hold in any business career, with attitude at the top of the
list. Furthermore, within the set of critical attitudinal attributes, work ethic
is by far the most important.

Apart from ensuring a great attitude and a relentless work ethic, what are
these universal principles? They fall under two broad categories: developing the
right skills; and understanding how to navigate the political organisation.

The right skills vary from industry to industry and from role to role, but
there are a core set that are common to all, particularly in the early stages of
a career. First, is ensuring a systematic approach to the job. This involves
knowing how to be highly organised, an efficient time-manager and effective at
climbing the learning curve rapidly. Second, is performing rigorous and robust
research and analysis. Ensuring that you deliver quality end research and
analytic products to your managers is essential. Third, is effective
communication skills, which is often one of the most important differentiators
throughout a career. Finally, there are project and people management skills,
the latter of which becomes increasingly important you progress through the

In terms of navigating through the political organisation, there are three
critical things to think about: cultivating broad and deep networks; finding
influential mentors to offer advice and support, and to help with your
development; and being politically savvy. The latter means knowing how to manage
your perception and understanding how to position yourself most judiciously,
within an organisation.

Break out of the mould

Knowing how to position yourself in an organisation is particularly
important, because it is very easy to become typecast as a bean counter in some
organisations and considered as relatively unimportant to the real business of
making money. I have seen some very capable people stuck in roles where
meaningful promotion prospects were bleak – some of these were capable ACA
qualified individuals in finance positions.

Obviously, if you pursue your entire career in the accountancy profession,
organisational positioning is not as important because you have a ‘producing’
role and contribute to the revenue line. Progression in the long term is about
generating long-standing client relationships that contribute revenues to the
firm and early on and by employing all of the other universal principles
mentioned previously.

If you want to climb the accountancy profession hierarchy into the senior
tenured partnership ranks and then leverage longstanding client relationships to
secure a senior position outside of accountancy, then recognise that this is
essentially electing to pursue a path with the ultimate destination of a finance
director or chief financial officer. Realistically, it is unlikely that any firm
will be willing to place a seasoned long tenured partner into a prominent role
with, or leading to, any meaningful P&L responsibility. Your expertise is
high, but your option set narrow.

If you elect to depart the profession prior to partnership, then deciding
what role to take requires consideration. You can join an accounting/finance
department that directly leverages your trained skill set, or you can seek a
more generalist business role that leads to managerial and P&L
responsibility further down the line.

If you are planning on moving into a finance role without the explicit goal
of pursuing a path towards FD or CFO, there is due diligence to do. Find out
what the attrition rate has been historically in similar roles and the reasons
for it. High attrition can actually be a good thing, provided people are leaving
to pursue better opportunities and not because they are disgruntled.

Obviously, the fact that other people have been able to move on will set the
precedent for what opportunities you may be able to pursue elsewhere in the
organisation. It also indicates that there is room opening up above you if you
do choose to stay on the FD/CFO path. Low attrition and long-standing tenured
employees, however, suggest that you are joining a long and slow conveyor belt,
with distant prospects of becoming FD or CFO.

Right place, right time

If you move into a generalist business role with potential to earn P&L
responsibility, then you probably have the best chance of climbing the ranks the
fastest, although you still run the risk of being typecast. Indeed, many capable
qualified accountants stutter along in a finance department that was
marginalised from any real organisational influence. Similarly, some capable
qualified accountants accept non-finance roles only to find that they were
locked into a non P&L generating pathway. Once again, this is a situation
where due diligence is necessary.

Much success in a business comes from being in the right place at the right
time and this usually means being close to the money; that is a P&L
generating role, and the right chance a P&L opportunity with plenty of

Voice of experience

It is over eight years since I first walked through those revolving doors on
Bishopsgate in the financial square mile of London. I had finally made it
through the gruelling circuit of interviews and was about to embark on my very
first job, an entry-level graduate programme at a major investment bank. The
career ladder stood before me, and this was the first rung.

I joined 25 other new recruits. One of the senior directors kicked off the
day talking about the history of the firm, the kind of work we would be doing
and how exciting an opportunity this was for us. He continued by telling us
that, for each one of us sitting in our seats, there were at least a hundred
applicants who had been turned down. The part of the speech that I remember most
vividly was when he warned us that in two years many of us would no longer be
with the bank. Some, he explained, would leave of their own volition; others
would be asked to leave.

I remember looking around at my peers and, like Tom Cruise’s character,
Maverick, in the film Top Gun, wondering who was the best. They were an
impressive lot, mostly graduates of Oxford and Cambridge.

It turned out that those initial impressions of my peers were poor indicators
of who ultimately succeeded.If these talented individuals failed to be
successful on the first rung, what then is required? Is it not simply a case of
‘show up at work, do a good job and go home at the end of the day’? The bad news
is that it is not that simple.

(This is an edited extract from From New Recruit to High Flier)

Hugh Karseras is the author of From New Recruit to High
Flyer, published by Kogan Page, £9.99. To be awarded 10% off the cover price,
readers should go to
, add the book to the basket and then key in code MF241.

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