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Expert Chartered Accountant career advice

Posted by Mike Atkinson on September 08, 2015

Matt Bellingham had clear goals set out for his career as a Chartered Accountant – to make partner by 30. It was something he did achieve, and now Matt can share his insights on what to expect in the world of Chartered Accountants, with advice on how to get where you want to be. 


Expert Chartered Accountant career advice.


Can you explain the typical career path for an accountant? And what variety exists depending on what avenue they want to go down? 

An accountants career path is like any professional career – it is varied and there are different opportunities available depending on an individual’s drive and skill set. But it is in your own hands – no one is going to give anything to you on a platter, you have to go out and chase it.


Another great thing is that accounting and finance qualifications and experience open the door to other roles as well like working for a corporate or commercial business. Then within those two major directions there are plenty of different turning points, whether you go into a CA environment and specialise in a particular area, or remain a general practitioner.  There really are so many forks in the road, and lots of different decisions accountants need to make throughout their career.


What needs to happen though, is that people need to make a choice quite early on in their career – which is a difficult thing to do. But if one particular pathway is followed for a few years, it is then hard to change tact. Sometimes it isn’t necessarily fair that it works that way, but that is what it’s like.


What are the most important skills a person needs to have in order to have a successful career in accounting?

It used to only be about counting – and while that aspect is still an integral part of your day-to-day work, you also need to be a great communicator. It is about having a level of charisma that goes along with the technical skills.


Read more: 5 ways to become a better CA


In our environment in particular, a CA firm, one of the key things is always communicating with a client like they are the only one you have and that they are the only one you have been thinking about all day. It doesn’t matter that you’ve been busy and working on other projects, you have to be always one hundred percent switched on to their needs, it is just the way you build loyalty and confidence in the work you do, and thus recurring revenue.


Probably less than 10 per cent of graduates would list that down as a skill that makes an accountant successful, however the reality is, I can teach people how to do the technical side things, but I can’t teach them how to relate to others. Especially not until they are actually in the environment on a daily basis. The best way to combat that and get ahead is for those studying to do some non-traditional papers and where possible be involved in extra-curricular activities where you have a leadership role or where you have opportunity to grow your interpersonal communication skills.  


What do you think are the most difficult challenges accountants face in their career, and what would be your advice for helping them through those times?

 Aside from all of the jokes about accountants, I think probably one of the most difficult things is coming to grips with the intense deadline-driven pressure. And it doesn’t matter what pathway you take, whether CA or commercial, it will always be there, and that can be really hard.


But there is a choice. You could work every hour under the sun and be one-dimensional. Or you can meet the deadlines and also live a wider life. My kids definitely keep me grounded, as there is nothing like having your eight-year-old complain about you being on the phone all the time. So it is about creating some boundaries around your work-life.


I use technology to give me freedom, in that I don’t have to be in my office to work, and I use it to set commitments that can’t be broken – every Thursday I pick my kids up from school. But I also have times where there is no technology and I’m out of touch, and guess what, nothing serious happens.


It is also about knowing when to ask for help, and knowing when to say ‘no’, as it can be easy to agree to everything. 


How does an accountant choose the right place to work – when it comes to their first job out of study and then as they advance through their career?

Choosing the right firm comes down to many facets. What location are you looking for, city, city fringe or suburbs. Whilst traveling can be a pain, limiting yourself and your potential career development, just because the job is just down the road may not be the best move longer term. You need to think about what you are wanting to get out of your first job. Is it going to be focused on mostly one discipline, such as Audit, or are you wanting to seek a variety of work and learning experiences. The best thing you can do is be a sponge and soak up as many learning opportunities as possible.


You should also consider the average age of the firm that you are going to. Will there be a support network there for you during your studies and qualification period? What is the mentoring from senior staff like? Will you have a buddy to help take care of you and guide you in your early years? These are all valid questions to consider, and alas there isn’t one size fits all.


In general though, think about who you will be working with, what is the access to training like, are you supported during your studies and exams, does the culture of the organise fit with your expectations. You are unlikely to strike it right first time, but use this as a chance to gain valuable experience and to get a couple of years under your belt.


Starting out in an accounting career is both exciting and daunting. You will soon realise how much you don’t know, and this is a great learning. Think about what areas interest you and surround yourself will great support. Take on a range of challenges and knuckle down and work hard. The more you put into your first 5 years of development, the better your foundation is for future career opportunities.

How can an accountant know when it is time to leave a firm? 

I think that will become quite naturally evident. It might be the feedback you are getting from your immediate superior when it comes to discussions around your career progression. Or it might be that you feel your values don’t line up with theirs. But of course it is difficult to have the confidence to make the decision to move on. However you won’t automatically know what else is out there if you haven’t done any looking.


You may have come to work everyday for five years, done what has been asked of you, moved up accordingly and kept the blinkers on, which means you will just stay on that same ‘track’. But that comes with the risk of not ever finding out where the other ‘tracks’ lead. So it is about being ok with that and taking responsibility for your career.


If you aren’t sure, then continue to mix with your peers, engage in events and offerings from CA ANZ and other industry bodies, and find out what else is out there.



Looking to succeed in your Chartered Accounting career? Download our professional BAS career planner which also contains a checklist of the technical and personal skills required for each progression.



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Topics: Accounting Careers