At work, you are most likely to do well if you use your talents and grasp opportunities as they present themselves. Also, your career path will be smoother and more successful if you identify and manage your weaknesses, and plan how to overcome any obstacles that could cause you trouble along the way.
‘Surprisingly, however, few accountants take the time to sit down and plan their career paths in any detail,’ says Nick Keen, business director at Hays Accountancy & Finance.
‘Even fewer consider their own personal strengths and weaknesses, and how these could affect the achievement of their career goals. The time pressures of examination study, continuing professional development, heavy workload and tight deadlines – along with a busy family and social life – mean that many accounting professionals approach their career development in a reactive, rather than proactive, manner.’
Performing a personal SWOT analysis to identify your strengths and weaknesses, as well as the opportunities and threats that you may be facing, is a first step towards a more detailed career plan.
‘SWOT is quick and easy to use,’ says Rona O'Brien, dean of business and management at Greenwich School of Management. ‘SWOT is also important because of the connections it makes between strengths and opportunities on one side, and weaknesses and threats on the other.’
If you don’t know what you’re really good at
Some people find it difficult to identify their personal strengths.
‘If this is the case, get a steer from others,’ suggests Helen Firth, manager at financial recruitment firm Morgan McKinley. ‘If your company keeps detailed appraisal forms, you may be able to access them to get a better understanding of how your boss rates you.
‘Alternatively, speak to your manager or a friendly senior colleague and ask them to be honest with you. And if you’re still at university or self-funding your studies, speak to your course or programme tutor about what they believe your strengths are.’
Or write down a list of your personal characteristics – as you see yourself and as others see you.
‘Often your greatest strengths may be attributes that you take for granted or features of your personality that you are not even aware of,’ says Keen.
Think about your strengths in relation to your peers too. For example, in finance teams most people are ‘great with numbers’, in which case this is not really a strength but a necessity.
‘Focus on what else you have and the differences this highlights,’ says O'Brien. Then ask yourself if your strengths open up any new opportunities to further your career.
Not everyone can see their own weaknesses, either. ‘No one really wants to admit they struggle with something or could do something better, whereas others are blissfully ignorant of their shortcomings,’ says Nick. But you really need to know your weaknesses before you begin to rectify them.
‘One approach that often works is to think of a time when something didn’t go your way, either at work or in your personal life,’ suggests Firth.
‘Ask yourself what you did or didn’t do that contributed to the negative outcome – for example, did you not plan your time adequately, could you have communicated your point more confidently or perhaps you ignored the advice of a more experienced colleague?’
By addressing those weaknesses, you could open up opportunities for career development. ‘For example, if you identify that "effectively managing people" is an area in which you are lacking, you can ask your manager to give you responsibility for more junior members of staff,’ says Keen.
On one level, identifying your weaknesses could be more important than identifying your strengths. ‘You should look at "weaknesses" and "threats" together as threats expose weaknesses and weaknesses leave you open to threats,’ explains O'Brien.
‘Paying attention to threats is the starting point for helping you to limit the impact of your weaknesses. I don’t think that you can necessarily get rid of all your weaknesses (everyone has them); you just need to limit their impact. It's only when you have a combination of unseen and ignored weaknesses and threats that you have a real problem.’
When a threat is also an opportunity
From time to time you will most likely come across a factor that is both a threat and an opportunity. ‘If your employer’s business is going through a period of great change, you may regard this as a threat in terms of job security, but it should also be seen as a perfect opportunity to offer to take on a bigger workload or a project outside of your usual comfort zone,’ says Firth.
Redundancy itself is a definite threat rather than an opportunity for most people.
‘However, many accountants secure an exciting new job after being made redundant and most openly admit that redundancy was the best thing that had happened to them as they hadn’t realised at the time how unhappy they actually were in their previous job,’ says Keen. ‘Redundancy forced them to find a job that they enjoyed doing and that challenged them and helped them develop their skills.’
A perceived threat is often an opportunity in disguise.
‘If taxation is your weak area and you were asked to undertake a project to assess the impact of tax regime change on the business, your initial reaction might be to categorise it as a threat,’ says Keen.
‘But it could be better described as an opportunity that will force you to develop a weaker area of your technical expertise and potentially prove invaluable to your future career.’
On the other hand, an opportunity can become a threat if everyone else spots it and plans to take advantage of it too. Suddenly you may find yourself competing against your colleagues – for example, when a great international assignment comes up – but your manager can suggest only one candidate from the whole team.
Knowledge is power
Knowing what your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are puts you in a powerful position for action. The SWOT analysis is not action in itself, but it’s a useful tool that helps you set goals, create a detailed career plan and act on it.
‘It’s actually OK to have weaknesses and threats in your working life,’ adds Firth. ‘This means you can take action to rectify things. If you don’t, you may find it more difficult to develop.’