Moving Careers: The Audit Agony Aunt
Whether you are looking at moving to an entirely new career, planning on changing sectors or curious to hear what else is out there for your skill set, then take a look through our Audit Agony Aunt page on 'Moving Careers'.
I currently work as a scientist, I'm interested in a change of career and I'm considering internal audit but as a complete outsider I'm struggling to understand what my options are and what's the best way in to this career. Is it worth applying for a grad scheme with an accountancy firm and getting accreditation as an accountant to give me a better start and more options in the future or is it really not necessary to qualify as an accountant to do internal audit and would I be better looking for individual companies who'd be willing to train me without funding me in a further qualification?
The answer to your question really lies in why you want to move into internal audit. Normally I am a real advocate of the almost infinite potential for career switching, and the market experience supports this with countless examples of career u-turns and studies pointing to the prevalence of millennial career agility. With this in mind, perhaps it wouldn’t really matter which of the proposed routes you took into internal audit if you are your twenties or early thirties. By your forties though, you may have less scope for complete course-correct, so arguably you’d need to make a more nuanced informed choice before selecting your options.
The internal audit departments of bigger organisations do take on untrained auditors; lack of financial or accounting exposure won’t necessarily be a barrier as long as you can demonstrate an avid interest and an understanding of the activities of the organisation, as well as a strong analytical curiosity. Some organisations will support you through professional exams (eg the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors) but there are also many internal auditors who are ‘qualified by experience’, without the accreditation. And internal audit can be a spring board into other parts of the organisation for talented individuals – general management, HR, IT or finance, for example. (Over the years, I have seen many external auditors use internal audit as a transition from public practice to general management and finance positions, but this is not an exclusive privilege, it’s an option open to anyone with ambition and talent).
So, if you are motivated by pure passion for the task-based aspects of internal audit work in general, then direct entry may be an option for you. Your motivators might be around a strong interest in compliance, systems and processes and realising value for money; you likely see yourself as a technical ‘doing’ type of person who gets pleasure from the practical task on hand.
However, if you do see yourself moving into management and/or leadership in due course then a more generalist qualification might be the preferred route.
Professional practice firms, from big four and mid tier to smaller regional firms are some of the biggest annual recruiters of auditors into their compliance and assurance departments. Typically, you would be studying for an accounting and finance qualification such as ACA (chartered accountancy) or ACCA (certified accountancy) but much of your practical experience might well be spent at external clients, performing statutory audit testing. The day to day tasks would be more financially orientated towards verifying financial transactions and balances but there would still be some work on verifying the reliability of clients’ systems and processes.
At the end of the three to four year training contract you would have a finance qualification and you could then choose to specialise (eg in internal audit) or broaden you skill base to management and leadership. Qualified ACAs and ACCAs go into internal audit and traditional finance roles in industry (eg financial controller, management accountant); you also see them in management and leadership positions throughout industry and the public sector – CEOs, entrepreneurs as well as finance directors. This is the route to go if you feel that, in due course, you might like to spread your wings beyond internal or external auditing.
So, lots to think about and I would strongly recommend you work through our perennial classic, Your Career by Design.
I have been a forensic accountant in the profession for 33 years. I am 66, fit and healthy. What might you suggest as a change of career?
I would advise that you begin by reading our article, Your Career by Design. This piece will provide you with a process to approach your career strategy, taking you through a ‘self’ audit and personal review of Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities and Threats (SWOT). And importantly, it will also enable you to work through your current needs, interests and preferences to help align these to an appropriate career move.
As opposed to ‘advising’ you on a particular job role, career coaching is much more about facilitating your thinking to help you come up with personal insights to make an informed choice. What I would say though is that, without a doubt, 33 years in the profession, an ACA qualification (and a Bachelor of Science degree) together with your considerable experience in forensic accounting will have equipped you with a very broad range of transferable skills. You might not actually realise how broad! Accountants typically focus on their technical abilities and it is usual to see a chronological, task-based CV which lists out duties and roles through the lens of accounting accomplishment. If you are interested in continuing along the forensic pathway – either upwards or sideways (perhaps with a sector or employer move) then some of this will be relevant. But even where this is the case, and especially where you are looking for a more lateral move, then your technical experience will only be part of your story.
Thinking more creatively about your transferable skills and experience will also help you consider alternative career pathways. Here are a few examples:
- Commercial exposure. Your broad base of clients, your knowledge of their businesses (financial and otherwise) and an understanding of a wide range of systems and processes would be a strong base to build a non-executive career, either as a non-executive director of a business or as a trustee of a not-for-profit organisation. If you can match particular sector experience or industry expertise, this could further mark you out as an expert and put you in a good position to provide consultancy and/or business coaching.
- Leadership and Management. What have you achieved as a leader of people and/or a manager of processes? Reflecting on your achievements and how you have added value in these roles will be a useful information gathering exercise to demonstrate your more general management abilities. General management experience is highly transferable and could place you in a cross functional role across any industry.
