The Audit Agony Aunt

Audit Agony Aunt 240x160Carol McLachlan, theaccountantscoach, is a chartered accountant, NLP Practitioner and professionally qualified executive coach. She's been at the sharp end of an auditing career, having spent nearly 20 years working in Audit & Assurance at EY. These days, as our resident Audit Agony Aunt she also applies her current leadership experience to help our readers solve a wide variety of professional and personal development issues. With a research master's degree in CPD for Accountancy and a leadership role, as President of her ICAEW district society, she will apply her decades of audit and accountancy wisdom to unravel your career dilemmas.

If you have any careers, skills development or promotion questions, please send them to Carol, who will endeavour to answer them.

There may be the odd occasion that Carol cannot answer due high demand for her time, but you can post your question on the Facebook Page or in our LinkedIn Group where you can discuss current issues with other auditors and audit jobseekers from across the world.



I’m very interested in which compliance courses to take to make a move into Compliance. Could you advise me on the best area to focus on and which training courses, based on my background?

I have held top management jobs in Telecoms/Technical internationally; in the US, France and the UK. My degrees are in Marketing and Communications and an MBA in international business and entrepreneurship, which included accounting, economics, and finance and international finance courses.

You already have a very strong career base which you can leverage as a door opener, and this will provide you with a powerful set of transferable skills, highly relevant to a compliance career.  I’m thinking - commercial thinking, financial understanding, knowledge of business systems and processes, not to mention communication and relationship building, project management and problem solving skills. You’ll also need to demonstrate, or have the potential to develop, analytical expertise, attention to detail, precision thinking, risk management and high numeracy as well as an ability to navigate and continually adapt to using evolving software. 

However, as you don’t have any directly relevant experience I think you would have to be looking at an entry level position. 

If it is sheer regulatory compliance that is your main interest then you would need to look for a compliance specialist role. Before you take the deep dive into a completely new career you could start by doing an introductory course with, for example, the International Compliance Association.  This would provide you with an understanding of the regulatory profession and give you a networking opportunity to explore more specifically where you interests may lie. If you already know which specific sectors or industries you’d like to work in you could look on the websites of their professional bodies for courses and study opportunities. You could also use these websites to research the regulatory environment so that you have a working knowledge to have an informed discussion at interview.  Examples would be: the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA).

Taking compliance beyond the specialist regulatory environment, you might like to consider a career with the Big Four, providing audit and assurance to external clients.  Certainly when I was recruiting at EY we were very interested in more mature, career movers, especially with a commercial background.  Again, you would be starting at the bottom but you would be well placed to secure a three year graduate training contract in audit and assurance which would offer extensive hands-on auditing experience at external clients while working towards a professional qualification (usually the ICAEW, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales).  Incidentally, ICAEW is my own professional body (in the interests of full disclosure!) and they do also offer some highly recommended short, accredited courses, such as the online ISA (International Standards for Auditing).  While this sort of learning won’t ‘qualify’ you for a compliance role per se, it is valuable in providing detail and context for your research in preparation for job search and interview.

I cite Big 4 audit here, but there are, of course,  audit training opportunities in many of the mid tier and smaller firms also, as well as the public sector and wider communities.

The final area that you might like to consider is internal audit.  Again, your background and experience would provide a strong foundation for this career option and your transferable skills would prove highly valuable.  The internal auditor does exactly what is suggested in the role title by providing audit and assurance to their own organisation or group, but there are highly diverse roles within the discipline.  These can range from evaluating risk, upholding governance, ensuring internal control processes are operating effectively, validating quality and analysing operations.  The Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors offers professional qualifications but also shorter courses and seminars which would give you a flavour of the profession.  They also provide detailed resources and fact sheets which would help you in making an informed decision. 

The compliance industry offers some terrific opportunities for career change and the growth in employment in the sector in the ten years since the banking crisis, continues to bode well for the future. Clearly, this is a major life decision for you, so do take your time, do your research and make your choice from an informed position as possible.



I have been offered an IA role with a big government department that has income streams and estate management. It is my first role after training in external audit (with a firm that deals with government bodies primarily but also some companies) and gaining my ACA.

I would like to keep my options open for the future and be able to make a move into commercial roles in industry in IA but also finance roles in the corporate sector.

Do you think that moving in a government (public sector) department will limit my choices in the near future?

Making the most auspicious first move on qualification is actually more of a challenge that newly qualifieds often realise, so well done for seeking advice at this early stage.

I think that the simple answer to your question is that it depends on how long you remain in the IA role, as well as how deftly you are able to leverage the learning opportunities and then use them to market yourself.

Worst possible scenario (and I have seen this happen, far too often!), is that you make that first post-training contract move and effectively box yourself in, developing an identity that is all about public sector internal audit. If you were to stay in that role long enough, this sort of identity categorization has a tendency to become almost inevitable.  With a shorter stint (say up to 2 years), then it is really up to you.  If you remain open minded, fluid about your identity and look to develop skills and seek experiences with the longer game in mind, then this role becomes a mere small step towards your ultimate development as the consummate finance professional. 

You’ve already acknowledged that there are immediate options regarding deepening your business understanding in the IA role, through the various income streams and estate management.  This is exactly the sort of open minded attitude that I am talking about.  If you do take the IA role, look for the learning opportunities and the commerciality and think strategically about the experience that you are getting on a day to day basis.  This is an entirely different approach than merely describing yourself as a public sector internal auditor!

One thing I am wondering though, is whether this role is a passive acceptance of a job offer which is a reasonable match for your training contract experience?  If I am wrong here, and it is an opportunity that excites you, then that is a good starting point for your first career move.  However, it may be that you do need to do a bit more due diligence in terms of exploring your passions and coming up with a strategic plan that doesn’t necessarily start with you building directly on your audit experience (largely)in the  public sector.  Because – you really don’t need to box yourself in, even at this stage!  Check out our article, Your Career by Design, to broaden your starting point and truly explore your widest options.



I am currently studying BSc Economics and am in my second year at university where I am hoping to undertake a placement within Assurance/Audit next year as part of my degree.

Alongside my studies I have been working in a small accountancy practice where I have enjoyed working on tax and HMRC investigations on behalf of clients for the previous 2 years which has allowed me to build a vast majority of skills for financial roles including analysis and working with clients.

I would like your advice on any ways I can develop work experience or skills for audit whilst at my second year of university that will benefit me for my placement applications. 

Good thinking to plan ahead for your audit placement. As you will appreciate, the market place is highly competitive for the best placements and it always pays to widen your prospective choice. 

You’ve made a great start in identifying the core competencies which are required in external audit; in addition to teamwork, ‘stretch’ and building relationships, I would add commercial awareness and problem solving skills. Mature intra and inter personal skills, including leadership potential, are also highly valued and you’ve made a strong start here with your client-facing experience.

First up, I would recommend that you seek, and take advantage of, as many accounting and audit related opportunities as you have time for. These might be unpaid internships in different size and types of organisations or merely work shadowing for a day or a few hours, as well as attending open days, assessment centres and any business games your university might offer. This will give you a strong foundation in understanding the profession, speaking the language and equipping you with the experience to articulate and align your own strengths and experience to the competencies required for your prospective placement. 

While it might be unrealistic to find a paid job in an accountancy or audit firm while you are in your second year, many organisations will be open to your interest and willing to show you around and meet their staff.  Don’t think just about professional practice though. Auditors audit organisations – corporates, private limited companies, charities and much more – all of these bodies offer the prospect of understanding and appreciating what audit is all about.

And on that score, almost any commercial work experience can be related to the audit competencies. Think about the work of a barista or a junior operative in a fast food chain. Clearly, building relationships, demonstrating first rate customer service, dealing with difficult people and solving problems are all as relevant to a hands-on operative role as they are for audit. Furthermore, ­this sort of work experience offers a huge opportunity to take an interest in the whole commercial model of the organisation and apply this understanding to the audit role. Anecdotally, I remember when I was interviewing undergraduates at EY and one candidate answered every competency based question with reference to his part-time role at MacDonald’s. He was spot on though, earned himself at EY training contract and went right up the ladder of the firm!

