For someone whose first choice was not accounting, Shiva Kumar Maheendren is demonstrating, surprisingly, that it was truly his best option – even if a major portion of his current work entails compiling, analysing and transmitting financial data and results to the headquarters in the US.
He modestly describes it as ‘being involved with financial reporting and analysis of results’, but when you are a financial reporting analyst with ExxonMobil Exploration and Production Malaysia Inc (EMEPMI), and your focus is its upstream business, reporting and analysing does take on a different dimension.
What he has done, in his relatively short time in the accounting workforce, is characteristic of what is required of young accounting professionals today – to go beyond the traditional, and be open to doing things not necessarily typical of what their job description entails. ‘The role of the accountant is definitely evolving. Today, you have to be involved in many aspects of the business, not just finance,’ he remarks.
The opportunity to move to EMEPMI came when he was only a few years into his career, but Shiva found that his previous work experience, travel and interaction with staff at various levels, plus his eye for detail, put him in a prime position to take on the new job, which has relatively little to do with the number-crunching traditionally associated with accounting.
‘It’s not a good idea to limit yourself to just what you feel you should be doing. The advantage of being in an organisation like ExxonMobil is that you are given the opportunity to take on a wide range of assignments. This helps you see how things come together and you get a real sense of the strategy of the business and your own role in improving this strategy.’
But strategy is nothing without its being operationalised, and he is quick to point out that in order to make the numbers work, you have to ‘put a story to it’ – and that means understanding how things come together on a deeper, consequential level. ‘For instance, you have to speak to the engineers if you want to completely understand what affects volume,’ he says. ‘There are so many elements that have to be in sync with each other for the business to work. The main challenge is to recognise and understand what is going on, and then be able to communicate that to people at different levels. When you get deeper into it, you begin to realise how much you actually don’t know.’
Like many Gen Ys today, he faced many choices on leaving school. ‘Initially, I didn’t want to be an accountant; I only decided to do it a few months before actually enrolling for the course,’ he recalls. He had been offered a biomedical sciences course at a local university after Form Six but felt disappointed because he had really wanted to do medicine. But now, in his early 30s, he has found enough in accounting to keep him engaged, he estimates, for at least another 30 years.
‘It was my father who recommended accounting,’ he says. ‘But he cautioned me that if I chose it, I’d have to go the whole nine yards and do it professionally.’
An aptitude for mathematics and numbers made the course a little easier at the start, but it wasn’t long before the realisation kicked in that regardless of how good his results were, what really matters in the long run is how much he learns on the job. It was the norm, he says, for students to target one of the Big Four audit firms for a job after graduation, but ‘I decided I needed the experience earlier, and I wanted to start supporting myself through the course. So I went out and looked for a job while I did my professional exams.’
A small firm made him an offer and he jumped at the chance – mainly because his work responsibilities at that point would allow him to hold the job and still carry on attending his classes.
‘I was looking for flexibility in working hours because my course load was increasing,’ he says. ‘But there was a certain advantage to having a job at that point, too – it helped me obtain full professional membership earlier. One needs at least three years after completing exams to obtain full membership, but I was a fully-fledged member before that because of my earlier work experience.’
He also had a head-start on professional networking through juggling his job and studies. ‘It was tough,’» he admits, ‘but I have no regrets.’ He soon moved from the small audit firm to an insurance company where he worked on internal audit, then went on to spend four years doing the same thing with an electronics manufacturer.
‘I found I quite liked internal audit and the job offered me the chance to travel as well,’ he says. ‘In fact, before very long, I found myself travelling two weeks out of four!’ His stint with this US-based electronics manufacturer took him to its offices in places like China, Hungary and Mexico.
He particularly appreciated being able to observe first-hand how employees in different parts of the world interpreted and responded to the company’s procedures and processes. But the constant travelling did start to take its toll, so when an opportunity to work with one of the largest oil companies in the world presented itself, he jumped at the chance.
Shiva finds himself talking more and more to people these days, something that he never expected to be doing so much of when he started his professional accountancy course. But this constant communication has become an integral part of auditing, especially when one wants to better understand the business.
‘The picture is complete only when you talk to the people involved; otherwise the numbers you see are just that: figures on a page. You have to link them to the conditions that you observe and the non-financial information that people give you,’ he says.
His perception of the profession has changed quite dramatically. Like many young people entering accountancy, he saw it as staid, mundane and traditional, but as he progressed and various positions came his way, the reality was quite different. He found that the more he was immersed in it, the more opportunities kept opening up.
‘You can request job rotation and secondment to different departments,’ he explains. ‘You get the whole picture and your understanding of your individual role improves exponentially. There are so many areas to explore in an organisation of this size – operations accounting, revenue accounting, joint interest and internal auditing are just a few.’
There are even roles that call for non-accounting skills, which may be essential to rounding out the professional accounting experience. ‘Like most young people, I took up accounting because of its stability and the possibility of working with an international firm that would pay well,’ he says candidly.
‘But I’ve found more satisfaction in the breadth and depth of experiences that my job offers. If you don’t limit yourself to what you are asked to do, you may find yourself learning in unexpected and infinitely more beneficial ways, and this, in turn, could present more opportunities for you to further develop your career and yourself. Keep an open mind. There’s no need to be fearful of the unfamiliar. You just need to get used to it.’
Majella Gomes, journalist
This article was first published in the April 2015 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.