- Communication skills. Verbal and written, reporting and presenting, public speaking, coaching and training are all immensely transferable skills. Not only could they be used to support a career path in lecturing, teaching or writing, but they are all facilitators for a distinct career change. Examples include: fund raising, business development or sales and marketing.
These are just a few examples. And you will note that I have not gone down the route of the more obvious opportunities – joining an accounting practice as a general practitioner (back to your roots!) consulting as a forensic specialist or financial analytics.
Many of these opportunities are, or could be, part-time and they present an appealing flexibility to create a portfolio career which can combine employment with self-employment and the space to pursue non-career interests.
I am currently working offshore as a Hydrographic Surveyor conducting seafloor surveys for oil and gas, renewable energy and cable route industries. I have been following this career for 2 years after graduating with a BSc Marine Geography First Class degree and have loved the experience it has provided me. However, I am now looking for a change in career path with a more structured and reliable work environment. I would like to transition into a career that involves more data analysis and investigation.
I was recommended working for the National Audit Office by a friend. I hear that the organisation could provide me with an opportunity to work towards a further qualification simultaneously to earning an income. I am interested in and preparing to apply for the graduation scheme offered by the NAO that I was told opens in September 2016. However, I am open-minded and will work hard and consider all options available to me. I aspire to work in London or surrounding areas, and would also like the chance to travel in the UK or abroad occasionally.
Is it possible to enter into previously mentioned careers without achieving a masters or further qualifications prior, that would mean investing money and taking time out of full time work?
Additionally, my job restricts my availability to apply for other jobs and attend interviews as I am away for months at a time between unknown dates. I have always been advised that it is better to look for jobs while being employed, but this is proving difficult. Would it be advisable to find temporary work to develop the skills and understanding I need to change careers? Or would this look bad to potential employers?
I have to say, with your academic achievements and impressive CV, an auditing career with the Big Four immediately comes to mind. Just as a bit of background, the Big Four are the largest global accountancy firms: PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY. They all have very large offices in London, take on substantial annual graduate intakes and offer a wide range of professional services beyond accountancy and audit, such as tax, management consultancy and corporate recovery. You will find, on the jobs pages of CareersInAudit, a good selection of the sort of roles they offer, although these will be directed principally at experienced hires - you would apply through the graduate intake programme.
Audit and Assurance has the largest annual intake and provides a highly coveted foundation business career, with exposure to a wide range of organisations from plcs to own-manager firms and public sector establishments. The Big Four recruiters are interested in top academics as well as seeing a CV that demonstrates personal achievement, together with a rich selection of transferable skills such as communication (written and verbal), teamwork, leadership potential, initiative, innovation and analytical prowess. They tend to be open to early career shifters as long as you can demonstrate a real commitment to the career change and articulate how your current skills will transfer across.
There are of course many other different types of accountancy firms beyond the largest, from the mid tier (BDO, Grant Thornton, RSM etc) right through to small local firms. Like the Big Four, they will offer you the chance to achieve a professional qualification, with either the Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICAEW) or ACCA, while providing well paid business experience, although depending on the employer their offering will be narrower than the biggest firms. All firms will generally offer a three year training period and pay your fees for courses, exams and study leave.
So why do I suggest Big Four auditing? Firstly, I think you've a good chance of getting in - and they really do provide a blue chip foundation to any business career. In Audit & Assurance you would be able to develop your investigative and analytical interests over a broad range of projects during your three year training period, and you could then choose to specialise and deepen these skills in say, forensics or financial analysis, upon qualification. And thirdly, there is a strong opportunity for both your employer and yourself to benefit from your industry knowledge of oil and gas and renewals by gearing your client portfolio to these particular areas. You would be travelling to different clients on a daily basis and that could well include locations outside of the South East and, by choice, internationally, usually upon qualification.
There are a couple of things to be wary of though. I am not sure what finding a 'more structured and reliable environment' means for you at this stage. Big Four audit will provide some predictability, in that you will generally know when and where you will be working for the subsequent few months, but often the hours are very long, you may be under high pressure to meet deadlines and will be balancing studying for professional examinations with your 'day' job out at clients.
While there is no need for further postgraduate qualification like a master's, I think that some additional business or commercial experience would stand you in good stead, particularly in articulating your reasons for the career shift. It may be that you can demonstrate this from your retail work but some financial exposure would also be very useful.
I definitely would continue with the NAO application, as this also offers interesting and challenging opportunities, although perhaps not the breadth of opportunity that Big Four might offer. If you Google the two career paths you can compare and contrast and consider the pros and cons of each, as applicable to you.
And finally, the conundrum of applying for jobs. You are correct in seeking to minimise career 'gaps' but if your marine placements are completely unpredictable, you could consider taking a 'bridging' role as a stop gap career transition. This could be an opportunity for you to get some valuable commercial and/or financial experience.
On the other hand, both the Big Four and NAO do have structured and scheduled annual application schemes, so if you can navigate around these, perhaps by taking some leave, then you should be able to enjoy an uninterrupted period of employment!
