It’s a dilemma that’s faced by more finance professionals than is often appreciated. You obtain your qualification and, instead of plotting the natural next step in your career, you’re faced with the reality that your aspirations have changed since you embarked on your training, and you no longer wish to remain in accountancy. It may be that your heart is already set on a specific alternative goal – but for many accountants, even considering making a change is an enormous decision.
Taking the plunge
Is switching careers the right thing in the first place? Many people are inhibited by the fact that they’ve invested a considerable amount of time and effort building up to their current position. Fear of the unknown, concern over having to drop salary and worries that they won’t be taken seriously by their peers are all factors that conspire to stall the plans of would-be switchers.
However, Harry Freedman, founder and chief executive of Career Energy, a careers advisory company, says, ‘The main thing that holds people back – especially when they’ve undergone training towards a professional qualification – is a sense of guilt; they think they’re letting themselves down, or even letting down their parents or family. They’ve been through a long, arduous process, have arrived at the stage where they want to change and then don’t know how to tell people. They worry it will look like they’re throwing it all away.’
Freedman says those who take the plunge tend to have confidence in their convictions, and can, therefore, shed those feelings of guilt. ‘The first thing to be clear about is that the fact you trained as an accountant doesn’t mean you have to stay one forever. Start by looking at what you have to offer an employer, in terms of your transferable skills and your practical experience of, say, managing people, projects or processes. Most importantly, give in-depth thought about what you’re looking to gain from your job – and that starts with understanding yourself and your key values and drivers.’
Martyn Drage, career development manager at Henley Business School, says research is key before identifying the transferable skills you’ll need. ‘Accountants who want to change jobs need to get an in-depth understanding of the environment into which they may be moving. Accountancy is a great platform to build a new career, but much depends on your level of experience. It may be that you need to move into a different accountancy job first, as a stepping stone; you don’t have to make the jump A to Z in one go. Employers want you for what you can do for them – they want to see how and where you’ll be able to add value. If they have to train you, your value dips – which is why, if you’re going in as a trained finance professional, you must sell yourself in terms of what you can offer, based on what you’ve done as an accountant, even if accountancy is something you didn’t want to ultimately pursue as a career.’
Turn your qualifications to your advantage
For those who want to use their accountancy qualification in a different capacity, abundant opportunities exist – most notably in recruitment. The potential to earn high commissions, the cut-and-thrust of a workplace environment built around business development, and the demands of a highly service-oriented industry are factors that don’t appeal to everyone – but for people who thrive on pressure and targets, the industry provides a warm welcome.
But be warned. David Law of recruiters Morgan Law says, ‘The most common error made by accountants is to under-estimate that recruitment is a sales-driven industry. Being in financial recruitment is not simply about understanding the role, liaising with clients and matching clients to a job description.
‘You have to sell to both client and candidate. You have to be good at marketing yourself and the organisation you represent, be a strong negotiator and be focused on winning business. The most important thing is having the right personality, skills set, drive and entrepreneurship.’
However, if you posses these qualities, the rewards can be high. Katie Boniszewski, business manager at Hays Accountancy & Finance, says, ‘Being qualified and having worked within finance for 10 years has really helped me to be successful. The main benefit of having relevant experience and qualifications is having a stronger understanding of the industry, and therefore of finance professionals’ needs. I have a keen awareness of what employers are looking for, I’m used to meeting and working with other finance professionals and I understand most of the jargon.’
Make the most of yourself
Ultimately, though, experts say accountants can take heart that their qualification can open doors beyond the finance department or audit team. ‘Fundamentally, a professional accountancy qualification is as good a way to start your career as you’re going to get,’ says Drage. ‘It’s highly valued, it can take you in different directions, and there’s no reason why shouldn’t aspire to other career routes on the back of it.’