Skills and attitudes fit for the SMP
ACCA conducted more than 60 interviews with SMP leaders and asked them to identify the profiles and attitudes that they see as paramount for successful careers in an SMP and as key for advancing the development their own practices. The importance of adaptability and readiness to engage in continuous learning, openness to sharing and readiness to take responsibility during early career stages were recurrently underlined as key for a successful career in SMPs. Shared values are becoming increasingly important for both employers and employees working for small practices.
The main findings of the interviews reconfirm the broadening skills set required for the accountants in SMPs as demonstrated by ACCA’s seven defined professional quotients.
ACCA Professional Quotients
The ACCA’s defined seven professional quotients represent the components of the ever-changing mix of capabilities needed by professional accountants as the profession, along with roles and career paths, continues to evolve. They are a mix of technical skills and ethics, intelligence, creativity, digital awareness, vision and ability to anticipate future trends, blended with experience and the ability to understand customer expectations and the very much in-demand emotional intelligence and empathy. It is the combination that makes the accountancy and finance professional the richly qualified, future-ready individual.
1.Ethics and integrity
All the SMP leaders interviewed emphasised that ethics and integrity are vital qualities looked for in candidates for employment.
SMPs are traditionally seen as trusted advisers by SME clients and that trust imposes responsibilities. Ethics is becoming even more important with the growing use of digital and cloud applications.
‘Integrity is very important for a professional accountancy firm, we adhere to codes of professional ethics’, says Rosanna Choi, a co-founding partner of CW CPA, Hong Kong, and chair of the ACCA SME Global Forum. ‘What we care about is sustainable development for all our clients, so when we hire people, we need to ensure that we select people who are honest’.
2.Critical and analytical thinking
The quantity of business data and the need for real-time insights gives accountancy and finance professionals a leading role in business. The data is no longer historic and reported but live and shared. Clients want to receive forward-looking and critical insights that could help influence business decisions.
Data analytics and interpretation are core to the ability of SMPs to create value for their clients. SMP specialists are expected to be strong at story telling. Their clients expect them to take a problem, understand the issue, see how data can assist in resolving it and present the solution.
Alastair Barlow, founder of a London based SMP flinder says: ‘Actually, understanding data, being able to work with data, getting the right data taxonomy, clean data and the governance around, that is hugely important, both financially and operationally. flinder has also built up its own data engineering competence, which employs data specialists rather than accountants – in fact, our first hire was a data engineer’.
3. Readiness to take the responsibility from early career stages
The very nature of the business, where the practice is often considered to be a trusted adviser by small business owners, requires close interaction with SME management on a regular basis. It requires employees to have confidence and a willingness to take responsibility, which is very much valued by SMP leaders.
‘If you want the responsibility to deal with small business owners from day one, and are looking for the opportunity to progress your career quite quickly by having total responsibility for looking after those clients, then we might be the right place for you’ (Peter Jarman, PJCO, UK).
4.The entrepreneurial mindset
Transforming data into insights is important, but what customers are expecting are solutions to their problems based on such insights. Solutions-oriented individuals are therefore very much valued within SMPs, both for development of answers to clients’ problems, a function aligned to their organisational purpose, and to drive innovation within the practice.
‘It is no longer about cracking numbers: it is around identifying solutions from those numbers and actually interpreting those numbers in a way that a business owner actually understands what they mean and what to do with them. That's a big key driver nowadays for a lot of accountants that we're looking for’ (Wyndi Tagi, WE Accounting, New Zealand).
Alastair Barlow of flinder comments: ‘A key team value is to be entrepreneurial, to always think and challenge: “How can we do this smarter?”, while MAP’s Paul Barnes says: ‘I want curious people who are just always asking “why?”, not just going through the motions of plugging numbers in, but thinking of the bigger picture as well’.
5.Comfort with technology
It is by now obvious that accountants who cannot adapt to the technology will have a limited working lifespan, and there is more to come. Practices that are already using the cloud have not stopped there but continue to look ahead. SMPs often play a key role as digital evangelists for their clients, whether creating ‘app stacks’ within a particular app ecosystem or integrating best of breed solutions.