I was offered a position as a state revenue tax auditor trainee. The salary is significantly less than what I would want however I am hoping that the experience would be much more valuable. My question is would having a few years of experience in auditing be worth the sacrifices in the long run. For example it is my understanding that with a few years of government auditing experience I would be able to return to the private sector and make close to or more than 6 figures (in DC metro area) or possibly go into the federal government with a similar salary range. This is all very important because I'm a single parent and I am trying to put myself in the best position to care for my family. Auditing is something I have always wanted to do but I need to make sure that the time I will be away travelling is going to be worth the experience.
Hi there, and thank you for sharing your dilemma. I'm not sure I have all the information necessary to provide you with a fully rounded response (such as what you are currently doing or thinking of giving up), but I can certainly offer some pointers to be going on with.
On the one hand, you have highlighted a number of benefits from accepting the state revenue trainee position: auditing is something you have always wanted to do, you see it as a potential door-opener to subsequent lucrative roles as well as providing valuable and marketable experience. On the other hand you feel that the role requires a degree of sacrifice, namely, lower short term earnings, as well as the burden of extra travel.
Firstly, I would strongly advise you to test out all of the assumptions you are making. You know, factually, what the starting salary is, but what do you really know about salary progression, the reality of the working hours and the actual travel expectation (where, how much, how often)? You also need to do your due diligence on the anticipated future prospects; what evidence do you have for the forecasted high-earning career pathway and how reliable is this evidence? You can test out all of these by doing some very focussed research, asking specific questions of your recruiters, tracking down auditors who have already trodden this path (online networking is a good place to start) and requesting the opportunity to speak to current employees for their perceptions of the job and prospects.
You've cited being best equipped to care for your family as a key driver to making the right choice so this is clearly a very important decision point for you. And for this reason, I would advise you not to scrimp on your research or rely on untested assumptions.
While I can't advise you on the specific career opportunities in your particular geographical location, I can confirm that auditing can be a very strong foundation to any career. Most auditors do not fully appreciate or leverage the breadth and depth of transferable skills and experiences they develop: communication and inter-personal skills for starters, along with analytical and project management expertise, as well as the invaluable breadth of exposure to processes, systems and cultures. So, in theory, a foundation in auditing is a great door-opener to lateral career moves. But this will only work if you are able to fully leverage your 'human capital', with robust and specific understanding and articulation of these attributes.
It sounds glib, but whichever pathway you chose, it is ultimately up to you to make it work best for yourself and your family. No one particular path is a golden ticket to the perfect career. Do your research and test your assumptions but be prepared to work hard at making whichever route you finally choose work for you.
I am an audit professional with 9 years of experience in internal auditing. Currently, I am working with a multinational bank in their Internal Audit department for the past six years. I have received an offer from another Multinational bank for the role of Operations and risk control - SOX Compliance. While all the aspects of the offer are good, I am apprehensive about the prospects of the role:
1. Is it a right move considering that my current role within Internal Audit has more expanded scope as it gives me exposure to all the operations of the organization compared to the prospective SOX role which will be restricted to SOX Compliance related activities?
2. What is the future of Sarbanes-Oxley considering that there has been criticism and discussion around the success/failure of the law?
Thus, should I accept the offer of SOX role? What would you do? Looking forward to your advice.
If I was you, I would go right back to the drawing board. You can't make this decision unless you are clear about what you want from your career, both now and in the future. In some respects the future of Sarbanes-Oxley is a red herring, as it can only seriously impact your career if you paint yourself into a corner with specialist labelling.
So, you have two roles to consider. Where did the SOX offer come from? Were you head-hunted? If so you need to understand what it is about your professional profile that the recruiter thought was a good fit. And what do you think about their evaluation? Have they properly identified your strengths and anticipated your interests and aspirations? Or did you go out seeking the SOX role of your own accord? What was in your mind with regard to making a career move right now? What were you looking for in terms of role content and future prospects? The answers to these questions will help you focus on getting to the nub of what you really want and need.
You are already aware of the obvious difference between the two roles, the SOX position being more specialised than the broader base of general internal audit. But the comparison doesn't stop there. What else is on offer in the SOX role? Is it essentially a promotion? Does it bring more management and leadership responsibilities compared to your current role? If it does then, despite its perceived specialist nature, it might bring you wider, more advanced transferable skills and development opportunities.
Also consider your attitude to risk. It may be perceived 'safer' to stay where you are, but how do you feel about safety and stability? Can you see yourself doing the role you are doing in five years time? If not, what would you like to be doing and how would the SOX position align with these future aspirations. And look again closely at the details of the SOX role. What is attractive about it: prospects, content, reward? You could consider how your current employer might replicate these benefits, either in your present department or with a role transition. You can do a fair bit of due diligence yourself but ultimately you will have to take some risk by having an open conversation with regard to your career aspirations.
There's quite a bit to think about in making your decision, so don't be pressurised into moving quickly. Take your time, do your research and some personal reflection and ultimately go with your heart as well as your mind!
I qualified as an ACA about 10 years ago and more recently sat the Institute of Internal Auditors exams and am now also an MIIA. I have worked for the last 10 years in a variety of audit and risk roles in the financial services industry and for the last 5 years as an internal auditor for a bank.
