Ten strategies to future-proof your career in commerce and industry
Advances in technology and the evolving role of finance professionals mean it has never been more important for ambitious CAs to raise their game. Here are ten strategies to future-proof for commerce and industry.
The good news is that against a backdrop of weak productivity dampening overall economic activity, demand for accountants has never been stronger; the number of advertised accountancy and finance job vacancies rose by more than a fifth in the second quarter of 2017 compared to the same time in the previous year, buoyed by an increase in demand from SMEs and start-up firms, according to research published by specialist recruiter Robert Half.
But there’s little scope for complacency. In the longer term, the landscape for accountancy jobs looks set to change dramatically. In particular, increased use of technology and automation is predicted to slash the volume of junior and mid-level accounting positions.
So what skills, experiences and aptitudes will CAs need to succeed in tomorrow’s commercial roles? We spoke to a range of experts, including successful CAs, for their views on how to stand out from the crowd.
Go hard on softer skills
As computers perform more and more day-to-day financial processing, the value of qualified accountancy professionals lies in areas where computers have limited ability, notably relationship-based tasks.
Andrew Penker, ICAS Director of People, says honing soft skills needs to be high on everyone’s agenda. In particular, strategy, foresight and leadership abilities will be of growing importance.
“Extending critical thinking skills and performing more of an advisory role is key,” Andrew said.
Today it’s all about creating the score through business partnering, decision support and helping to shape the business.
Susy Roberts, founder of people-development consultancy Hunter Roberts, advises honing influencing skills: “One size doesn’t fit all and the style you use will depend on the group you’re trying to influence or the situation. It’s about bringing things to life in a way that non-financial people will understand, rather than hiding behind jargon."
“Twenty years ago, accountants were seen as bean counters who kept the score. Today it’s all about creating the score through business partnering, decision support and helping to shape the business,” said Keith Mason, a director of Hays Accountancy & Finance in Aberdeen.
Develop your leadership EQ
Getting the most out of people in your team requires strong emotional intelligence. “It’s about recognising when people need different approaches to help them develop. This is not about ego,” explained Judy Wagner CA, a director of executive search firm FWB Park Brown. “The best leaders are selfless. They put the business agenda first, the people agenda second and their agenda third.”
Changing your communication style depending on the situation is a valuable skill. “You have to pick your words carefully,” said Ken McCallum CA, CFO EMEA of retail and brand consultancy Fitch. “Communication skills are vital – you have to be measured.”
What makes a good leader? For me, it was about motivating my team and helping them to grow.
The more you understand yourself, the better you can understand others, said Andrew: “Reflect on your behaviour and hold yourself to account.”
Laila Giwa CA, whose most recent role was Head of Finance, EMEA and India, for headphones brand Skullcandy International, based in Switzerland, managed a team of six and reported directly to the general manager. She advised: “Keep learning and grab training opportunities when they crop up. You need to make sure you’re someone who can analyse data in a rounded way but also influence other people. It is something you can develop. You have to put yourself out there. What makes a good leader? For me, it was about motivating my team and helping them to grow.”
Embrace your inner geek
There is a growing appetite for accountants who can understand where technology can add value to the business as a whole, not just the finance function.
“You don’t need to be hands-on but it’s about understanding the opportunities and possibilities it presents and translating those findings into a language that the business community understands,” said Karen Hochrein, EY’s Global Assurance Talent Leader.
CFOs in particular need to leverage IT for large-scale data processing and predictive analysis.
“In the past, things tended to be backward-looking,” Karen added. “Now, technology means the role of accountants in business is increasingly forward-looking.”
Take control of your career
Successful people don’t leave their careers to chance, neither do they delegate responsibility it to others.
“It’s about being prepared to take risks and having a longer-term plan about where they want to get to,” said Judy Wagner, and being flexible enough to recognise good experience when you see it.
“Keep finance as your core and keep learning and developing within that. Stepping into other areas will allow you to understand the business much better and you’ll be able to contribute to discussions on much broader issues.”
International experience is increasingly sought after.
Career-development paths for accountants in business are far less structured now, said Andrew. “Today it’s much more about taking charge of your career journey. Recruiters want to know if the role you took on and the things you did had a logic to them.”