Peter Jarman of PJCO says: ‘We launched a separate work stream which focuses on digitisation and cloud apps; this is much more about getting clients to run their business processes and systems more effectively and make the best use of digital information’.
Some practices are adopting AI and robotic process automation (RPA) in their operations: Alastair Barlow, founding partner of London-based practice, flinder, says his firm is continually investing in technology in order to free the team’s time for providing customers with content-rich insights, which is also more attractive for his team.
‘Our first question is always is, can we automate this? And if we can't automate it, the second question is, can we push it to a lower cost location? How can we use technology to make this even more accurate, more efficient, whatever it might be?’
Importantly, a number of interviewees also underlined that knowledge of technologies is only valuable in combination with the right processes and mindsets:
‘It is the marriage of technology, people skills and results that is of value to a business owner’, says Nikki Adams of Ad Valorem.
6.Strong communications skills and empathy
Accountants at all levels need good communications skills, not just to be able to talk about the figures to business owners and managers but also to enable them to represent their practice and its values and express empathy with clients.
‘In addition to the ability of autonomous learning, the [abilities] of emotional control, communication and coordination with customers are also very important, especially for new business, efficient communication with customers is crucial for understanding customer needs’, says Liu Xueling , Qingyuan Jianxin United Certified Public Accountants, China.
Many of the practices we spoke to make a point of getting their employees speaking to clients from the very start of their careers, even if only with bookkeeping enquiries, in order to boost their confidence.
‘We're looking for the few percent of people who are very client-centric, very relationship-centric, and teamwork based’, says Paul Barnes of MAP. ‘If they're just going to get their feet under the table and get their head down and they just want to bash a keyboard all day, then it's not going to work. Clients and prospects are coming in and out in and out of our office on a daily basis. We're very welcoming and those people expect all the team to be dynamic, relationship-based people’.
7.Open to share and cooperate
The changing reality shaped by digital transformation, enhanced connectivity and the necessity of innovation is also transforming the culture of small practices. There is more expectation that SMP employees will be open and will share their ideas, knowledge acquired, and the values of their organisation. The culture of sharing is at the core of innovation. Employers are becoming open with their employees and transparent about their performance, and employees are expected to share their ideas and to help their company develop and innovate. Collaboration and cooperativeness are key and are increasingly taking place horizontally as well as vertically.
‘When we recruit new people, we try to learn about their interests. It is important for us to learn if they are open minded, ready to share. It is important for our work dynamics. It helps to solve tasks and [makes it] easier [to] integrate them in the company culture and life’ (Svetlana Romanova, Nexia Pacioli).
8.The importance of adaptability and readiness for continuous learning
Professional qualifications remain important, nonetheless, adaptability and readiness for continuous learning are other essentials for a successful career. Accountants today must be prepared to learn new skills more often, if they are to remain relevant.
‘The employees we recruit should have [a] financial background at first, and we pay more attention to their self-learning ability and strong adaptability’, Chen Hongchun, Maoming De Cheng Certified Public Accountants General Partnership China.
Previous experience of working in other sectors is often considered to be a benefit for SMP candidates, as it broadens the range of vision and shows readiness to adapt to change.
‘You need people who learn easily and are prepared to adapt because things change all the time and we all need to adapt faster than ever’ (Matias Tejero, Hugo Tejero y Asociados, Argentina).
Constantly changing client expectations require accountants to have adaptable mindsets. As the role of accountancy practices is evolving, professionals wishing to be successful within SMPs are expected to adapt rapidly in order to respond to growing expectations.
Adapted from the original ACCA Careers in Small and Medium Practices (SMP) report. The full version of the report can be accessed here
 Professional Accountants – the Future: Drivers of Change and Future Skills, <https://www.accaglobal.com/content/dam/members-beta/images/campaigns/pa-tf/pi-professional-accountants-the-future.pdf
 Software that automates interactions with the user interface, often doing so by repeating a set of demonstration actions performed by a user. For more, see Machine Learning: More Science than Fiction (ACCA/CA ANZ/KPMG 2019)