Whilst I enjoy my current role I don't think that it will be right for me going forward. I now have a young family and the travel requirements plus the fixed hours and lack of opportunity to work from home make my current role less than ideal.
I would like to pursue other roles but am unsure how to approach a change in career path. I would ideally like to fall back on one of my qualifications and possibly work for a small local accountancy firm but lack any experience so worry that I would not be an attractive candidate for them or that I would enjoy the role as it would be completely new to me. Any guidance you could provide would be most welcome.
I also read in one of your replies the possibility of doing research but wondered what you meant by this.
You raise some interesting and topical issues around new ways of, and attitudes to, twenty first century working. I'm going to start with your last point as it's ambiguity has touched on an area that I haven't been asked about before.
You refer to my alluding to 'doing research'; what I normally mean by this is researching roles, jobs and employers by means of formal or informal internships, work-shadowing and networking. All of these are very relevant to your current situation and are a vital part of your due diligence when exploring potential career paths, as well as building new relationships which, in turn, strengthen your professional networks.
However, I did wonder whether you might be referring to 'research' in an academic sense? So for the record, I thought I might add some thoughts from my own recent (and ongoing) experience of doing a master's degree.
For me, this return to academia was as a direct result of a consultancy project I undertook. While the project didn't explicitly require research training, I felt that I would have benefitted from more formal experience of data collection and analysis techniques, among other pertinent skills. The master's is a very flexible, part-time, work-based, work-related degree which means that everything I study is linked back to my day to day work. And that in turn means that every single module I study adds value to me as it directly contributes to my credentials as a researcher and consultant.
Now, I'm not suggesting that you embark on such an academic pathway at this point in your career but you might want to consider some aspect of part-time, flexi-study to contribute to a potential portfolio career. You have a marketable mix of experience and qualifications, with a strong core base and an element of specialist expertise . There is no reason why you shouldn't find a role in a small accountancy practice, albeit at non-qualified level while you get up to scratch with your general accounting and tax core skills. Alternatively, you could self-employ, doing book-keeping and tax returns - you will be surprised how hard-wired these skills are! In parallel you could look at a work-based, self-funding study or project to use your auditing specialism - which (as it has for me) can bring speaking, consultancy and training opportunities. These are just a couple of examples of how a portfolio career might use your existing skill-base while meeting your work-life balance needs.
You might also consider lecturing, tutoring or teaching auditing, either at an academic institution or as a freelancer, full or part time, and potentially as a route to doing paid research.
Of course, the other advantage of a portfolio career is that you are keeping your options open - trying before you are buying - or in this case, investing in a different career track. Portfolios are another way of performing deeper due diligence, managing the risk, and increasing the potential rewards of committing to significant career change. Even if you don't feel the portfolio route is for you at this point , consider the other suggestions on a standalone basis - training, lecturing, consultancy and general practice, as options which could fit with your work-life balance.
"I have had four years of internal audit experience in one of the big 4 firms and am effectively bilingual in Mandarin and English. I am looking to move out of the big 4 as the workload is increasing at an exponential rate, which doesn't not commensurate with the pay. Would you have any suggestions on what other career options can I undertake other than internal audit? I find myself increasingly jaded with the number of hours having to be put in and the unreasonable demands of bosses."
What you have identified here is that work life balance is one of your core, fundamental personal values. This is a really good start to taking control of your career strategy and particularly valuable as you've identified this at an early stage.
You don't mention your qualifications, so I'll keep the career advice quite general.
Start by taking stock of what you've got: the kudos of big 4 experience, exposure to the systems and cultures of a broad mix of businesses and two languages. That's a very strong career base and your next step is to break these down into transferable skills and experience. So for example, the big 4 experience might mean that you have blue chip technical experience, as well as proving that you can deliver under pressure to the highest standard. The internal audit experience translates into team work, communication skills, expert knowledge of systems and business processes. And so on. You need to spend some time on this but you will certainly come up with a very marketable list of transferable skills.
The next step is to figure out the careers and/or employers who would value these skills. That's quite an overwhelming task, so one place to start is with your own interests and preferences. From your long and very rich list of skills and experiences, what are your own personal top ten? You won't find a career which exactly tallies to this but it does provide a starting point.
What you might discover from this exercise is that internal audit is actually a good fit! If this does transpire then you might consider changing role or changing employer to get round the work life balance issue.
What else might you consider? Well you haven't given me a lot of information to go on but here are some general considerations. If maintaining a career in business appeals to you, have you looked at general management and/or more specialist compliance roles? If you really want to capitalise on your two languages you might consider translation or an interpreter role. It also depends on your financial needs: can you afford to retrain or invest in some additional learning? You might consider teaching, lecturing or research.
As you can see there is huge scope but it really depends on what you really, really want to do (and can afford to do) and to determine this, you have to do the ground work first.