And finally, there are tonnes of opportunities within your academic experience itself. You might choose to take a leadership role on a course project, coach undergraduates who are less numerate than you are, stand for office within the Student Union or for a committee role in an area of special interest (treasurer of the hiking society, perhaps!). Any one of these provides fertile experience to develop and demonstrate those sought-after audit competencies – the secret then is being able to artfully articulate them!



I am currently working as a fuel oil swaps broker in a big brokerage house in London, I have been in the oil & gas industry for the last 17 years (financial analyst, trader assistant, trader and broker). I was wondering if at 42 years old, moving to auditing or advisory in the oil & gas sector/industry could be a realistic goal for the next part of my career, I was looking at taking the ACCA accreditation. I do know it takes up to 2 or 3 years. But at which level would I start, should I target external or internal auditor jobs, what kind of salary can I expect, what would be my career path and advance for the next 5 years?

With a substantial career behind you in the oil and gas industry then I think you offer a potential employer a good proposition as a trainee auditor.  Assuming you would be willing to take an entry level position and effectively retrain in auditing then I think your prospects are good.  You would need to be able to articulate very clearly why you have chosen to change careers but it is certainly not unprecedented to make such a switch at your age.

This understanding of what you are really seeking from an alternative career and your true motivation in choosing audit/advisory is fundamental to answering your other questions. 

Note that I have suggested that the most likely option is to switch to audit by taking an entry level position.  Another option might be to consider more of an advisory/consulting career (with some more ‘informal’ auditing thrown in!) really capitalising on your industry knowledge.  You would need to do some focussed research to see what roles there might be within a corporate setting (or even a specialised SME) but this pathway would also suggest a professional services/freelance model where you might consider setting up your own consultancy practice.

So two really very different routes and its difficult, without understanding your motivation, needs and preferences, on which to advise you. Here are some initial thoughts to get you reflecting.

Firstly, look at the differences between the role of the external and internal auditor; this article will help you.  You will see that one of the key differences is that internal audit is about managing the risks of the business whereas external audit focuses much more (but not exclusively) on the financial recording risk.  External auditing therefore sits alongside the disciplines of accounting and financial reporting and supported by the ACCA or ACA qualification it can also offer a route into broader financial careers.  Internal auditing can be approached through these same qualifications or the more specialised Institute of Internal Auditors accreditations; many internal auditors do both.

Graduate entry audit salaries with the Big 4 firms cluster around the £30,000 level.  This is the top end and smaller firms and roles outside professional practice may command considerably less.  If you decide to take the Institute of Chartered Accountants’ ACA qualification you will also have, on top of your salary, paid study courses and leave.  ACCA package support varies by employer; they might be less generous but they can be more flexible as you are not tied into a three year training contract.  You would normally expect to qualify in around three years with ACA and ACCA and your salary would rise very quickly on qualification – most likely by at least 50%. The advantage of these routes is structure, certainty and gaining a recognised qualification which will support you in a defined career path.

Clearly the alternative of consultancy/advisory is almost the polar opposite of the above! Potentially your earnings could be higher immediately, there will be no career path as such but you will have much more autonomy and creativity in how you develop your career.  You would need to do a proper business plan to figure out what services you could offer and where there might be a market for them and there is of course more risk compared to taking the predictable path of the ACA or ACCA qualification. 

You are only 42.  You are likely to have another 20 to 30 years of working life to go; in other words you are not even half way through your career!  Current research suggests that career switches (at least once, often more than once) are starting to become the norm.  Let this inspire you and banish any thoughts that it is too late for a career change.  Indeed you will need to take some time to do some thorough research, bolstered by personal reflection, but there is no doubt that the opportunities are out there!



I have worked in various finance roles since leaving school, I'm 33 now, mainly purchase ledger and was working my way up in a brilliant company in London. I was purchase ledger supervisor, I'm not qualified so was a real achievement for me. Whilst there I fell pregnant with my first child and was made redundant while on maternity leave. 

Since then I have struggled to find decent roles with room for progression, I have since had another child and it's proving difficult for me to find a good part time role.

I moved to Hertfordshire 4 years ago and my wage packet reminds me what a big impact this has also had on my career along with having kids!

I am currently working in a very convenient part time role as finance assistant but it's mainly purchase ledger, hours are great, money is good for what I do but on the whole it's quite a negative environment. 

I recently had an interview for "junior finance analyst" which after the interview sounds like a very fancy name for an auditor.

This will be a big change to what I'm doing now and I'm unsure if this will be a backwards step or a side-wards one? 

I'm starting my AAT studies in a few weeks and hoped for a role that would give me a bit more involvement in the accounts process, although this role probably wouldn't do that I'm unsure if it's still a good move or not.

 I thought you might provide some advice on where this could lead if find were successful or what your thoughts are on getting my foot in now in preparation for my children being older and allowing me to get my career back, and all going well I should be AAT qualified at around the same time as I can look further afield and at full time roles.

Firstly, I think your strategic plan of getting AAT qualified is a good one.  It is a well recognised qualification which demonstrates a broad range of highly marketable skills so it will certainly stand you in good stead to meet your longer term career aims.

What I’m not sure of though, is how the finance analyst role fits in with your more immediate career plans.  I’m guessing that you are seeking a job move that will give you some broader experience to support your AAT studies.  If this is the case then the role should fulfil that requirement regardless of the fact that it is more a sideways move than an upwards promotion.  You might also want to consider the future prospects at the contractor organisation, especially if it is a larger business than the one you are with at the moment.  There may be a line of development within the role itself, perhaps offering supervisory or people management experience.  But there could also be prospects in the accounts department for you to further develop the breadth of your experience.

On the other hand it could prove to be a ‘dead-end’ role with little development potential and do you more harm than good by taking you out of the standard accounting/book-keeping roles.  Clearly you need to be asking these sorts of questions and do your due diligence before you jump ship. 

You indicate that you are ultimately looking for progression, so as an alternative to the finance analysis role, I would recommend that you look more closely at the more traditional accounting type roles.  Consider SME positions, perhaps supporting accounts preparation or assisting in another part of the accounting process.  Alternatively you could look at professional practice where there is demand for AATs at all levels including PAYE, VAT accounting, audit, as well as accounts preparation. In other words, beware of the knee-jerk reaction to discovering a vacancy!  The finance analyst role sounds of limited value when set against your longer term career aspirations.

And one last thought.  You are currently happy with the convenience and remuneration of your present role so make sure you take that into account when comparing other opportunities which might bring a degree of risk to your situation.  I am not pinning you into your comfort zone but just suggesting that you take into account broader lifestyle aspects of potential opportunities.  Good luck!



I have been in practice as an auditor (financial services) for around 7 years in one of the big 4 (4 years post qualification). After big 4, I moved on to banking industry as internal audit for around 3 years. Recently, I have come across opportunities including i) a big 4 opportunity in Japan, solely focusing on auditing and advisory work on funds and a great internal audit opportunity in a fund industry in Asia.

I have analyzed both the pros and cons of both the opportunities as follow:

1) Big 4 in Japan
- Endless opportunities in various engagements across the fund industries
- Opportunity in learning business Japanese which could push me to a trilingual professional
- Substantial pay cut
- long hours expected

2) Internal audit in one of the industry fund company (one of the top 10 asset managers) 
- Substantial higher salaries
- Building up my career within the firm and work with colleagues across a global basis
- Really high global travelling
- Career limitation only in internal audit
- Uncertainties affecting business due to recent global economic issues

I want to be careful in terms of my next jump and would like your suggestions/comments.

