There are no silly questions: An ACCA member helps an ACCA student

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When you need some friendly career advice, ACCA students and members have a fantastic resource - the huge global ACCA network. Here we pair up an ACCA student seeking career guidance with a member who’s been there and done it.

Mentee: Wendy 

Wendy is a finance assistant with four years experience, who has the AAT qualification under her belt and is embarking on the ACCA Qualification. She wants to know how she can take her career to the next level and reach the finance director or financial controller level. She feels her knowledge is going to waste in her current role, but isn’t sure which roles she should be aiming for to set her on the way to senior finance. 

‘I would love to know what it takes to do the higher paid finance roles and to run a finance department,’ she said. ‘I would love to hear from someone who started their career as a finance assistant and progressed to a finance director and learn the steps they took.’

Mentor: Eian Hardacre FCCA

Eian is an experienced finance professional who has gone from a role similar to Wendy’s up through FD and other senior roles to now heading up his own consultancy. He knows well the value of career support and advice, and is very grateful to have had supportive colleagues and friends in his career.

The Q&A

Wendy: How did you progress to assistant accountant?

Eian: I initially worked as an articled clerk (trainee auditor) for a firm of accountants. I then moved into industry as an assistant accountant. Titles are often misleading and are used more to define the structural position of the role within an organisation. My role was to produce management accounts for two factories and also the head office working alongside another assistant accountant. This role was a step up financially, but more importantly for me it was moving into something that I was more interested in. I was lucky because I found a role that allowed me a lot of freedom to get involved in other things (so not just management accounts, but the full finance operation of payroll, credit control, purchasing, systems development, IT, HR and so on). My boss was a great mentor and supported my learning new things and getting more experience, which has been an excellent building block for my career.

Wendy: Did you do ACCA?

Eian: While working in my first industry role, I studied and passed my ACCA exams. In my view, ACCA was and still is more relevant to the commercial business world and fitted well with the day to day work activities, although it was tough studying and working at the same time. I was also able to progress within the company during my time there, ending up as the group financial controller.

I don’t know if you have a degree or other such qualification, but completing your ACCA will give you a good qualification to take you into pretty much any business career. It shows a level of academic ability but also an ability to commit to and complete a postgraduate level qualification. Something understood and valued by most employers.

Having said the above, you also need to remember that we spend a lot of time working so it’s a good idea to do something that we enjoy.  There is much talk these days about work-life balance and it’s important to keep that in mind. Work to live, don’t live to work! A point to consider is that a finance qualification can allow you to work in a flexible way, running your own business, for example, or doing accounts for small businesses.

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Wendy: I see you went to university. Would it be a silly question to ask whether you did finance? Or perhaps not, because I hear people studying other subjects can progress into finance, which seems strange.

Eian: At university I studied some finance, but also computer studies (I learnt to programme) because I realised that these skills would be needed later on and at that time I had not worked with computers (yes I am that old!). I have worked with many qualified accountants and not too many studied finance at university (my godson studied chemistry and is now training as an accountant!). The important part is to be numerate and in my view also curious – much of the role of the accountant is to ask questions and to find out what is happening under the surface of a business.

Wendy: What does a finance director do on a day to day basis?

Eian: The role of an FD depends on the type of business they work in. In general, they will set and monitor the strategic financial direction of the business  In a small company they will probably do most of the number crunching for accounts etc, but in larger businesses they will have a team working for them, so that they can take a more holistic overview of the business. The FD also often picks up responsibility for things such as HR, IT, legal, admin and other such areas.  I have also covered fleet management, health and safety, facilities and sales. In other words, in a small-medium sized enterprise (SME) business the FD (and all directors) will take a much more general role in running the operation. Larger organisations are often more structured and so the FD will have a more clearly defined area of activity, but often this is a much bigger role.

Wendy: How can I find a route to FD with roles that really interest me?

Eian: I would recommend looking at the job adverts not to find a job specifically, but rather to see what roles look interesting or sound exciting. For those that grab your attention, you can then do some further research on Google to see if they really are interesting and what you would need to be able to get the job. In some cases, you will see roles that you are not yet suitable for, but with care you should be able to find the route in. I would also suggest looking at the companies or employers who operate in that sector – many have their own job vacancies on their websites that enable you to go direct to them with an application. With direct applications it is worth phoning the company after you submit your application to check they have received it and to see what the process is and maybe ask a bit more about the company, as this shows that you are keen and that you are a serious candidate.

Wendy: Why did you choose finance as a career path?

Eian: It was really that I like working with numbers, and not as a mathematician, but using them to find things out. I love puzzles and much of the role of the FD is solving puzzles. I was (and still am) very interested in how businesses work and also how people work. I considered banking as a career, but having done work experience at school for a week at a Barclays branch I decided that it was not really what interested me, so our careers teacher arranged for me to do another week the following year with a firm of accountants, which I really enjoyed. I also realised that becoming an accountant would allow me to keep my options open to new things in the future, which it did.

Wendy: How do you keep your knowledge up to date?

Eian: I undertake CPD to maintain my qualification (FCCA). I also constantly have to find out new things as I come across issues within a business, and with the internet that is so easy these days. Talking to other people is a good way to keep up to date, as well as reading the professional magazine from the ACCA - Accounting & Business. It comes back to being curious – constantly wanting to find out new things. I like learning and am currently studying for my ILM7 Coaching and Mentoring qualification.

Wendy: This may be a silly question, but how do you know you’re doing things right? How do you know your figures are accurate?

Eian: To understand if the figures are correct there are many methods to use. Accounts are reconciled (bank balance, debtors, creditors and other balance sheet items), they are reviewed for reasonableness and compared with prior periods and budgets and forecasts.  These are all documented methods to check the figures, but it is also important to understand how the business is working and as such what looks reasonable. I always used to talk to people on the shop floor to find out what they were doing and to see the levels of activity, which helped me to understand the work in progress levels and stock levels. The use of trends is another good way to check the figures with anything that looks odd – moving annual trends smooth out seasonal variations so sudden changes will show up. Talking to the rest of the management team and the sales team also helps, as you get to know what the order intake is like and what large projects or issues are coming up, all of which will show up in some form in the figures. The annual external audit is also a good check on the figures, but if the things already mentioned are being done then, it is unlikely the auditors will find anything that you don’t already know about.

Final thoughts

Wendy: This has certainly given me lots to think about. I’ve honestly been in two minds whether to continue with finance or to choose a different career. I think I really need to have a good think about it. I think I’ll keep trying to find a new role using your tips and see what happens.

Eian: Final comment for now is that at this point in your career you need to think about what roles will give you the best opportunities to progress rather than getting a title or salary package. Large companies will often have you working on just a small aspect of the finance area (purchase ledger, credit control etc.), whereas smaller companies will often need a more general role allowing you to learn new things and gain wider experience. Large companies may also be able to provide more study support and may even have training programmes to help. I’m not a believer in having a fixed five-year plan as such, but it is worth having a direction you want to go in. For me it was a desire not to be crunching numbers all my career, but to be using those numbers to improve and grow a business, so I looked for opportunities to do that. I now don’t want to be tied to an office everyday and want more flexibility in how and when I work, so I have set up my own business to do that.

For more information about Eian you can find him on LinkedIn here and his business website here

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