One final thought though. Beware of jumping ship too hastily. You've clearly invested a considerable amount in your career to date and if you are still fulfilled by the work and fit into the culture, it may be worth talking to your line manager and/or HR to see what the firm can do to alleviate the work life balance issue. Possibilities might be a sideways move, a reduction in hours or a change of portfolio. You never know until you ask!
"I have been in HR recruitment for about 18 years, recently I had some exposure to recruiting Accounting Professionals. There is one aspect of Accounting that has caught my interest, Risk & Assurance. I would like to get your advice about which is the best route to pursue a career in Risk & Assurance. I am considering going to graduate school to get my Masters of Accounting because it opens up the possibility of getting on with a Big 4. I also know recruiters who work for a couple of the Big 4 organizations, I was wondering if I could approach the recruiters about possibly having a discussion with one of their managers about the possibility of bringing someone in with little to no accounting experience. I have been told this has happened before.
Which route would you consider the best route. I realize I will have to take a substantial pay cut either way. I am okay with this, but wanted to make sure I am putting myself in a situation that I can be successful."
Thanks for getting in touch and for raising this interesting question about transitioning to a career in Risk & Assurance.
As an in house big four recruiter, I did, on a fairly regular basis, encounter mature candidates seeking training contracts for the more traditional graduate entry positions. And I did indeed recruit them, and while I would say their search for a position was no easier than conventional entry into the big four, I would not say it was necessarily any harder either.
As with graduate entry, the big four will be looking for a very strong academic record (particularly at A level, 280 UCAS points being typical). While they may be prepared to relax slightly, the number of points for a mature candidate, you'd still be expected to demonstrate robust educational attainment.
Beyond academics, you will need to vigorously justify your career move, demonstrating that you've done your due diligence and really understand the demands of a role in Risk & Assurance. Be prepared to map across transferable skills and experience from your recruitment career to your proposed career in accountancy. Competencies such as communication, relationship building skills, team work and working under pressure are all highly convertible but you'll need to find a way of demonstrating, through practical anecdote, what you will bring to the new job. In fact, I would say that the latter is probably more important that taking a post graduate programme. Indeed, a master's in accountancy would indicate a strong commitment to the career change but it is a pretty costly investment with no guarantee that you'd meet the big four entry criteria.
And of course, the big four are not the only purveyors of a career in assurance. You'd be wise to consider mid tier firms as well as internal, as opposed to external, audit careers and qualifications in the public sector and/or industry. So, as I'm ever wont to say, you need to get your story straight and be able to articulate robustly why you have chosen to change careers, what you expect to get from your new career and what you are bringing to a new potential employer.
I think you are on the right lines by using your current network to do some due diligence and also build some relationships in assurance. While not openly acknowledged, targeted in house relationship building can sometimes be a method of short circuiting the traditional recruitment process, and if not, it will at least add to your invaluable sources of background knowledge.
"I trained with a big 4 accountancy practice, qualifying in 2010 with first time passes and an excellent reputation within the firm. I trained in the internal audit department and to be honest never really enjoyed the work but stayed until Manager simply because I knew I was in line to be promoted – in hindsight I wish I had left earlier. I always felt a disconnect between my studies and what I was doing at work and since then struggled to get a role in a more technical accountancy position simply due to a lack of practical experience. The realisation of this led to me getting depressed about being stuck in a career I didn’t want to do. I eventually secured a move into a commercial finance role at a plc retailer which essentially proved to be little more than data entry and analysis and I left after 9 months. This time proved to be a bit of an eye opener for me and I have come to realise my long term goals lie in working as a sole trader accountant. On that basis I re-joined my big 4 firm (taking a demotion from my previous manager grade) in the tax team and am currently completing CTA. However again this is not giving me the skill set I am looking for. I have been very light on work and what I have done is all advisory based. I’m not really sure where to turn or what to do. I feel like starting my whole career over, I’ve no kids as yet and could realistically do that but I want to regain my drive and enthusiasm which seem to have deserted me over the last 18months."
There are so many pluses here, I genuinely urge you not to despair. First up, you are only six years into your career and that really is the embryonic phase! There are still tonnes of opportunities for you to experiment, sidestep and indeed, diversify; to get you on to a path you feel is more 'you'. Indeed, it might help your mindset to point out that what you are going through is a normal career pattern for the 21st century. Albeit, you've had to do quite a bit of soul searching in a short period of time, but this wouldn't be un-typical for, say, the first ten years of a professional career.
What you do have in abundance at this point, is lots of experience of what you don't want, and this is a very firm foundation to make some really powerful strategic career decisions. So my first piece of advice is to really capitalise on the knowledge and experience that you've earned. Apply your analytic and critical reflection skills to a deep consideration of what you did and didn't like about the roles and the organisations you have encountered thus far. Be specific, so if you are less than enamoured with the big 4 culture, ask yourself what exactly is it about the culture? Is it specific to your office? Your service line? Is it the people, and if so what is it about them, their behaviours, attitudes, ways of doing things?
Having established what you don't want, use this as a benchmark to identify what you do. Think laterally here and use your creative skills to conceive an image of something approaching your ideal career. What would you be doing on a day to day basis? Where would that be taking you? Who would you be working with? What skills would you be employing? What level of personal stretch would you be experiencing? And so on...
