Time at the top

In the increasingly numbers-driven nature of international business, it pays
to be trained in accountancy. It often pays very well, in fact, but more
interestingly it also opens up a route to the top in many companies that didn’t
always exist.

There are now more accountants positioned as chairman or CEO of the UK’s top
100 companies than ever before – more than twice as many as in the 1990s.

The reason for this is that in simple terms, business has changed. It is
faster and more competitive than ever. Financial mistakes can make or break
companies in record time. As well as a strategic vision for the company, a
business leader has to have a confident grasp of details, and this usually means

A well-rounded business leader must possess an accurate and logical
understanding of a company’s components. Balance sheets provide such a picture,
and these are an accountant’s bread and butter. The reasoning and thought
process needed to dissect a balance sheet gives a solid base of skills for
understanding any business, no matter what the scale.

The pendulum has swung further in the favour of accountants in the wake of
the credit crunch. When the stock markets imploded in late 2008 and early 2009,
the rug was pulled out from under all but the most stable businesses. As a
result, many companies’ priorities changed. Leaders found they had to manage
costs rather than growth and this highlighted the need to have sound financial
stewardship at the top.

Business leaders can’t dine out on mathematical prowess alone, of course, and
there are plenty of managing directors and chief executives that aren’t
qualified accountants. But the accountancy route to the top of the executive
mountain is a path that is becoming increasingly well-trodden as accountants
become more and more valued for their strategic insight rather than just their
fiscal mastery.

And this effect is filtering down through business. Many career options are
opening up for accountants as their training increasingly ties in ‘softer’
skills such as communications and wider commercial awareness.

This improves their currency across a range of business roles, and in the
boardroom. And across the board, accountants are getting more opportunity to
influence the commercial drivers of their businesses.

It is no surprise that interest in accountancy among young people remains
strong. The profession is one of a few which gives a solid starting income –
especially important for fresh graduates loaded with debt – as well as a rising
number of career options.

As a result we are noticing an increasingly diverse group of people choosing
a career in accountancy. In our last candidate poll, 30% came from an ethnic
minority background – and there are more women in accountancy training now than

The ‘grey man in the grey suit’ is doing very well for himself then. And
improving diversity of people and of roles suggests that this stereotype is
progressively more out of date – great news for a profession that has wrestled
with the boring label for most of its life. The bean-counter now has a
helicopter view, and in business today this makes for a great combination.

Dave Way is managing director at Marks Sattin

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