Focusing experience in one area can also pay off. Context is everything. “Think about where you want to be and plan your experience path accordingly,” said Adam Brown, a director of FWB Park Brown. International experience is increasingly sought after.
Be authentic in your career choices
Successful people live and breathe the companies and sectors they work in. To be taken seriously, you have to be an advocate for your industry in a public way.
It pays to spend time choosing the right sector, said Ali Kennedy CA, Vice-President and Group Head of Tax with cybersecurity company Sophos. “You’re going to spend a lot of time at work. Is it a sector with a future and is it ethically aligned to your beliefs? Will working there give you valuable experience? Don’t go into an industry that doesn’t interest you just because of the job title.”
Business first, accountancy second
Accountants play an increasingly key role helping to shape commercial decisions. Rather than churn out numbers, it is about interpreting financial information to help a business grow.
Ken noted: “You certainly need that strong base in understanding accounting but there’s a knack to taking numbers in a fairly esoteric way and translating them into something that people can understand.”
Increasingly, the KPIs most of interest to stakeholders are non-financial, so think about how you could reliably report on areas beyond profit and loss.
Build a formidable network
Networking is a much-undervalued but highly effective means to get yourself known and develop professionally. Increasingly, social networks are a great source of contacts and relevant news.
Invest time in forging allies inside and outside the business. Remember that networking, like friendship, is a two-way process so be prepared to add value to the people in your network too.
“You can get so much out of just spending an hour having coffee with someone. Or get in the pizzas and beers and discuss a problem – you can come up with some really creative ideas,” said Ken.
Consider looking for an external mentor or an internal sponsor to act as a sounding board for business problems. ICAS’ mentoring scheme has already paired up 300 CAs, using algorithms to match individuals with mentors offering specific experience.
“You have to buy into it,” said Andrew. “That requires honesty, sharing exactly what your goals are and having a clear objective. Otherwise, you’re just going through the motions.”
Be a people person
An ability to apply insight to any business situation will make you stand head and shoulders above others. But in order to do that, you need to be comfortable with ambiguity, and have the personality and influencing skills to build and leverage relationships.
The ability to motivate others is a core skill. Make sure you’re constantly developing the people around you and nurture an environment where you feel confident to challenge one another in a positive way.
Recognise your own unconscious bias and be an inclusive leader.
Don’t recruit people just because you like them. Recognise your own unconscious bias and be an inclusive leader who has the confidence to employ a diverse range of people offering different approaches and ways of thinking.
“Diverse teams make business sense but it will also be great for your career – because the success of your team will reflect well on you,” said Judy.
Embrace ‘creative’ accounting
We’re not talking about cooking the books. Innovation has never been more important, and it is possible to be a “safe pair of hands” while thinking creatively. It requires the right culture – a learning environment with a tolerance for mistakes.
You can’t always be the ideas person, but don’t ever be change-averse.
It doesn’t matter what size of the organisation you work for – or have aspirations to move to – an entrepreneurial approach will stand you in good stead. There is a growing requirement for “intrapreneurs” in all types and sizes of organisations, said Adam.
You can’t always be the ideas person, but don’t ever be change-averse; be prepared to adopt new technologies or working practices, Ali advised. “Never be afraid to change or fail. Be the kind of person who is a key part of the business moving forward. Even with junior members of staff, if they come to me with suggestions of how we can improve our problem-solving process I would be really impressed.”
Let your personality shine through
Ken noted the things that have made him stand out from the crowd were certainly nothing on paper: “Personality is a lot of it. Confidence is important.”
It’s also good to nurture interests outside work, he added, having swapped playing football for running ultramarathons.
Being inquisitive, intelligent and having a problem-solving attitude is much more important than listing every transaction you’ve ever done.
Showing an interest in the world won’t just keep you sane, it will help develop the broader perspective needed to do the top jobs. Finally, there is little more attractive than a can-do attitude.
“The thing I value most is adaptability and the accountants on my team jumping at the chance to take on a new problem,” said Ali. “Being inquisitive, intelligent and having a problem-solving attitude is much more important than listing every transaction you’ve ever done and how much you’ve saved a company.”