You've already identified professional practice and tax as areas of focus. Now break down these options and see how they map across to your ideal career. Once again you need to be very specific. If its general practice that appeals, it's hardly surprising that big 4 tax doesn't tick your boxes.
Reading between the lines, and picking up on the references to your technical interest and expertise in your studies, I wonder if it is technical stretch that really appeals. If so, unless you are in a very specialised niche, you are unlikely to get too much of that as a sole practitioner. Other considerations, more in alignment with your preferences, might be a technical internal role in a bigger firm or a teaching or research position.
I hope I've managed to reinvigorate your enthusiasm. You really do have it all to play for. You can afford to sit tight in a solid career position, for the moment. Take the time to reflect and do some strategic planning, drawing on all your experiences so far, and you really are in a strong position to make some very exciting career plans.
"I found out about your column through Simon Wright on LinkedIn. I am hoping you will be able to help me too!
As a little bit of background, I am ACA qualified from PwC and then worked in Internal audit at EY. Having been on a career break for 2.5 years, I am now looking to make a move into Tax. I am most interested in personal tax planning (eg high net worth individuals) and returns but also want to gain experience in corporate tax. What would you advise as being the best route to undertake in terms of gaining experience in tax?
My concern lies in whether I should apply for graduate training schemes at accountancy practice firms in tax or should I be making an "experienced hire" application with my very limited and rusty tax knowledge?
Another question I had was around whether I should undertake exams such as Chartered Tax Advisor exams privately while I am making my applications. These, as you are probably aware, are very expensive and ideally, I would like to be sponsored for them.
Any advice would be most appreciated! Thank you in advance" - Ayesha
What I understand is that you are in a position to make a significant investment to regenerate your career. Ideally you would join an organisation at post-qualified level, on a commensurate salary but if necessary you would also be prepared to start at the bottom and re-train as a tax specialist at graduate entry level.
To be able and willing, to consider such a broad continuum of options, puts you in a pretty unique position. There are a lot of possibilities here and you need to do some research and hard thinking to find the best solution to fit your own particular needs and preferences. Here are some suggestions:
- Get clear on why you are choosing tax. Get it clear to yourself and how you articulate it to others. What exactly do you want from a career in tax that you can’t get from your training and experience to date? Be very specific. Differentiate between personal tax and corporate and also compliance versus more strategic consultancy work. Each of these specialisms offer quite different career experiences.
- I highly recommend testing out your thoughts on this by getting some hands-on experience. This could be via work place shadowing, a short unpaid secondment or by finding a mentor. Approach contacts from your Big 4 network (past and present) and through the ICAEW. But also explore beyond the Big 4. Many of your former colleagues will have moved to different types of organisations and you need to be aware of the options in industry as well as different size firms.
- This research will not only test out your perceptions of tax as the best career fit but it will deepen your knowledge and market intelligence and raise even more questions! It will also strengthening your network of potential mentors and contacts.
- And when you’ve reached this point – recognising your own needs and motivations, understanding the opportunities and options and created a powerful resource bank of knowledge and contacts - then you can make an informed decision which minimises your personal investment and risk.
"I’ve been looking for a new career challenge for some time, as I’ve been in my current job for nearly three years. However, I’ve stayed put because of the downturn. With all this talk about ‘green shoots’ and ‘increased confidence’, I wonder whether now might be a good time to make the leap? What if I do make the leap and then realize it’s not the job for me? Would I stand a chance of getting my old job back? Am I being too rash in this current environment?"
Back in March of last year, I answered a similar question in this very column. Twelve months later, my advice is the same: beware of the knee-jerk career move! Reporting from my position as a career coach right on the frontline, I can report that, despite the proverbial economic green shoots, many accountants are still facing the toughest market they’ve ever seen in their careers.
Of course, progressive moves are being made right now by accountants all over the globe. It can be done, but it’s tough. Securing the best role, the one that’s right for you, right now, will depend on your unique mix of experience, skills, requirements and mobility, as well as your preferred industry sector, discipline and level. But generally speaking the odds are against you. Less opportunity, more candidates, intense completion and the probability of finding your optimum role is still quite low.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope at all. You need to decide exactly what it is you want from your next career move. You’re looking for a challenge and you must define this more precisely. Using your current role, take stock of where you are in your professional development and where you’d like to be in 1-2 and 3-5 years.
Draw up a personal SWOT (strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and use this to identify areas where you’re already proficient and those you’d like to develop.
Think ‘soft skills’ such as leadership, influencing and problem solving, as well as considering your technical and industry ambitions. And be as specific as you can. Once you’ve completed this exercise you will be able to articulate your aspirations and identify your skills gaps. This will give you a personal blueprint to take an informed approach to career planning. Now you can start to research roles that better align with your personal requirements.