You’ve clearly covered three key areas – lifestyle, reward and security. What I am not sure of is the relative importance of each of these considerations. How critical to you is salary at this point in your career?  Are you are able, or willing, to take the lower pay in the short or medium term if it promised an ultimate means to a strategic career end? How do you feel about the long hours versus the high global travel? Both of these appear in ‘cons’ suggesting that they are detractors, but the fact that you are seriously considering these two roles at all makes me think that you are willing to make some degree of lifestyle adjustment. I’m not sure where you are based at the moment but how does global relocation figure in your preferences? Have you researched the relative experiences and future opportunities of residing in Japan and/or the other Asian location versus your current base? You cite the value of the prospect of learning Japanese, what will this mean for you specifically? Is it about fulfilling a personal opportunity or is becoming trilingual related to a strategic longer term career aim?

I guess you can see where I am going with these challenges; in many ways they are really secondary to your longer term career objectives. Your initial pros and cons are, of course, important but they also need ‘weighting’ in terms of their value to you and their relative significance against the challenge, opportunity and fulfilment of actually performing your day to day role.

So let’s look at your career imperatives. You are looking at audit, external or internal, in a blue chip environment, within the financial services sector, currently specifically considering the fund industry. Whilst it is almost always possible to find a way to shift back and forth between internal and external audit at various points in your career, have you considered the pros and cons of these two disciplines side by side in terms of what you know about the roles, tasks and practicalities of doing the job? And how does this first-hand knowledge align with your own preferences, innate strengths and passion (or at least interest!) What are your expectations for the next 10 to 15 years of your career maturity? Are you looking for a hierarchical rise through an organisation, with perhaps leadership responsibility or do you see yourself as deepening or developing a technical specialism or even aspiring to a flatter more portfolio type career with a diversity of roles? These are all fundamental career questions along with reflecting on what you already know about performing the prospective day to day roles in internal and external audit and how they might fit with your short and long term career (and life) fulfilment. 

At this point, I would strongly suggest that you use our article, Your Career by Design to explore the answers to these questions and challenges. In the meantime, do beware of being lured into taking a career ‘jump’ at the expense of an informed, well thought-out strategic career move.



I am a fourth-year audit senior who is exam qualified ACA and am currently on secondment in industry with a manufacturing company.

I have found my four years in audit quite boring and have always wanted out of it. I would like to gain further qualifications when my contract ends in March and am applying for jobs in big 4 tax. I have gained interviews but people have told me that this will pigeon hole me into tax in the future. As I am not sure if I see myself as a financial director or practise partner, I do not want to limit my options with my first job choice post qualified.

Working in industry would be an option in the future but only at the right company. I have also applied for non-accounting jobs to keep my options open as auditing and my training experience has really turned me off accountancy. My primary question is whether to undertake my CTA exams if they are going to limit me in the future? I currently have no tax experience.

You set out very well the vast breadth of options there are for a newly qualified ACA! It is, indeed, a big part of the professional bodies’ marketing – so on the positive side it’s a good reminder of how and why you were lured into chartered accountancy in the first place! However, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to chart a career path, and I can promise that you are not alone in feeling a little dazzled by the array of opportunities.

That said though, my first piece of advice is to lose the concern of being pigeon holed so early in your career. You have a long career ahead of you – forty to fifty years! Research suggests that someone in their twenties today is likely to have a number of career transitions, (sometimes called a ‘spliced career’) during their working life. I don’t mean just role-transition, I mean actual career transition; for example from auditor to finance to research to business owner to training – the sky’s the limit.

I think your plan to explore tax is a good one, as long as you’ve fully investigated what is behind your attraction to tax. Exactly what is the appeal of this new field? What can tax offer you that other specialisms can’t? What will the tax role involve? How did you find the tax papers in your ACA exams? It will be hard work going back into professional exam study mode again but if you are up for it – go for it. As long as you understand what you are taking on - a new discipline, a very different role plus study – then you are truly going in with your eyes open. You might choose to be a tax specialist for a few years but then you may select a different path again.

On the other hand, my second piece of advice is to be wary of moving into non-accounting roles at such an early point in your career. I appreciate that your training experience has turned you off accountancy, but as a fellow former big four audit trainee, I can reassure you from personal experience that accountancy is so much more than the big four training contract. If you take a non-accounting/finance route at this early point in your career then you will be jeopardising that crucial financial/business foundation which is a very solid building block for a huge range of alternative careers and experiences. Your four years training contract is a start but I would recommend 6 or 7 for a real solid anchor and for giving yourself, personally, financial confidence and a core identify. The other risk is that if you get out of accountancy so soon, you may be writing off too early (in your own head at least) all the other finance related roles we’ve both mentioned. 

So, there is quite a bit to think about; two key pieces of advice from me and some ‘coaching’ questions to ask yourself. I would also recommend that you work through our article Your Career by Design which gives you a deeper process for strategic career planning.



I qualified abroad in a medium sized audit firm. I worked abroad for 8 years and in January 2015 I came to the UK where I worked for a Big 4 firm for 8 months. I was downgraded during the move from audit manager to audit senior 3 which was supposed to be the equivalent of the assistant manager. I found work as an audit senior quite demanding in terms of long working hours and travelling long distances and having to be on site every single day and deal with everyone. I had some trouble fitting in and adjusting (to the new work place & new country) and it didn't help that I didn't have a stable work environment (different teams every week, different clients every week etc). I had no difficulties with the scope of the work; I was more than capable in handling the work assigned to me. Overall I felt that everything was a bit impersonal and had no real support from my firm. At some point I burnt out from the stress and I resigned.

Right now I'm a bit lost on what path I should follow. I believe my career in audit is over, firstly because I've been working in audit for almost 9 years and I am nowhere near where I should have been, secondly because it is a very stressful job and doesn't allow for any work/life balance. What would be my options at this stage? I am very good in accounting, very good with numbers, I have good analytical skills. I would prefer working with a more closely bonded team. I am looking for work/life balance and a decent salary. I am not the best in presentation matters and communication skills are not up to native speakers' level (English is not my first language) which makes me hold back a little bit. I want to be very good at what I am doing and I want to progress. I would like to do something that excites me. I am currently looking at industry roles but I am afraid of making a wrong move again. 

I have a whole series of suggestions for you to explore which I have grouped under three main headings:


Audit is not just Big 4!  You seem to have had no problem with the technical side of the job and if you genuinely enjoyed the work, why not look further afield in the Audit, Assurance and Risk Management market place.  You could consider external audit in a medium or small firm, where your Big 4 experience could put you at a premium, mark you out as a specialist and go some way, on the promotion side, to making up the lost time.  Alternatively, internal audit, either in practice or in a commercial or third sector organisation, is a popular diagonal move for Big 4 audit professionals.  You will find internal audit opportunities in all sizes of professional firm but in the Big 4, internal audit may be a means of joining a smaller, tighter knit group as opposed to the fluidity of the external audit team structure. 

Earlier this year we posed the question, 'Are All Audit Jobs about Numbers and Figures?'  You can find the answers here and discover the delights of Clinical, Quality and Performance auditing!  The CareersinAudit pages are packed with advice and opportunities, so do take some time to explore an audit career in more depth and breadth, you don't have to give up on auditing just yet!

Professional Practice

As you feel that you are good at accounting and numbers in general, plus have a strong analytical skill set, you might consider a move into general practice.  The smaller the firm, the more general the role, so in a local practice you would expect to be a hands on tax professional as well as proficient in accounting (and sometimes audit).  If you don't have any practical tax experience to build on you could remedy this with appropriate CPD but you might find the gulf too wide to cross at this stage in your career.  On the other hand, larger local practices and medium tier firms will offer more of a single discipline specialism so you could side step the tax and consider accounting possibly contributing a particular industry specialism.  As you are nine years into your career, you would also be bringing in considerable transferable skills, management and leadership undoubtedly, but also trouble-shooting and problem solving, not to mention a wide experience of business operating models which could contribute to a practice management or business development role.

Accounting and Finance in Industry

A move into industry is also a very common Big 4 career development path.  So popular that I would recommend as your starting point, tracking down former colleagues who have already made the move as this will give you some rich research data.  The possibilities are endless: management and commercial accounting, financial accounting or financial management or a more data analytical role - and that's just for starters!  You've also highlighted some of the wider aspects that are important to you - being part of an intact team, a stable environment with supportive management and a decent work life balance.  These are all valuable factors to take into account when you are doing your due diligence, particularly when looking at the type of organisation (corporate, privately owned, not for profit), the sector (pace and traditions) and the environment (the people and the culture). 

