Critical success factors

Some graduates, trainees as well as newly-qualified accountants struggle to launch the kind of career they want and deserve. What’s holding them back? Iwona Tokc-Wilde finds out

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According to a Kaplan survey, three quarters of employers find it difficult to find the right type of graduate, which are ‘those able to communicate effectively, with numerical skills and the ability to work as part of a team,’ says Ben Wilson, head of ACCA at Kaplan.

Graduates aren’t the only ones struggling with soft skills such as communication. Many of those already on training schemes – and even some qualified accountants – are very uncomfortable with talking to someone face-to-face.

‘Entry level accounting and finance roles are heavy on the listing of other soft skills and competencies too – job descriptions scream for leadership, problem solving, time management and negotiation skills,’ adds Emma Felton, business development and placements executive at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF).

Lack of such skills seriously limits your work and career opportunities. On the other hand, some of those skills (including communication) and qualities can be taught or acquired.

‘Trainees often join us fairly light on technical skills or real world business experience,’ says Richard Waite, resourcing brand manager – trainee recruitment, at Grant Thornton.

‘But we’re recruiting primarily based on certain behaviours and values and feel that these are the foundation upon which we can build a variety of other skills. So, technical knowledge and real life experience is something we can layer over their foundation behaviours and values during their time with us as a trainee.’

What are those ‘foundation behaviours and values’ that some people lack? What else prevents someone from having a successful career in accountancy or finance? We have gathered views from employers, financial recruiters and tutors, together with their tips on how you can try and overcome some of those obstacles.

What stops candidates making it through graduate recruitment process?

Wrong attitude. ‘An enthusiasm for business, our clients and a passion for what we do as a firm is crucial.’
Richard Waite, resourcing brand manager – trainee recruitment, Grant Thornton

Lack of problem-solving skills. ‘All businesses need problem solvers and at EY we look for people who can deal with complex business issues.’
Julie Stanbridge, head of student recruitment, EY

Lack of commercial awareness. ‘Graduates looking to enter accountancy and finance should understand how the business world works.’
Helen Goold, associate director, commerce and industry, Badenoch & Clark

Low self-awareness. ‘Getting feedback from those who know you well on how you communicate, your values and principles, your approach and your attitude to work can improve this. Better still, an informal coach could help you reflect on your behaviours, thoughts and feelings so you become more objective about who you are and how you present yourself to others.’
Julie Stanbridge, EY

Being one of the crowd. ‘Articulate what differentiates you from your peers, when you have gone "above and beyond", no matter how big or small – whether it be organising the Christmas party at a Saturday job or raising thousands of pounds for charity by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.’
Julie Stanbridge, EY

What else holds back aspiring or new accountancy professionals?

Inability to take initiative and think outside the box. ‘These are often learnt with time and experience, so that’s something people straight out of education need to pay particular attention to.’
Helen Goold, Badenoch & Clark

Belief that accountancy is just about numbers. ‘Being able to interpret the numbers and communicate that effectively to the business owner is the real skill.’
Alan Woods, director at accountancy firm Woods Squared

Lack of commercial acumen. ‘Consider how you can improve efficiencies, reduce expenditure and add improvements that will benefit the bottom line. Understanding how accountancy fits into the larger, commercial and strategic objectives is what many new entrants to the field are lacking too.’
John Mackey, senior manager, Robert Half

Mentality that working is like a marathon – the longer we work, the more we will succeed. ‘This is a myth. In reality, young professionals need to be mentored on how to work smart.’
Emma Felton, LSBF

Not learning from mistakes. ‘Everyone makes mistakes at some point. For an employer, one of the biggest concerns is when new employees take a knock but don’t learn from it. Employers know there’s a learning curve to any job, so no one minds if you are unsure and ask questions. Not asking questions can lead to costly mistakes.’
John Mackey, Robert Half

In their first jobs, what do they find particularly difficult to do?

Applying their technical knowledge into practice. ‘Employers often comment that students pass their exams, but come back to work and are no better at their job.’
Ben Wilson, Kaplan  

Fully committing to the job. ‘Years of hard work at university don’t automatically pave the way to quick and smooth career progression – adapting to the world of work and demonstrating commitment, being punctual and delivering on time is key.’
Helen Goold, Badenoch & Clark

Speaking to people (particularly by phone) ‘There’s a real fear from trainees in this respect.’
Alan Woods, Woods Squared

Being flexible. ‘It’s a source of much disappointment for new accountants when they realise that the job is not all glory. But there’s a side to every job that has to be done regardless of whether it’s enjoyable or not.’
John Mackey, Robert Half

Finally, what’s the single best thing they should do to help their careers off to a good start? 

Network, network, network! ‘Think strategically about how to build your network over the years. Looking into the future it will be just as much about being an expert in an individual field, as about building trusting relationships with experts in a wide range of services. Find out what aspects of professional services inspire the people you meet. What special area will they become experts in? Hold on to the friendships you make and keep relationships warm. Grow your network, think broadly and in the future you’ll be able to tap into the potential of many, increasing your potency as a business adviser and exceeding the expectations of your clients.’
Mark Swatkins, talent development specialist, Grant Thornton

Find a mentor at work. ‘Somebody who can help you build the bridge between your studies and the workplace. This will help you develop skills valued by employers, and could be the start of a beautiful friendship too!’
Ben Wilson, Kaplan

Conduct a self-audit of your skill set. ‘Taking the time to do this will go a long way in promoting your career.’
John Mackey, Robert Half

Stay focused and work hard. ‘We all have aspirations and dreams of what we want to do and who we want to be, so stay focused and be prepared to put in the leg work to get there. This is not about working all hours but about learning your trade and knowing your job inside out. For example, you could volunteer for the work that no one else wants to do. Not only will you learn your trade more thoroughly, you will stand out as someone who’s willing to put yourself forward to get the job done too.’
Julie Stanbridge, EY

"Employers know there’s a learning curve to any job, so no one minds if you are unsure and ask questions. Not asking questions can lead to costly mistakes"

John Mackey - Robert Half