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The changing role of accountants – what do they love and hate?

The changing role of accountants – what do they love and hate?



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min read

Speaking to accountants in the UK about the role of members of the profession reveals that the overwhelming theme is that the job has changed considerably over the years and that it does not fit the traditional stereotypes of the profession.  

Accounting is no longer simply a matter of number crunching, accountants said repeatedly. Rather, accountants need to be far more broad-minded and to be willing to see the whole picture of their clients’ operations.

In this article, we ask accountants for their views on several key questions about life and work as an accountant today.

Accounting - advantages and disadvantages of the work

The first question is: What do you love about the job - and what would you rather do without?

John White, a chartered accountant working in North-West London, says: “I love the fact that accountancy feeds the mathematic-binary left part of my brain. It feels natural to me. The job is about much more than accounting these days. You also assist the client in cash flow management and can be involved at the strategic level, and not simply at the operational level. I really like that it crosses several boundaries because it makes the job more interesting.”

Meanwhile, Gareth Alexander-Passe, based in North London and who has been working in accountancy for more than 20 years, says the attraction of accounting work is in its variety and providing the opportunity to work with a range of accounting firms. “The work can be more interesting when you are running the budgets and planning. That’s more enjoyable than day-to-day number crunching.”

Rachel Martin, Director of Strivex, is unequivocal in answering the question. “The best thing about accountancy is the people! We get to spend our days deep diving into some of the most exciting and diverse businesses that are out there. Not only to we get to work with them and the business owners but we get to see the businesses from the inside out. We get to see what works, what sort of business owners do really well compared to others.

Rachel Martin

“The thing I could do without is the stereotype! We all know the accountancy stereotype, we call it the “stale, pale, male” everyone is expecting a middle-aged man in a suit to arrive, but instead I pull up in my jeans and a hoodie.”

Jeff Mendlesohn from Borehamwood, a qualified accountant since 1978, says the plus side includes meeting people and dealing with interesting companies and trying to help clients to succeed. Meanwhile, things that he could do without are, firstly, the tremendous workload and secondly that clients expect accountants to know everything about all taxation issues. He also complains that the nature of the job today means never having enough time to think ahead.

“Everybody wants an answer straight away these days,” Jeff says. “Even 10 years ago, people did not send as many emails as they do today. If you don’t answer someone within 30 minutes, there’s another email asking why you haven’t responded with the information yet. It’s not just emails, though. I was recently on a Zoom meeting that lasted four hours. There was no end to the questions. People don’t seem to realise that we have work to do. All this affects our time-keeping and puts us under constant strain.”

Melvyn Langley says there is just one secret to running an accountancy firm: to put clients front, middle and centre. “It’s all about the client. Make sure you do the work on time and with the highest levels of attention. Ensure you serve the client at the highest level possible quickly and correctly. If you do not focus on the client’s needs, you will lose them. You do not grow and will not be successful unless you address their requirements. You have to be able to expand your horizons and understand the clients’ business and the nature of their operations.”

Jeff says that some of the work he does can be very interesting, such as research and development tax credit claims where companies can reduce their tax liability. But the day-to-day mundane work of doing tax returns and the extra paperwork has become incessant and now the UK government wants quarterly accounting instead of annual returns. “This creates an enormous amount of work that is unnecessary, and it is, frankly, rather dispiriting. There are so many changes to the UK tax system, which is already the most complex in the world. It’s not easy to keep up to date. Clients expect their accountants to be the masters of everything, so the number of questions and demands never ends. They think we can provide the answers to huge range of issues, and that can be very frustrating.”

Adam Baron, aged 38, and a Growth Adviser at BDO in central London, says he enjoys helping clients to solve problems. “Adding value as a trusted partner is really satisfying. My role is to help companies raise venture capital, and that obviously affects if is a business is going to survive and its growth prospects. On the other side, the aspects I did not enjoy carrying out audits, even though that is an element of the job that gives you a great grounding in accounting. I have friends who are auditors and they really like the job. It’s not a one-size-fits-all job.