The good news is that there are many options open to you.  The bad news is that you will have to put in the work to do the research and invest in some self discovery to find a career move that excites you.  I'd recommend as a next step to work through our article Your Career by Design and enjoy the process!



I am about to become ACA qualified and have started looking at my options for my next career move. Initially I wanted to move into industry into a big company as a Balance Sheet Reporting Manager or something along those lines.

I have experience in limited account preparation, corporation tax comp preparation and leading/managing all the audits at my firm as well as visiting client sites to prepare monthly management accounts.

However I have trained at a small independent firm and think I may not be getting interviews as I do not have Big 4 or even Top 20 on my CV.

I am now thinking about making the move into audit in a Big 4. I have a lot of friends at Big 4, most of whom are unhappy and looking to move or have already moved which is what has put me off. However the experience for my CV would be second to none and the exposure to the large corporations is what I need. I am now worried that I won't be considered as I have come from a small firm and don't have the experience of the e audit software they use etc.

I look forward I hearing your thoughts on this and any advice would be much appreciated.

I'll come on to how to maximise your chances of getting into the Big 4 as an experienced hire in a moment, but first there are a few other points in your letter that are worth picking up on.

I am wondering about your current career drivers. I'm not clear on what it is that you are looking for in your next role nor what is underlying the urge to leave your present job. I'm assuming that you have decided that Big 4 experience is what you have to have in order to ultimately get that coveted role in industry; in other words, you see Big 4 as a means to an end. While I think you are not incorrect in deducing that big firm experience and contacts are valuable in facilitating entry into a corporate career, it will be very difficult for you to be convincing in your application if you see this career move merely as a stepping stone to something bigger and better.  

You don't elaborate on what's behind the appeal of an industry role and I am thinking that this may be what is lacking in your job applications. You need to develop a convincing, authentic and cogent 'story' as to why you are choosing to make this switch from local practice to corporate. You should get your career drivers clear in your own mind first and then fully reflected in the personal statement/personal profile on your CV and consistent with the words you use on any application forms or letters. And you also need to translate your story into potential benefits for an employer; communicate clearly what it is you want from your next role and what you will bring to it that will bring value to the organisation. 

So, there's some advice about making better industry applications, what about if you still decide to go the Big 4 route?  Well, exactly the same applies regarding your 'story' and being able to express rationally your reasons for making the move and what you can bring to your employer.  Small practice qualifieds can, and do, make it into the bigger firms; the secret is effective self marketing.  You should be looking to find leverage within your professional experience that incumbents or other applicants don't have; examples might be particular industry sector experience, early leadership or management achievements or a commercial edge from working alongside a client business. 

There will, of course, be many of areas where you lack the commensurate experience of your Big 4 peers; the one you specifically cite is knowledge of particular software packages.  But this is where selling your transferable skills comes in.  You can prove your competence by describing examples of your achievements (and how they have benefitted the practice) and use them to demonstrate how you will transition to a new career role.  Practical problem solving, initiative taking and a predisposal to active, on the job learning and development can all provide convincing examples of how you will quickly take on board new ways of doing things. 

As you already have friends in the Big 4, you are well placed to compare and contrast their skills and experiences with you own, to build a strong marketing proposal for yourself. Do also ask your friends for introductions - many firms offer employee refer bonuses, so there might be some extra incentive here!

But just to reiterate, beware of taking the Big 4 route as a short term stepping stone. You have already indicated that many of your friends are moving on, post qualification. Do you really understand their whys and wherefores and what the implications might be for you in making a truly informed career decision? 



I am currently at a crossroads and I am unsure as to the path I want to take!  I am currently due to qualify this September from a top 6 audit firm (doing FS audit), and I have been offered a place in the banking division (FS) of a top 4 firm, at the assistant manager level, however I also have an equities product control role offer from a top bank.

 My interests actually lie in Treasury and risk management, however I have found my audit time very useful, and it has not been possible to get into the this area as of yet.

 My dilemma is that both careers offer in my opinion relatively equal pros and cons stability higher in audit and I am having trouble deciding.

 Pros of Audit:

  • Will be able to manage others
  • Diverse client base and experiences
  • Career progression more certain and stable


  • Once I have spent >2 years PQ, I am concerned I will be stuck in audit and will not be able to move into industry
  • Can be dull work at times and longer hours
  • Lack of recognition for hard work (no overtime/minimal bonus)

 Pros of PC:

  • Higher salary and opportunity for bonus
  • More interesting work on a day to day basis


  • Less stable and investment banking is not very profitable anymore
  • Career progression is uncertain
  • May not be able to return to audit/elsewhere if I do not
  • Will be at the bottom of the ladder again (no management opps)

 I was wondering if you could provide some commentary on whether my pros and cons of audit are reasonable, and any advice you would give.

 Thanks so much for your help, it is greatly appreciated.

It's great to see such a methodical and analytical approach to decision making.  You've pipped me to the post here, as this is typically the process I would recommend as a starting point!

You've nailed the pros and cons pretty well but I will throw in a few challenges as well as some further considerations. 

First up, remember that no career route is for life nowadays. In the twenty first century we would typically expect more of a zigzag pathway (as opposed to a linear progression) with moves sideways as well as upwards. So if you did choose to stay in audit beyond two years post qualification you wouldn't be stuck there for life and, similarly, dipping into investment banking doesn't preclude you from returning to audit in due course.

What stands out for me the most is how the investment banking fits with your overall career strategy if, even at the outset, you are not seeing it as a potential longer career pathway.  I'm not sensing any passion for it.  While it's not disastrous as a first post-qualified move, (even a short term one,) I think you would have to highly value the pros (new type of work and extra money) to really compensate for the cons.  One way you can do this is to further appraise the options by applying a 'weighting' to each of the pros and cons and see how the two choices fare against one another. 

The third option is, of course, to stay where you are and maybe wait it out for a suitable Treasury and Risk Management opportunity. You may like to evaluate the pros and cons of this too, similarly applying weightings. 

As a final point, I think your Big 4 offer of financial services audit potentially offers you the middle ground here.  It will provide another great brand for your CV, with some new specific sector experience, as well as the experience of a change of culture and a new network. It is also less of a sharp initial zigzag than the investment banking move and gives you a more circumspect taste of life after qualification. 

Overall though, the decision has to be yours. I totally commend you on your approach and recommend that you continue to think strategically rather than being seduced by some of the shorter term benefits (like the money!) which may be on offer.



I am 56 years old and I have been applying for jobs invited for interviews but no offer of a job. I have over 15 years experience in internal audit I am taking my last remaining subject this June to become Chartered Internal Auditor. I need help in terms of career advice.

Thank you for your question.

I often receive letters from readers with regard to perceived, age-related career issues.  I say 'perceived', not to be flippant, but to make an important fundamental point.  Once upon a time, it was expected and even considered mandatory to put one's date of birth on the CV, right at the top along with essentials such as name, address and telephone number.  But nowadays it is not.  Countries across the world have introduced legislation, designed to prevent employers from discriminating on the basis of age when recruiting.   That is not to say that legislation is globally universal, nor, unfortunately, has ageism been eradicated, but it has heralded the new age of flatter organisational structures, non-linear career paths and stringent age-dictated hierarchies.

As a result, most people no longer include their date of birth on their CV - and this is now considered the norm.  Of course, if your CV is methodically chronological, then you are going to be giving away some very big clues as to your age.  On the other hand, if you are following best CV practice, then you should be tailoring your CV to the specific role for which you are applying, drawing out only the most aligned experiences and achievements from your (as beholds your maturity) abundance of examples, then an age-trail shouldn't really be obvious.