As for going back to your job if the career move doesn’t work out, it’s possible, though improbable. If you leave on good terms with your employer and they rate you highly and still have capacity in the role you left, they may consider bringing you back in. but that’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and the chances are they won’t all hold. Think of it from your employer’s point of view. Nothing will have changed – you’ll still be wanting a challenge.
Having said that, if you perform your personal careers audit and take informed action, you won’t end up needing to go back to your old job. In the meantime, you might like to consider how you could work with your current employer in partnership to create a win-win career plan. Go back to your soul-searching on the specifics of your next challenge. Could any or all of these aspirations be met in your current position?
Talk to your employer about specific development opportunities. Could you take on some more responsibility? Build a new skill? Gain exposure to a new sector? Even if you can’t fulfill all aspirations, you may be able to meet some of them and continue to sustain your professional development- albeit at a less accelerated speed.
So my advice would be to use, in tandem, this combined career advancement strategy:
- Define your specific personal requirements and begin your search for opportunities that match them.
- Work with your employer on devising a plan for your professional development.
Use the two together to ensure you are fully equipped and in the best place to seize the right opportunity when it arises, while steadily moving forward in your professional progression.
"I'm at a career crossroads and don’t know where to turn. I'm a qualified Chartered Accountant who has circa 6 years post qualified experience in internal audit and risk management. I have worked predominantly in industry. I have been giving a lot of thought over the last year to move away from audit into another field - the question is what? I have the opportunity to move into a big four firm and specialise in IT/Security advisory, which will be a move away from audit.
My concern is whether I want to go down the consultancy route as I have been told by others coming from the Big Four that there is an expectation to sell, have no work life balance and have excessive work loads. I'm worried about making the wrong move and as I have two short moves on my CV (though no fault of my own) I need to make the right decision.
Help! Is there any advice on working in the Big Four and/or IT/Security Advisory? What should I expect?"
Full marks for taking the time to reflect on this career move holistically, as part of your bigger life picture. Regular readers will have heard me caution against the ‘knee jerk’ career move – the temptation to grab the opportunity that presents itself. It’s always sensible to be circumspect in this situation but with two shorter moves on your CV, you are right to be extra judicious regarding your next move.
Start with examining the reasons for wanting to make the change, that is, moving out of your current role but also specifically leaving audit. Ask yourself the big why? Consider the pros and cons and likes and dislikes of your present position. What do you enjoy doing? What would you like to do more of? What new skills/experiences are you looking for? What are you seeking that you are not getting from your current role? And what are you inherently good at? A personal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) can help here. And in all of this, be specific. For example if you like working as a team, analyse what it is about teamwork that fires you up. Is it pulling together to meet team targets? The opportunity to talk through issues, bounce off ideas? Or simply the team dynamic that fuels your momentum? You really need to get down to a precise level of detail to make this investigation meaningful and useful. Use my transferable skills checklist to help you identify areas to consider.
This is not a quick exercise. I would advise 3 or 4 sessions, over a week or so. The result though, will be a blueprint for your next career move.
But before you start comparing the Big Four role to your career blueprint, you need to fully investigate what’s involved in the job. There is huge generalisation about Big Four working practices. As an 18 year veteran myself, I can tell you that roles, work load and pressure can vary significantly by department, by line manager and by location. So don’t rely on sweeping assumptions in making your decision.
Instead test out those assumptions. Get a real understanding of the role. What skills and experiences will be developed? What core competencies are required? What are the ‘selling’ aspects and what does this mean in reality?
Don’t rely on generalisations regarding work life balance. Talk to the line manager and team members to discover the reality for this particular role in this location. If at all possible, ask to do some work shadowing so you can see at first hand the culture and environment and how you might fit in. And if that’s not possible, try some internet research; talk to employees and alumni via online forums, like the ones on Linkedin.
Once you’ve acquired some first hand, specific information you can compare this to your personal career blueprint. If the results for the Big Four role don’t tick the right boxes, move on and start looking elsewhere. This time you’ll be searching from an informed position, understanding your priorities and the criteria you need to satisfy, and where you are prepared to make compromises.
"I am 37 years old and have worked in IT Security for almost ten years from a Mainframe Administrator, trainee project manager to a technical author which is my current position. In the evenings I have studied and completed the AAT qualification and I am in the process of studying towards the ACCA qualification. I am looking to steer my career towards auditing as I feel that I would be able to bring with me my work experience in IT and develop the knowledge obtained from my studies.
Please could you offer some advice as to the best way to get into this area. Are there specific recruiters who specialise in companies who will be prepared to train new employees in this area? Any advice that you could offer me would be gratefully received."
As a mature entrant embarking on a new career in audit, you are not alone. Recent research has shown a distinct trend upwards in the starting age of trainees. This may well be down to the added value that the more mature trainee brings from their background and experience in other industries and roles.
If you are willing to start at the bottom of the ladder and work your way upwards, there are many possible ways into the profession. To start at this level, you won’t necessarily require any directly relevant experience or qualifications. For example, you could join external audit with one of the Big 4 firms. You are likely to find more than one entry level; from graduate trainee (which requires top UCAS points) to ‘experienced hire’ where understanding and passion for the role plus transferrable skills will count. And it’s not just the Big 4. There are a wide range of auditing practices who recruit new entrants, from small local firms upwards. Similarly, you will also find internal audit trainee schemes within commerce or the public sector.