Benefits of working in accounting

We then asked accountants the question: We all know the stereotypes about accountancy, but it's actually a dynamic profession that provides members with good salaries and lifestyles - how do you describe the benefits of being in the accounting business to people from outside the profession and those who are thinking of entering it?

Gareth Alexander-Passe says the benefits include being able to make a good living. In addition, the profession is dynamic and allows you to move to higher levels of seniority where you can add real value at the strategic level. “Many firms want you to just process numbers, and that doesn’t give you the time to stand back and understand the bigger picture.”

Melvyn Langley, who has 50 years’ experience as an accountant, says the benefits of working in accountancy are very clear. “It’s a good profession and very worthwhile. I have been working in accountancy for 50 years, so that’s the best recommendation I can give anyone thinking of going into the profession. I started out as an articled accountant and then specialized in tax. I worked for other firms and then opened my own business many years ago.”

Meanwhile, Rachel Martin describes accountancy as a career that not only provides a qualification for life, but also an incredible foundation in business. “Through experience and the qualifications, we have to learn all about company structures, business law, strategy implementation, operations management, software implementation, HR practices and more. Accountancy is a great starting place for many successful entrepreneurs.

“The salaries can be very rewarding too. After having trained as an apprentice on minimum wage for my accountancy qualification, within my practice I made it my mission to reward everyone, regardless of their study routes. We offer 8% above market value in salary for the roles we fill (no apprentice minimum wage here!) with a transparent pay matrix that increases with every exam passed which other firms do not offer.”

John White says: “There’s definitely a more creative side to the profession these days because accountancy is changing rapidly due to automation which frees up accountants to be able to concentrate on other elements of the job.”

Adam Baron says one of the advantages of the profession is that it allows you to take on many roles in business because you see how different firms and sectors operate, their cost structures and planning and their concerns. “This means that you don’t have to remain an accountant but can take on many other financial and management positions. If you are strongly technical, then there’s definitely the possibility to be a problem solver.”

What qualities do you need to become an accountant

The final question we asked was: What are the qualities that someone needs to be an accountant - and what do you look for when interviewing candidates?

Gareth Alexander-Passe says that among the qualities required are attention to detail and the ability to multitask. However, it’s also critical that accountants be willing to take on new concepts and understand them. They should have strong initiative that allows them to take numbers and see what the trends are if there are any, or to see if there are things that can be done in a better way. “It’s not just about getting the numbers right but making sense of them.”

John White said: “I would recommend to accountants to aim to be more than an accountant. Try and think of it in an entrepreneurial manner. That means taking a more holistic view about the needs and requirements of clients. “Today’s accountants need to develop a range of skill sets by understanding as many areas of the profession as possible. These include making sure you understand compliance with the law, marketing and other aspects of the job.

“You definitely have to be a problem solver, and to do that effectively you have to understand the problem areas. You have to look around and behind the numbers. That’s where accounting is more interesting because it becomes more than just about the numbers.”

Joel Salim, based in the South-East, says that in addition to the expected skills, such as attention to detail, the ability to multi-task, to problem-solve and other such abilities, accountants also need to have wide horizons and be ready to learn all about the business sector that they are dealing with. “It’s not just about being an articled accountant and seeing the job within narrow parameters. You need to understand the business sector that you are applying for or working in. If it’s the engineering sector, then understand some elements of engineering and physics. If it’s Fast Moving Consumer Goods, then learn about sales and marketing and understand the dynamics of the sector.”

John White adds that even an accountant who has failed at running a business, can make an excellent member of the profession. “Someone who has an entrepreneurial spirit brings value because he understands what drives business owners and the challenges that they face.”

Adam Baron said he would look for someone who is “committed to curiosity. An accountant doesn’t just look at the numbers, but also at the overall context of the client’s business. If you don’t do that then you will not be able to bring them value.”

Rachel Martin makes some salient points about what to look for in a candidate for an accountant position: “We look for the qualities that you can’t teach. We can teach someone to bookkeep or to process journals, but we can’t teach people to care, to be passionate about their job or to go the extra mile for our clients. If someone displays those qualities, we are onto a winner. Of course, being an Excel nerd always helps too".

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