The key point here is to avoid falling into the trap of assuming that your career challenges are caused by your age.  Once an age-proofed CV has produced interviews, you then need to be willing to look further afield to understand why your interviews are not leading to job offers.  It might not be about your age at all.

You may also want to read this article ‘Is Age an Issue for Older Audit Professionals?’ to find out about the top reasons (and solutions) why seemingly well-qualified applicants fail interviews.



I started my ACA training contract in the audit department of a big 4 firm in Oct 2014. In the 4 months I've been here I haven't really enjoyed my role. I'm very unhappy in my role now and am considering transferring my training contract to work for a smaller firm. I want to gain broader experience in the accounting field for example preparation of accounts. In my big four role I am not going to get this exposure and would really appreciate any advice you could give me.

Thanks for getting in touch.

It is still relatively unusual to transfer an ACA training contract.  That doesn't mean that it never happens or it's not feasible (it does, and it is), just that it is a big decision to make and should not be taken lightly. 

First, you need to be very clear as to exactly what it is about your current role that you are not enjoying.  Is it the competitive, high pressure culture, the people you are working with, or the tasks themselves?  If it is the latter, bear in mind that in the big four environment, the role of the trainee evolves very quickly; you might be experiencing a steep learning curve at the start of your career but the tasks and level of responsibility will change and develop - even by the second year of the contract.  You can check this out by talking to more experienced trainees and newly qualifieds within the firm, or even just observing them within your own team.  In other words - what you are doing right now is not going to last forever!

Culture and environment is a different matter.  You need to explore these areas on an organisational as well as a local level.  Perhaps you are feeling that you don't fit in, haven't developed an internal support network yet or are finding the pace too intense?  Try and get specific about what the issues are and then consider whether they are within your control to change (building closer relationships with colleagues, asking for help, moving team) or are in scope to be resolved with time (as you become more settled in your new career).

You cite general accounts experience as a driver for your move and I wonder what has changed since you did your applications to training firms.  Big four is not the place to get this sort of experience, indeed most of the top 50 firms will have only limited opportunity to accounts prep work.  What is it that you are looking to get from this sort of work - and how does it line up against your future aspirations?

I know this all sounds negative so far, but it is really about getting you to do your due diligence before you take the decision.  You need to really understand your drivers to make a successful move - to avoid jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.  To put it in perspective, the first six months of a big four training contract is not really representative of what is to come.

Once you have done some of the self reflection that I suggest, I would strongly advise you to confide in your training manager to discuss what other options there might be for you within the firm.  In parallel you could also be exploring the offerings of some of the smaller firms, to check out (from their trainees) what you could be doing there and how it would align with your perceived preferences.

Give it a little longer.  Take some time to do some heavy thinking.  And then take your time to carefully research a new employer and role if you do decide to make a move.

Good luck!



I have completed B-tech in internal audit in 2005. After that I went to a provincial treasury to do a one year internship. I then joined a local government organisation where I work as an internal auditor.  Now I want to enrol for M tech internal auditing but the there is no institution in my area that can offer M tech. Also I have realised that for all these years working for the municipality I am still lacking knowledge on how to do some audits such as financial audit etc. since we are more focus on compliance audit. I have also lost interest in working for Local government since we not seem to be adding value in any way.  Do you know any Internal audit firm/ audit firm that can accommodate me while studying M tech on a part time basis but at the same time work? It doesn't matter if the salary scale is lower than what I’m currently earning as long as I know that my expectations will be met.      

I cannot answer your location based questions specifically as I am not an expert on your particular market place, however I can offer some general guidance that may be of use.  I conclude from your letter that the expectations you are seeking to address are around adding value and gaining audit experience beyond the sphere of compliance

First you need to articulate your transferable skills, both in audit and around audit.  So, in audit you will have built up technical expertise in understanding and executing the mechanics of internal audit and compliance.  In order to carry out your roles you will also have developed professional skills that enable you to do the job of an auditor, such as communication and organisational skills and project management.  Spend some time in identifying these and be as specific as you can in describing them.  'Communication' per se is not sufficient; you need to be able to unpack the components, examples being - business writing, active listening, effective questioning skills, and so on.

Once you’ve completed this personal audit, you can take stock of how well equipped you are to move sideways into a new area of auditing.  You will need to do your research into the mechanics of alternative roles but once you fully appreciate the requirements of the various career paths (external compliance, financial audit, systems audit, for starters) you can then start to map across your existing skills.

You may find a strong alignment of skills and hence may not necessarily need to think about demotion or a reduction in salary.  In my experience for example, the move from financial audit into internal audit is a well-trodden path with complementary symmetry. But ultimately it will depend on your own professional development and experience and what you can personally bring to an alternative role.

You might also want to define what you mean by ‘adding value’ and articulate some examples of what this might look like in a new role.  Not only will this help in really nailing down what stimulus and incentive you are looking for, it could also help in selling yourself to a new employer.

Don’t be too hasty in rushing this research; ultimately it is a deep personal reflection exercise which will get you to challenge your assumptions and perceived preferences.  You may be surprised by what you discover about yourself and you may even be able to find ways to satisfy your aspirations with your current employer.  But overall it is key to keep an open mind and be flexible and curious in your research and see where it leads you.



I do hope you can give me some feedback on my dilemma, which I have described below with some background.

I am a Big 4 qualified Chartered Accountant who qualified in 1999 in audit. Post qualification for 6 years I worked in Financial Services doing a variety of project work, which involved troubleshooting, business analysis (BA) and project management (PM). The BA and PM was not the end to end life cycle work but rather taking elements of the methodology for the issue at hand or creating my own templates / approach i.e. I wasn’t given formal training.

After that I took a permanent role as a consultant helping finance and operational divisions deal with significant reconciliation backlogs (driven by section 166 regulatory requirements), exceptions management and guiding them to compliance with new internal control policies. This work was multi-faceted as it involved managing teams, dealing with tricky relationship issues and developing monitoring tools etc. I accepted voluntary redundancy in late 2009 and did some contract work in 2010. In autumn 2010 the market was stagnant and nothing moved until autumn 2011. I interviewed for 2 senior remediation roles (doing work similar to what I had been doing as a consultant) with the big firms. However the roles fell through at the offer stage due to last minute recruitment freezes because of the euro volatility at the time. Then my elderly father became seriously ill back in Ireland and as no one else in my family was in a position to take over I took some time out to help out. My mother became seriously ill and I spent 18 months going over and back. Thankfully a brother returned from a foreign secondment and was able to take over after that freeing me up. I decided to regroup and contacted the Institute of Chartered  Accountants in Ireland so I could avail of their mentor programme (CV and career advice). A friend who used to be an executive coach also gave me some very useful feedback. My plan 12 months ago was as follows:

  • Circulate my CV to former clients and agencies
  • Network crazily
  • Get interim work ASAP to get some current experience on my CV
  • Take on some part time voluntary work to show that I am active and serious about wanting to work
  • Be flexible on location (UK, Ireland & Europe ) and rate (once it is reasonable)

Since then I have followed through with each of these. However I have found that:

  • Recruitment agencies will not consider me due to the large gap (just over 4 years) even though I have dropped my expected rate massively to make my proposition more appealing
  • Former clients have interviewed me for roles but I keep getting pipped by internal candidates who often don’t have strong experience. Now they don’t respond when I follow up on progress.
  • I’ve had my CV circulated to banks via network contacts but I’m not getting anywhere with that
  • Interestingly I got feedback from a consultancy on my application for a role last week where they said that my BA/PM work is dated and I’m a jack of many trades but a master of none. With these issues to one side they could not consider me in any case as the gap was just too long.

My partner (works in city) has been hugely supportive during this time but obviously is getting frustrated as we’ve been stagnant for so long. I have started applying for very junior roles but agencies can’t be bothered with me as my scenario is just too complicated for them to deal with – they’d rather just put forward 2 less experienced juniors and not have the hassle.  I am at my tether as I urgently need to work for my mental well-being and want to earn some money to help our stagnant finances.  I’ve been looking to what courses I could so to get up to date however I don’t want to spend money unless it is going to realistically help to get me work. No one seems to be able to give me advice or help - I’m beginning to feel like a lost cause and that my career is quickly slipping away.