Clearly you need to do your research and figure out the best fit for your experience and aspirations. I would suggest tracking down representatives from a variety of organizations, including those I have mentioned above. If you can find more mature entrants like yourself, all the better. Pick their brains to learn about the organisation, the role and their personal experiences. This will also help you determine how you can best exploit your prior experience. While you will still have to start at the bottom to learn the basics, there may well be opportunities where your experience can be used to accelerate your progress. For example, specialisng in ISA (Information Systems Audit).
Not only will this type of research assist you in targeting the best fit but it will also help you articulate your case and commitment for the career switch. Together with clear communication of how your past experience and skills can be transferred across and a strong dose of enthusiasm and excitement for the new career, and you’re looking at a winning formula!
Good luck with the rest of your audit career!
"I am AAT qualified and an ACCA finalist. I'm currently in the process of obtaining a degree in Accountancy as I feel it’s important to have a degree qualification. I have been in industry & commerce and also a short stint in the practice, (not BIG 4). I have also worked in an internal audit department of an airline but not in the UK. I’m in my late thirties.
At present I’m contemplating embarking on a career in audit. Will this work for me or should I stick to the industry & commerce? Appreciate your advice."
Your professional qualifications and experience in industry certainly won’t preclude you from a side-ways career move into audit. Indeed, many employers will see these as a strong foundation. However, to give you specific advice on the move and its suitability for you personally, I’d need to know a lot more about you: likes and dislikes, talents and weaknesses, personal and career goals and aspirations.
What I can do, is provide a model that you can work through that will assist in your decision- making. Here goes:
Phase 1: Know Yourself
- Where do you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years time? What’s important to you in your life and career? What are your core values? (Values are your personal operating principles which if not met, will cause you unhappiness. Email me to request your own Values Matrix).
- What are you looking for from your career move? Use your current and past work experience to identify aspects of your roles that you have found more/less satisfying.
- What can you offer? What are your personal skills, talents, strengths? What makes you special?
- What are you prepared to invest? Where are you willing to start on the career ladder? What salary and benefit package do you require? What further learning are you prepared to undergo?
Phase 2: Understand what’s involved your favoured career
An easy way to do this, is to simply compare and contrast the audit career you are considering with your current position. What’s similar, what’s the same, what’s diametrically opposed? Areas you might consider include: core skills, work life balance, travel, working environment, pressure, office and client relationships, team structure, autonomy, career progression, financial package and security.
Phase 3: Map across the first 2 phases
You’ve now got 2 lists and you can simply map across from Phase 1 to Phase 2. You will then be able to determine if your favoured career is going to be a good match to satisfy your aspirations within a satisfactory tolerance range and at an acceptable level of personal investment.
“I am very interested in moving from the audit into the general management consulting of my company – what’s the best way to go about this?"
This will be a competitive move and first impressions count. Consequently, before you ‘go live’ with your career aspirations, ensure you are knowledgeable about the sector, understand what’s expected in the role and can articulate your personal differentiator. Bearing in mind these three key requirements, here’s some tips to help.
Start genning up on Management Consultancy as a career. What does the job entail on a day to day basis? What does the longer term career path look like? What skills and experience will be required? And vitally, what characteristics are being sought to demonstrate longer term potential. You will need to appreciate all of this and clearly express it to your prospective employer.
So how do you go about this? Start inhouse. Look at networks you already have and then identify and develop further support. Use your commonsense to gauge when to release your career aspirations into the public domain, bearing in mind that there may be political tensions between the different service lines. Plus you don’t want the Management Consultants judging you before you are up to speed. So find a confidential mentor (senior to you) and/or a buddy (similar peer group) who has made the move or has insight into the department. Pick their brains to find answers to the questions above. Get them to help you to identify the key decision makers recruitment-wise, so you can look for subtle means of being seen by the relevant people in a positive light.
Continue your research outside your organisation to glean more intelligence on the industry. Recruitment agencies may be willing to help. But also use your own networks to talk further afield, seeking those who have made or considered the move. And use the rich resources of the internet; blogs and forums can be invaluable for the ‘inside story’.
When you are certain you can speak confidently about the career and the sector, start to share your aspirations more publicly within your firm. You can seek the support of HR/your line manager/the movers and shakers with Management Consultancy. Use a personal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) to identify your differentiator and ensure it is aligned to what you now know is valued by the Management Consultants.
And last, but by no means least, don’t forget to consider what you actually want from this career move. What are you seeking that is not being satisfied in your current role? How does this move align with your long term career aims, your lifestyle needs, your core personal values? If inhouse politics permit you may be able to undertake a work-shadowing experience or even a secondment so you can see at first hand what it’s like at the sharp end.
Due diligence complete, you’ll be in an excellent position to make an informed decision as to whether this is the most appropriate move for you. And if it is, you’ll be in great shape to surge ahead with that application.