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#AAYP 2013: Modern accountants – people who think differently

PROMPTED BY THE GLOBAL RECESSION and evolving technology, finance and accounting teams have shrunk and services are now commonly shared or outsourced. At the same time, more organisations are becoming global and structurally complex, and there is more regulation.

To remain relevant, the profession must face these challenges and adapt, which means young and new accountants must develop new skills, too. “You’d be forgiven for thinking that, to succeed in this landscape, accountants now need to be genetically engineered super-professionals,” says Neil Johnson, editor of ACCA Careers. Fortunately, there are some core skills which will give you a head start.

According to the new report from ACCA, Talent and capability in global finance functions, such skills are tacit knowledge of business and analytical capability. “The market also wants ‘people who think differently’,” adds Gavin Aspden, ICAEW director of qualifications.

Modern skills
In response to market demand, the profession is becoming more consultative. While accountants are still perceived as ‘trusted advisers’, they now also need to be commercially-minded ‘business partners’.

“Traditionally, accountants have analysed and communicated the meaning of historical financial information to clients,” says Nick Winters, RSM Tenon’s head of audit for London. “Modern accountants, however, also need to be able to advise on business strategy, operations, systems and people as well as finance and this means an in-depth understanding of their clients and of their clients’ businesses.”

ACCA’s recent The future of finance talent report says advancing internet and mobile technology has a big impact on the ‘business partnering’ activities, too. Big Data (the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created every day, according to IBM) is both a challenge and an opportunity – modern business advisers need to be able to extrapolate, forecast and correlate massive customer data sets to drive better decision-making and help clients achieve their strategic business goals.

Future leaders
Accountants are, and will remain, an important source of leaders in business – for example, according to a report from TheCityUK published last January, over a third of board members in companies included in FTSE indices are chartered accountants.

Therefore, young accountants who want to succeed as business leaders of tomorrow need to develop skills going beyond technical competencies required by the profession. “They must learn to drive strategic opportunities, appreciate wider consequences of business decisions and be prepared to challenge others’ thinking,” says Mel Wombwell, head of talent development at Grant Thornton. “They also need to learn how to overcome barriers to change and how to support their colleagues in unlocking their potential.”

They must learn business development, too. “They need to be proactive in building their networks and their personal brand, and in generating business revenues. This means being consistently curious about markets and the commercial world in order to be relevant to potential clients,” says Winters.

Social media play an increasingly important role in business development – nowadays every respectable accountant has a LinkedIn profile and a pool of ‘Connections’. As for the proof that you can generate business leads via LinkedIn, “one of our partners has recently been asked to tender for an audit by a well known retailer and the request came to his LinkedIn account,” says Winters.

It has never been easier to engage with clients, prospects and other people on a one-to-one basis. “Young accountants need to understand these new social media tools and how to use LinkedIn to build peer-to-peer networks and Twitter to ‘listen’ to clients, thought leaders and intermediaries,” says Paul Thomas, digital senior manager at Grant Thornton.

Professional training
To equip young accountants for the modern profession, both ICAEW and ACCA ensure their qualifications are first and foremost about understanding business. “In the process of becoming a chartered accountant, you get to develop business leadership skills rather than just learn how to produce a set of accounts,” says Aspden. “Also, with the huge amount of resources now available, we place a great emphasis on teaching to data cleanse, to analyse and apply information. It’s that combination of knowledge and skills that allows people to deliver at the highest level.”

Johnson believes training and professional development must act as a driving force as much as a support mechanism. “Also, all corners of the profession need to work together to give young professionals the best chance of success,” he says. And this means employers must play their part, too. “Firms must offer combined training and role experience programmes,” says Winters. “This means giving the next generation a wide knowledge of sectors, businesses and internal client services at a far earlier stage than we used to.”

This is also what the new recruits to the profession demand. “The stereotypical notion of an accountant as a grey-suited back-office bean-counter is well and truly buried,” says Johnson. “These days accountants can make a real difference to the direction and performance of a business and the new recruits see what opportunities a career in accountancy can offer.”

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