A career move is not something that I want and know in my heart that I want to work In business. Even if I did want a career move it would have to be a gradual move and well planned – I would still need to work as an accountant in the meantime. Any insight, suggestions or advice would be most appreciated and welcome!

Reading your story as an objective outsider I am struck by your robust, ten year career journey, combining broad experience with a range of competencies which translate, on paper at least, into a marketable proposition.  From what you've told me though, this marketability isn't being effectively projected to your 'buyers', so I am wondering if, deep down, this is a confidence issue - so this is where I will start.

It goes without saying that if you've lost some self-belief it will be more difficult to convince an employer of your worth.  Now is the time to take stock; while you've had a few rocky career years, you also have an impressive track record and you need to remind yourself of this.  Start by compiling a personal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats).  Be prepared to go right back to the start of your career to pull out your fundamental and inherent strengths (what got you into the big four, for instance) and build up this picture by adding in your experience and achievements.  Think laterally.  It's not just about your professional profile.  Reflect hard on what you've learnt about yourself in your caring roles as well as latterly via your career challenges.  You'll be gathering together some rich information which you can use on your CV and at interview but primarily this exercise is about reminding yourself of your achievements, your value and your worth. 

Consider also getting some third party input, that is, testimonials from family, friends and colleagues.  They will, of course, say some very nice things about you but ask for specifics and tell them you need constructive, balanced feedback.  Not only will it inform some of your development areas (which could equate to your personal constraints right now) but it will also support the efficacy of the feedback.  In other words we don't want you to blithely discount all the good stuff as nice people saying nice things, we want you to really believe in this and use it to rebuild your self-belief.

Another strand to confidence building is truly getting out there again.  There are tonnes of voluntary roles: school governance, business and personal finance coaching in schools, business mentoring for start-ups, as well as trustee work for charities.  All of these are crying out for accountancy and business skills and this can be a great reminder of the depth of value in your professional skill set, easy to forget when you are out of work for some time. 

As for the job search, I think your plan of twelve months ago is sound and investing in confidence building will support all of activities and hopefully deliver payback.  If the agencies won't play ball, don't be too disheartened.  The agencies are set up primarily to support the more traditional candidate but in the age of social networking there is plenty you can do for yourself.  I hear daily about candidates sourced through LinkedIn, not just from leveraging their own networks but by surfacing in the key word searches of employers and head hunters.  I  appreciate that you have already contacted former clients but with a big four network you can cast your net a lot wider and deeper.

And finally, change your perception about the observation levelled that you are a 'jack of all trades but master of none'.  How can you turn this into an advantage?  Who might value a strong business base with a broad set of transferable skills?  You might consider freelancing or a portfolio career, working a mix of projects, perhaps going back to your roots (there's always a market for accounting general practice support) or working as a virtual FD.  You are also well equipped to be a business advisor or mentor, possibly through one of the government funded schemes like GrowthAccelerator. Take heart from the fact that an accounting background and qualification equip you with a versatile and marketable set of capabilities for which there will always be a demand.  Topping up your self-confidence could prove to be the key to unlocking a new set of opportunities as you enter the second wave of your career. 



I am facing a big career dilemma.  My under grad was in Accounting and Finance after which I was working in statutory Audit at KPMG. There was no growth without a further accounting degree, and I didn't want to pursue finance further, hence I changed my job and went ahead to study MBA in marketing, and am looking for roles in consumer goods marketing or else consulting/market research.

I just know my industry interest – consumer goods or consulting, but I don’t know what roles in that.  Please help me as to what are the career options I can be considered for.  Points I can leverage are – my soft skills, analytical skills, and multi tasking skills.

I am in a dilemma as I have already made job and career switches due to the job market and personal preferences. Now I just want a job where I can make a successful career out of it, and be able to leverage my previous experience, to the maximum that I can. Employers tell me that I don’t have experience enough for consulting in Big4 or other, and I don’t seem to have any specialized experience. Even if its audit, do I have a chance to enter and grow in that with my given qualifications?

First up, well done for recognising the importance and value of your transferable skills.  Make sure these are brought out fully on your CV though, and individually tailored to each specific role you apply for.

Secondly, to allay any anxiety you are experiencing, your CV really does present a very marketable proposition.  Your particular strength comes from a unique combination of audit (for systems, analytical and financial background), retail (for commercial and general management experience) and proven academic ability from your MBA.

What is evident though is your uncertainty about the career path you really want to follow.  What is your passion?  Is it consumer retail, if so what particular industry sector?  Or is it serving businesses as auditor or as a consultant?  Or is it around your MBA specialism, marketing? 

Until you have figured out your real passion, your CV and inevitably your job applications will lack that certain je ne sais quoi that demonstrates commitment to, and focus on, a chosen career path - and potential employers will pick up on this.

So what is the answer?  You need to invest some time in due diligence and reflection to come up with a sound career strategy, backed by a convincing 'story' that answers the 'hows' and 'whys' of employer interrogation.  I would suggest that you follow the steps in one of my early articles 'Your Career by Design'.  For your due diligence you need to get exposure to roles, industries and employers and you can do this by direct application to companies for work shadowing as well as working your own network of friends, colleagues, past employers and teachers for access to a variety of businesses.

I can also reassure you that the perception of 'career switching' is more in your own mind than that of the potential employer.  The breadth of learning and experience from accounting and finance to an MBA in marketing and from audit to retail general management represents a strong, broad career foundation - and you just need to develop a strategy and your story to leverage this fully to market yourself.



I'm currently studying for the ACA at a small/medium sized firm in London. Although I love the work and small company culture, when I qualify I think it would be in my best career interests to move to a larger "big four firm", or more generally a BDO to KPMG size type firm. Firstly, is this a common and usually successful move? And if so, what level roles should I apply for within these companies?

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­I think a useful place to start might be by clarifying your terminology.  'big four' is an easy one to start off with; this group is made up of PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY (formerly Ernst & Young).  These are global, full-service professional service firms offering the full complement of business support: audit, assurance, tax, consulting, business advisory, actuarial, corporate finance, and legal services. Between them they handle the majority of public company audits, including most of the FTSE 250 so you would most likely be working with household-name clients. They offer a very wide variety of diverse roles with the opportunity to develop a deep specialism. Expect a steep learning curve and career trajectory in a highly competitive environment, dealing with complexity and challenge at fast pace but supported by top class learning and development support. Short and long term international opportunities are highly accessible as is more general career mobility.  If these are the sort of things that appeal to you then the big four might prove the right career move.  On the other hand, bear in mind that the environment is competitive and the ethos is generally 'up or out' as regards climbing the career ladder.  Performance expectations mean that pressure can be intense, with long hours which could jeopardise your work life balance.

Top ten firms include the big four plus Grant Thornton, BDO, RSM Tenon, Smith & Williamson, Baker Tilly and Moore Stephens.  Actually it should be top eleven as Mazars belongs in this group too. Between them they cover much of the remaining publically quoted companies while offering almost as full a complement of professional services as the big four, so still with a good prospect of building deep technical specialism.  While these firms have an international presence or links, global mobility, though still possible, is less of a given than with the big four.  There may be a wider range of clients in your portfolio, perhaps smaller owner-managed businesses as well as some of the bigger corporates.  Learning, challenge and competition is strong but not as intense as in the big four environment and you won't always be guaranteed the same cutting edge learning opportunities as you would in the biggest firms.

Still within the top 50 league (that is top 50 only in terms of size!), you have firms with a strong regional presence such as Larking Gowen, Wilkins Kennedy and Mitchell Charlesworth.  These firms are likely to have a small number of sizeable corporate clients but can offer a good range of industries and business types with opportunity for specialism or more general practice.  They are less likely to have a full complement of in house customised learning and development programmes but will provide access to external providers. 

