Not sure what to do next in your auditing career or thinking of looking for a new audit job? According to some, your 30s are the most productive years of your career. Liz Fisher continues her analysis of a career in accountancy, the opportunities and challenges.
So, you have qualified as an accountant and have followed the rules for a successful start in your career – you haven’t switched employers too many times while in your 20s, you’ve gained good experience and identified the area you want to work in. Now you’re in your 30s – what next?
Your 30s are when the grown-up years start. You should have worked out what you want to do and where you are aiming for – this is the time to really transform your ambitions into reality. But that will take focus, and hard work.
‘Your 30s are the most fertile and productive years of your career,’ is how Max Williamson, director of the audit careers website CareersinAudit.com, puts it. ‘Things really start to happen. You should have all the skills you need by now, so it’s a question of consolidating that and pushing yourself forward quite aggressively. People can make quantum leaps in terms of career advancement and pay, and I would really expect to see the high flyers start to pull away from everyone else.’
Williamson pulls no punches – if you don’t get your career sorted by the time you are 40, it’s probably never going to happen. ‘That’s an unspoken understanding in the profession,’ he says. ‘There’s no pointing keeping your powder dry at this stage for use in the future because there’s nothing else to keep it dry for.’
That does not necessarily mean just aiming for the best job you can, though – it’s about positioning yourself where you want to be. ‘Your 20s were about getting as much experience in different areas as possible, but now it’s about narrowing that experience down and focusing on what you really want to do and where you want to be,’ says Alan Stewart of Heidrick & Struggles.
So what does this mean in cold, hard career terms? The 20s are all about getting qualified and expanding your options,’ says Williamson. ‘In your 30s it’s about being a manager. You need to step up and manage people rather than just contribute to what they do. You really need to have pulled away by your late 30s and you should be in a senior managerial position, otherwise what you will end up with is a career rotation rather than career lift.’ In other words, any move you make will be more sideways rather than up.
For an accountant working in industry, ‘making it happen’ means being in charge of a department – perhaps as a regional or divisional finance director or, if you are really one of the high flyers, a CFO position, in time for your 40th birthday.
Stewart adds, though, managing is not for everyone. ‘We see plenty of people who feel they are not suited to managing people,’ he says. ‘The alternative is moving into a consultative role, or perhaps a chief accountant role or more of a technical specialist in their 30s.’
No one should make the mistake though, of thinking that their career progression will be automatic as their superiors miraculously notice how good they are. ‘There are the gifted few to whom great things happen, but that’s the exception rather than the rule,’ says Williams.
He recommends ‘mapping’ out your CV, making sure that the size and complexity of the teams you are managing increases steadily throughout your 30s so by the end of the decade you should be the top choice for the number one spot in the finance team (or in your chosen department if you are in practice).
For some people, though, the route to the top may not be smooth, perhaps because management levels in their organisation are overloaded. If that is the case, says Williamson, your only option may be to leave. ‘If you do find that you are being blocked in your current company, for whatever reason, you need to have the courage to step up. If you don’t, time will pass and the opportunity may be gone.’
A seamless rise to the top is, inevitably, more of a tricky prospect for a woman who also wants to have a family. Williamson acknowledges that your 30s are difficult for an accountant of either gender who is likely to be juggling career progression with a young family, but women are paced at a fundamental disadvantage. When asked what the advice would be for a female accountant who was aiming for a top job but also wanted to take a career break to have a family, Williamson said: ‘In a word, don’t.’
While more employees are offering flexible working and the situation for ambitious working mothers has improved drastically over the years, it is ridiculous to pretend that taking a career break for motherhood will not, at the very least, slow your career prospects. The best advice is to choose your employer carefully – the Big 4 accountancy firms, for instance, are among the most progressive employers in terms of flexible working and are making genuine attempts to make things easier for working mothers. It is also important to choose your immediate line manager carefully, as they will be the ones making the decision about what you will do when you return to work.
‘My advice would be to treat maternity leave as you would any career break – think about what you have learned about yourself and what you want to be different when you return to work,’ says Stewart. ‘A lot depends on your attitude to why you are going back to work – it makes a world of difference if you convey your enthusiasm for the job.’
A question often considered by accountants in their 30s is whether am MBA would help their future career prospects. Williamson argues that it would not. ‘I think that the ACA qualification holds firm as an excellent business qualification and if you have experience as well to back it up, I don’t see why you would need an MBA. Good people are generally moving too quickly to allow themselves time out to take an MBA anyway.’ He adds, though, that if you have plans to move into a more general business role, an MBA can be a useful way of repositioning yourself. Stewart agrees, saying that an MBA is generally a better bet if you are considering a career change.
If you still haven’t quite worked out shat you want to be doing with your career, don’t be afraid to take advice from the experts. Williamson points out that a good recruitment consultant will be more willing to advise you on a career plan, even if you’re not looking immediately for a new job.
Above all, try to think about what you want to be doing, rather than what you should be doing. ‘A good job is about what makes you go the extra mile,’ says Stewart. ‘You tend to be better at the things you are interested in – and if you are good at your job, money comes along anyway. If you are approaching your 30s now, I’d say think about your current job and the parts you like about it, and then try and replicate that in the future.’
Top Tips for Managing your Career in your 30s
- If you don’t have a managing role already, start looking for one
- Aim to increase the complexity and size of your team steadily
- If your prospects for progression look poor where you are, move
- Don’t wait to be noticed – push yourself forward
- Set a future target for where you want to be, and move towards it
- Take advice from a professional if you think you need it
Written by Liz Fisher for Accountancy Magazine.