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#AAYP 2015: Foundations and formative years of a career in accountancy

WE are no longer living in an age where being a solid number cruncher will guarantee you reach the heady heights of the accountancy profession.

Today’s accounting professionals need to have much wider experience and knowledge of compliance, financial analysis, business systems, auditing, cost control, M&As and market trends as well as adopting a more consultative approach in their dealings with clients and business colleagues.

Without a doubt your mid-late 20s are the formative years in the profession. If you get the foundations right during this time, you will be in a better place to shape your career and achieve success early on.

While I would steer away from being too prescriptive about the path of being a successful accountant (and many of you may know or know of someone who achieved success by veering off the beaten track) there are some things you may want to consider as you make your way:

Map your career

Whether you work in practice or industry, it seems career development paths may not always a top priority for employers – or at least that’s what CareersinAudit.com have heard from accountants across the globe in our annual research over the past five years. In an ideal world, every company would take time to make sure their staff have a clear and structured career plan. In reality it doesn’t always work that way.

My advice is to be pro-active. Create a plan yourself – it doesn’t have to be a five year plan, but a good two or three year plan will help you know where you want to get to and you can start mapping what it will take to get there. This may be expanding your skill and knowledge set, so attending courses and doing additional training may prove invaluable. Perhaps it will be a move to industry, a different department or even abroad. Sometimes you can’t wait to be picked out as the rising star and you need to push yourself forward. Take the initiative to speak to your line manager or HR manager about how you can take your career to the next stage. At the same time, if your prospects for progression don’t look good then moving is probably your best option.

William Packer, 30, who did his training at KPMG and now works in industry for Sony believes planning is key. “Be clear what you want, how you can achieve this and the steps you will need to take. Rather like chess, you need to be several moves ahead”.

Justin Fynes, now in his early 30s, has built up an impressive CV having worked at Deloitte, Grant Thornton, the Bank of England, and now heads up the IT, audit and risk function for Sony Playstation Europe. He believes you can become disengaged if you don’t get the right experiences. “Don’t always go for the easy option. Sometimes it’s important to get out of your comfort zone and not become stale in a role. There’s a danger you can stay in a place or role too long.”

Make sure it’s the right move

Make sure you consider carefully why you are making the move. A job with a few more pound signs added to your monthly pay cheque may seem appealing, but do question what your next role will be adding to your CV, even it’s not an obvious move up and/or sideways. Will you be getting different experience – whether as a manager or gaining valuable new skills/learning about a new industry?

Of course, sometimes we make a move and it’s not what we anticipated. No matter how much research we do on the company and how many chats and formal interviews we have with people already working there. There may be a whole raft of reasons and the bottom line is it’s quite a different picture from the one painted when you were offered the job.

Should you move immediately? That really depends on how untenable you feel the role is and of course your financial circumstances. However there is a school of thought which says look at all the possibilities within the organisation before you exit – perhaps work with other teams or adopt a different approach to see all the positives you can still gain by staying there another year or 18 months.

Moving around too much

Many recruiters will tell you that it’s important to commit to a role for at least two to three years within an organisation, as continual flitting from job to job suggests a flighty accountant who doesn’t want to commit for too long, particularly in your late 20s. If you are looking to climb the accountant’s ladder then you should definitely have this front of mind.

On the flipside, we are seeing an increasing number of accountants choose contracting as an option. Some use this as a time to gain valuable experience in a new area – perhaps a move to industry – without having the pressure of commitment to one organisation. Others have become serial contractors because it suits their lifestyle. There are clearly pros and cons, but if you are seeking to be a partner or a FD/CFO as your end goal then it would be wise to make a commitment to an organisation for a while.

Practice v industry

Twenty years or 30 years ago, an accountant had to make a decision fairly early whether they were going to carve a career in practice or work in industry. Now the landscape is definitely changing. Gaining valuable commercial experience after a few years in practice can be viewed as a great benefit, particularly as the role of the accountant is becoming increasingly more consultative. It can still be possible to return to practice a few years later should you wish.

Stephanie Levin, 37, is now a partner at accountancy firm Shelley Stock Hutter. She started out at MacIntyre Hudson but early in her career went to a recruitment agent to talk about her options. She ended up going to work for Bupa for several years. “I had to take a leap of faith but I felt it was important to get new experiences and learn about a different industry. Making the move definitely gave me a greater awareness of how a company works from the inside. When I returned back to practice several years later it meant I had a much better understanding of the pressures and challenges some of my clients were facing.”

Even if you decide not to venture out to industry full time, it may be worth seeing if your firm can get you a secondment to work with one of your clients.

Get management experience

After you qualify, it’s about getting a much experience as possible in different areas so you are in a position to manage others. Making the right choices in your 20s can really give your career a flying start and crucially, create space between yourself and the competition. If you don’t have a managing role by the time you are heading to your 30s, start looking for one. Once you do get that experience make sure you increase the complexity and size of your team steadily.

Working abroad

In the bleak mid-winter, it’s easy to be lured by the prospect of working in a warm and sunny climate. If you decide to look overseas for a job, be sure you will be gaining some valuable new experience. Be warned that some of the accountancy hotspots are now being fiercely contended for by local accountants and expats who have been there a while. That said, international experience is definitely desired in 2015, as is knowledge of different languages and cultures. The Big Four accountancy firms, for example, highly rate international experience across any of their functions as mobility between countries is now the norm, especially within audit.

Keep on top of regulatory/industry changes and strive for knowledge

Professionals with good understanding of the ever changing regulatory environment are in high demand for audit, risk and compliance positions. Ben Kaye, an internal auditor in his late 30s whose career has seen him work for some leading global blue chip companies, believes it crucial to “stay current with all the changes that are going on. Be knowledge hungry. If you are working in industry you will need to have a broad knowledge. At all stages of my career, I have recognised the need for ongoing education – whether that’s attending events, training sessions so I am really up to date on best practices, compliance and regulatory changes.”

Stephanie Levin agrees “Continually trying to better yourself and making time to go on new technical or soft skill courses, even if your work load is demanding, will ultimately benefit you. You can’t be too complacent – that goes for whether you are newly qualified or a partner of 20 years”.

William Packer adds “It’s about being humble and not being overly confident. Know what you don’t know and then find a way to fill the gap.”

Have the right mind set

If you want to succeed in the profession and stand out, be prepared to go that extra mile. As Stephanie Levin adds “I took it upon myself to start having more of the mind-set of a partner. I wanted to do the extra bits such as the year-end meetings with clients. I was prepared to take ownership for my clients and show how I could make a difference.”

Moving to the next phase – 30s and beyond

Hopefully by the time you reach your early 30s, you will have gained some good experience and be very clear about the area you want to work in and where you are aiming for. You should also be feeling more confident. There are many ways to achieve success but above all it will be your focus and hard work which will see you transform your career ambitions to a reality.

Simon Wright is operations director at global job board CareersinAudit.com

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