And last, but not least, you have the smaller local firms which might have just one or two offices.  Here you are more likely to be a general practitioner rather than a specialist, so these would be of interest if you would like to retain a broad technical range.  Learning and development may be primarily self driven and there will be less opportunity for upwards promotion but potentially more scope for broadening and deepening a general practitioner skill set.

ACA is a very mobile qualification and I have seen movement in every direction you can possibly think of, often successfully, sometimes not, and at your level usually within the wide scope of the 'newly qualified' level.  The chances of success are enhanced if you can figure out what your motivation is for making the move.  What do you like about your current role and what development or experience gaps are you trying to fill?  How will these best be served from the range of practices above?  How important is international mobility, promotional structure or supported learning and development?  Specialism is very relevant here too; are you interested in general practice or a service specialism, say corporate tax?  If you are keen to explore a deep specialism then your options and opportunities will be fewer. What is your attitude to long hours, pressure and competition?

Deciding on your first move is always challenging; but in reality it presents only the beginning of your career, not an end in itself.  Do your personal due diligence but don't expect to find your perfect career path immediately, think of it as an exploratory journey which will give you new insights into who you are and where you are going.



I recently finished my MSA and CPA exams. I have a job offer with an insurance company in internal audit. I am still interviewing for other corporate accounting jobs. If I accept a job in internal audit, will it be difficult to transition out if I do not like it? Am I better off starting as a corporate staff accountant?

First of all, congratulations in getting your CPA qualification and your master's in accounting.  As you are now realising, there is a very broad range of opportunities out there and, as the global economy is starting to shift, there are an increasing number of these roles translating into real job offers.  For this reason I would caution against being too hasty in accepting an offer without having done your own, thorough due diligence.

It sounds from the way you have posed your query, that you are keen on corporate accounting but are tempted by the security of employment certainty offered by the contract with the insurance company.  Even if you are still genuinely open minded and weighing up the pros and cons of the two career paths, now is the time to do your research, think hard and make the most informed career decision you possibly can, as opposed to taking the knee-jerk reaction of going for the first offer on the table. 

So, it's back to the drawing board; taking a blank sheet of paper approach to your career strategy, here are some questions for you to research and reflect upon:

  • What tasks does the role involve on a day to day basis and how do these align with the interests you've developed so far from studies and other experiences?
  • What are the key competencies required to do the job and how do these map across to your strengths and weaknesses (your personal SWOT)?
  • What is the split of time spent working with people, on process or in technical areas?
  • What is the typical learning and development path for the role?  What are the promotion prospects and how will you be adding to your skill set?
  • What sort of culture and organisational environment would best suit you?  This question covers a broad spectrum - private or public institution, leadership and management styles, working mode (solo or teamwork), as well as career development training and support and pace and degree of pressure.
  • What is your longer term career strategy and how will your first role provide a meaningful foundation to build upon?

For more on the process of career due diligence, have a look at my article, 'Your Career by Design'. I would also strongly advise that you do more than desk top research - you need to speak to a wide variety of accountants working in different areas, ask for opportunities to work shadow or simply help out to get a hands on view of what a job really entails.

In closing, I can reassure you that if you do take the internal audit role but don't like it, there will be opportunities to move into other areas.  But why not take a more calculated approach; you can never research every aspect but a well-informed choice will help you develop confidence and your own personal professional identity.



I am looking for some advice. I am a qualified ACA and completed my training at a big 4 in external audit in the UK. I then moved to Sydney last year after securing a job in external audit with another large audit firm.

Whilst I do enjoy the work and have been told by my partners I am on the way to senior management level and beyond, I feel at the moment I am a level below the actual job I am doing and also feel the pay is not very competitive compared to industry.

I have been told I am on track for promotion to assistant manager in June (I was already an assistant manager in the UK but took a step back when I first moved to Australia) but this doesn't involve much of a pay rise. The pay to manager and senior manager are better and I guess at least the progression is relatively certain and structured.

I have been offered a job in industry as a divisional finance manager with a focus on business partnering in a large business (US listed parent so group reporting and sox will be involved) and it pays about 20% more per year than what I am on now. The company looks fantastic and the role interesting but I am worried about future progression. There will be a senior FC above me and when I asked him about progression potential in the interview he was very vague and talked about moving between group entities at the same level which was not what I was getting at.

I would also hope a move into commerce would give a better work life balance to audit however the job description does elude to the fact the work load can be heavy. I feel I am at a career cross road and do not want to make the wrong decision. I do love working in audit but it is hard to feel good about putting the hours in when you see others in commerce who seemingly work shorter hours for more pay. May be it is worth playing the long game and sticking in audit, or should I cut my losses and go into commerce with a potentially less certain future. What do you think?

Thank you for raising this classic, perennial dilemma, that has bugged many thousands of us (including yours truly!) decade after decade since time immemorial. 

It's a simple dilemma, but not an easy one to resolve.  Fundamentally, it's a question of perspective; that's aligning the pain and pleasure of short term reward to the long game of your personal career ethos.  Both perspectives are relevant to your decision and they often seem irreconcilable, at least in the short term. 

The good news is that in today's career market you have much more scope to move between practice and industry.  And back again.  And back again! Providing you develop a marketable transferable skill set and learn to effectively promote it, this sort of career flexibility could be yours for keeps.  That's not to say that you shouldn't develop your own long term personal career strategy, but it seems likely that there will be plenty of scope for you to 'course correct' should you need, or indeed, want to.  Resilience and an open mindset will be key to navigating the more choppy career waters of the future; all the research points away from the smooth upwards linear career trajectory to a more stepped pattern with sideways and even 'downward' dips becoming the norm.

So what does all this mean for you right now?  On the longer term strategy front, you should do some auditing of your strengths, interests, lifestyle needs and so on, to build a vision of where you would like to be in 5, 10, 20 years and beyond.  Take a look at our article Your Career by Design to help you with this process.  In aligning roles to your particular needs, one of your considerations will be the importance of a more structured promotional path, which you are less likely to get outside of practice.  But I don't agree that your future will be less certain in commerce; it will be less structured and only you can evaluate how vital this is to your personal career needs.

Similarly, it's your call whether you go for the short term reward of higher pay and benefits.  It might very well suit you right now if you need to build up some savings or finance a particular lifestyle.  Or perhaps you need more certainly on working hours; maybe work life balance is a stronger consideration?  All this needs to be considered in conjunction with your medium term career aspirations; if you take this move into commerce how will it prepare you for the subsequent phase of your career? 

At the end of the day, what you are looking for is to make an informed choice based on all the available evidence at this point in time - your personal needs and wants, both short and long term.  But this is an environment where you can leverage change and uncertainty to your advantage.  In other words, as long as you keep your eye on your marketability, your personal career risk is much more manageable in the twenty first century market place since the career seascape is indeed choppy waters.  So think hard, but once you have decided, go for it on the understanding that your transferable skills have the potential to take you back again.  And again! And again!



"I returned to work in the finance department of a large corporate a year ago after maternity leave, working four days a week, three from home. But I feel I am often being left out of important decisions, missing out on interesting project work and feel generally out of touch. I appreciate the flexibility and don't want to burden colleagues. Childcare arrangements preclude me from going to the office more. Have you got any advice?"

Welcome to the Brave New World of working from home! Actually it’s far from new – more a case of ‘what goes around comes around’. Pre-Industrial Revolution ‘work’ and ‘home’ were more often than not, one and the same.

Two hundred years on though, we’d better get used to it; twenty first century home-working is surely here to stay. The enablers are in place: broadband and wireless technology, a mature knowledge economy and cloud computing being just the tip of the iceberg. Add in the office ‘deterrents’: fuel, pollution, regulation to combat climate change and the heavy costs of the office infrastructure, and it is clear that more and more of us will be spending some time working from home. Indications are that office working will eventually cease to be the dominant norm.

The rise in home-working has been, and will continue to be, meteoric. The Sunday Times ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list gave us a heads-up as far back as 2007. Their review showed, in just two years, an increase from 14.1% to 31.7% in the proportion of staff working from home for at least part of their working week.

