This article was first published in the May 2015 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Effective leaders typically match their day-to-day actions and behaviours to the aspirations they have for their colleagues and organisation. They can explain, in a manner that is unique to their field and compelling to their colleagues and customers, the reason for what they are doing, why it matters, and how they expect to win. 

If this is the case, can accountants become effective business leaders, and does the training offered in professional accounting provide the necessary skills?

Peter Drucker, the management and leadership author, wrote: ‘While there may be some “born leaders”, there are surely too few to depend on them. Leadership is something that must be learned.’ This would certainly seem to be true as the business leaders of today face up to new and emerging challenges, the pace and level of which are increasing in line with technological developments.

Notwithstanding the seemingly unique nature of today’s environment, there are a fundamental set of skills that every effective leader should possess:

  • Service. Good leaders need to be able to provide prompt and high-quality service in a consistent manner not just to external clients or customers but also to internal stakeholders in peer groups, trainee positions and corporate support functions such as information technology, marketing, human resources and so on.
  • Vision. They need to be able to step back from the detail and the tasks of their day-to-day role to consider the bigger picture – and then provide a clear direction or course of action in response.
  • Communication. They need to be able to use effective listening and body language communication rather than rely solely on speaking techniques.
  • Organisation. They need to take clear and logical organisational approaches to assess and plan for the future, and to understand the past.
  • Teamwork. They must take an objective and collaborative approach to identify and develop the expertise of their staff resources so that they can realise the full potential of team structures. 

Effective business leaders

Many of the skills required to be an effective leader are embedded in the academic training and practical experience provided in accountancy. On a day-to-day basis the role and duties of an accountant include working as part of a team, interpreting and communicating financial results and performance, and working in a logical and structured manner to provide a high-quality service to a range of internal and external stakeholders. 

Accountants may not typically be known for their vision. However, an accountant’s ability to identify risks and trends and their ability to plan are key elements in shaping a vision for the future. Being confident around numbers and having an innate understanding of financials also means much more freedom for accountants to focus on their role as leaders and on other non-finance-related issues in the organisation.

There are countless examples of accountants who have learned and successfully applied their skills to become leaders of some of the most notable and recognisable brands and organisations operating in Europe and globally. In our everyday lives we come across people in the accounting profession who are natural leaders, and others who are developing their skills in this area, whether by managing a project or a department, or by being a senior management representative of their organisation.

Leaders of today and tomorrow

Effective leadership may be based on established principles, but it is important that the skills, attributes and leadership structures of today are further developed and considered. 

Despite focused effort over recent times, there continues to be a need for diversity in leadership roles. And it’s not just technical specialists who need to be included, but also different genders, age cohorts, cultures and ethnicities. 

Focused development of emotional intelligence skills is another requirement for the role of the business leader, together with further consideration of the personal and work-life balance of employees, particularly as work practices, organisational cultures and technologies continue to develop and change the way that we work and live. 

Accountants as entrepreneurs

Many of the skills and attributes associated with successful leaders in business can also be found in entrepreneurs. Creativity and a passion for what they do are two of the better known attributes associated with many successful entrepreneurs. 

However, over the years of the economic downturn many entrepreneurs have had to rethink their approach to doing business. Business downsizing, rapid expansion and the requirement to access capital in an increasingly regulated environment meant that a more structured approach to doing business is needed.

Role of the accountant 

Over this period the role of accountant has evolved in two main areas. 

The first of these involved the accountant acting as a trusted adviser to existing and newly established businesses, focusing on helping them to survive and to grow, or alternatively assisting business owners and entrepreneurs with the difficult decision of having to close part or all of their business. 

The second area saw the role of the accountant changing from that of a trusted adviser to an entrepreneur in their own right. This may have come about as a result of the loss of their own job or the seizing of an opportunity to establish their own accounting practice, or to provide new or improved goods or services to meet a gap they had identified in the market. 

In both of these scenarios, accountants have used the skills and attributes developed and underpinned by their training and experience in accounting, and at the same time have adopted the traits most commonly associated with entrepreneurs. 

But what is that makes accountants successful entrepreneurs?

The changing nature of business and changes in the way of doing business add a layer of complexity that is challenging many entrepreneurs. It is no longer enough to have a good business idea. Entrepreneurs also need to become experienced in technology and social media, business analysis, risk and compliance management to make their idea successful. The broad level of training of accountants and their practical business experience place them in a position to respond to such challenges in a prompt and professional manner.

The curriculum of accounting education and continuous professional development continue to adapt in line with these new and emerging business requirements. The very nature of accountancy work requires accountants to act and think as business owners – addressing risk and compliance concerns, assessing the market and future financial performance, and considering a range of other business challenges and opportunities. The accountants of today and tomorrow are better equipped with both the soft skills and the technical and financial competencies needed to be successful entrepreneurs.

Future as leaders

There are countless examples in our everyday lives of accountants acting as business leaders and successful entrepreneurs. There is no apparent reason why this trend cannot continue and develop further in line with the training and experience of accountants. At a time of economic recovery and of increasing complexity and regulation in business, accountants have the technical skills and practical business understanding to play a key role as trusted advisers, entrepreneurs and leaders of business.

William Barnes is manager in business consulting at Grant Thornton, Dublin.