With this sheer pace and magnitude of change is it surprising that organisations and individuals need help? Just as our ancestors did two hundred years ago, all parties need to fashion new ways of working, behaving and thinking. As a pioneer of home working, here is an opportunity for you to take control and assume personal responsibility to make it really work for you.

First up, check out to what extent your current perception is assumption or reality. Do some research and firmly nail whether you really are being left behind. And if you are, differentiate between each of the unsatisfactory areas:

  • Involvement in important decisions,
  • Missing out on interesting projects,
  • Feeling generally out of touch

and address them individually. For each area of concern, consider: where you are now, where want to get to, how you will know you are making progress (measures) and how you are going to make that progress.

Here are some suggestions that will help you create, and drive forward your own Working from Home strategy:

  • Build partnerships. Buddy up, both with other virtual workers and office based staff. Great for raising morale, sharing dilemmas, solving problems and keeping up to date with the gossip.
  • Raise your profile in the virtual world. Regardless of physical networking prospects, you’re wasting a valuable opportunity if you don’t join the virtual arena. Forums, blogs, discussion threads are all easy ways to develop and sustain visibility. Think about all the ways that you used to make ongoing physical contact and look for a virtual option.
  • Use your performance management system to address the issue of strategic professional development. This is where the interesting projects come in. Upfront planning and active sponsorship of what constitutes a good fit for your portfolio and talents will make a big difference here.
  • Leverage your home and office time to get the best out of each. Identify activities that can only be done in office. These are clearly your ‘face time’ activities, so don’t bury yourself by choosing the furthest hotel desk. Your motto is to ‘see and be seen’. Office days are for doing coffee or lunch with the movers and shakers. Keep an ongoing agenda of topics that you want to raise. Conversely, home days are best for uninterrupted blocks of time for problem solving, report writing, technical work and heavy duty telephone conversations.
  • Create a communication strategy for fellow home workers. Work in partnership with your organisation, get some input from fellow workers (home and office) and develop an official ‘Working from Home’ communication system. There are lots of ideas throughout this special feature to get you started.

It is true that you’re going to have to work smarter, if not harder, to keep in the loop when you are working from home. But as we’ve seen, home-working is here to stay. Hang on in there, feel the work-life balance benefits and enjoy the glory of the early adopter!



"I'm moving with my family deeper into the countryside and my employer is very open to working from home proposals. On one hand this would be great for my lifestyle, but I fear it could damage my promotion prospects and I am keen to progress. Do you think my fears are justified?"

If you bury yourself in your rural idyll, just do the necessary to stay employed and keep a very low profile – yes I do!  But clearly if you are looking for promotion you won’t be doing any of these!

So bolster your prospects as follows:

  • Understand the progression principles within your organisation. Find out what’s needed for promotion. What competencies, behaviours, experience are valued? Usually you would be expected to stretch your current grade and start to exhibit the attributes of the one above.
  • Just as you would from an office-base, create a plan to demonstrate these higher qualities from your remote location. It will be harder and you’ll need to use lateral thinking but think about how you can add value to the role, prove your potential and go that extra mile.
  • Make full use of technology. Physical distance need not be an impediment when you’ve got inter- and intra-net, forums, blogs and virtual conferencing to make your mark. In fact they could present you with the means to be applauded as a high-achieving pioneer of home-working.
  • And finally, confide in your line manager. Be honest and share your fears. Discuss the personal promotion strategy you’ve already designed and see what input they can add.



"Everyone at work seems stressed, particularly my boss. I understand that the targets are much higher to reach in this climate, but he is being unreasonable, expecting me to work late, setting unrealistic deadlines and being inconsistent in what he’s asking. I don’t feel I can approach him to sort this out and I don’t want to be a grass either. What is your advice?"

Frankly, other than accepting the current situation or handing in you notice, the only other option is communication – direct or with third-party support. Let’s look at some constructive ways of resolving this.

  • Access organizational resources. Start with HR, which will provide a confidential service. Look at how your colleagues cope. You may be able to find an in-house buddy or mentor. Use behavioral modeling to replicate successful coping strategies, communication styles and upward management.
  • Talk to your boss. Tell him you’re finding it tough and could use some mentoring on dealing with pressure. Ask how he copes. You’ll gain some helpful insights and may even turn the spotlight on him.
  • Don your creative problem-solving hat to see how you could make his role easier. Take his perspective and figure out how you would manage in his shoes.
  • Agree protocols on working late. Establish the norm level of overtime and request consultation above this level. Be assertive, pointing out that if you do A you won’t be able to do B, so which would he prefer?

Or you could just go with the flow! It sounds flippant but if your job hasn’t always been this way, and it is genuinely down to harsher trading conditions, you could endure the current situation for a defined period. Then consider getting out if circumstances fail to improve.




"I was hoping for a promotion, however a much younger person with less experience has just been given the job and I will now have to report to her. I think I’m going to find it very hard dealing with her. What is your advice?"

First get to grips with why she got the promotion you thought was yours. You need to understand, and accept, exactly what the organization valued on this occasion. You can do this by having a frank discussion with your line manager. Ask for it straight and take it on the chin.

It’s quite natural to set your sights on upward, linear progression but it’s not necessarily the right move for every individual. Accountancy is a classic example, where strong technician prowess does not always translate into brilliant management.

Take account of your personal strengths and face up to the fact that you may already be well suited to the job you are doing now. This is an important reframe which will help you either accept the status quo and/or make a plan to develop the skills you need for future promotion. Lastly, don’t forget why accountancy attracted you in the first place and ask yourself if that is still the case.



"I’m 42 and have reached a moderately senior level in a fairly large practice. I enjoy my job and like (most of) my clients. The only way up seems to be my boss’s job, or one like it. But when I look at what he does on a day-to-day basis I don’t really fancy it. But I feel like I ought to more ambitious – we are all supposed to strive for partnership. I’m also worried about my employability as I move through my forties and fifties – you hear so many stories about people on the ‘scrapheap’. What should I do?"

‘Ought to’, ‘supposed to’, ‘on the scrap heap’: weighty words purporting danger! In coaching parlance, we call them ‘limiting beliefs’ - assumptions, explanations and conclusions we draw, to help us make sense of our life experiences. Such beliefs are valuable resources, generalisations that give us some sense of certainty and a basis for decision making in an uncertain and ambiguous world.

But we need to be aware that limiting beliefs can also undermine us, depleting the quality of the life we could have.   By accepting unchallenged ‘truths’ and behaving accordingly, we create self fulfilling prophecies and are prevented from making choices that expand our growth, knowledge, prosperity, happiness and success.

Limiting beliefs are pat of being human but they are not confined to species homo sapiens! Take the case of the baby elephant, tethered by thick rope to a stake hammered deep into the ground. She strives to escape but at her tender age, lacks the strength to do so.  Eventually she stops trying, accepting the constraints that bind her.  And over time, this learned behaviour becomes so entrenched that by adulthood her trainer needs just a flimsy string, so reconciled is she to captivity.  Of course in reality at her resplendent fully grown 4 tonnes, that string is no tether, just a mere ornament!  And the lesson here?  Beware of the prophetic assumption! Because that’s precisely what your ‘ought to’, ‘supposed to’ and ‘on the scrap heap’ could prove to be.  Time to test those limiting beliefs with a few simple tugs.

But first up you need to find out what you really, really want.  That is, what YOU want, for yourself, aside from the expectations around you.  Do some proper strategic career thinking.  Build your vision of where you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years time.  Consider your natural abilities, skills and experiences (technical and fully transferable), your passions and interests.  Specifically, to address your uncertainty about your lack of enthusiasm for the boss’s job, check out Michael Gerber’s E-myth series and decide whether  you’re a ‘technician’, a ‘manager’ or  even an 'entrepreneur'.

Once you can clearly describe your career dream, construct some boundaries by acknowledging your tolerance levels.   Set your parameters with regards to earnings, lifestyle, stakeholders needs and so on.

Then, and only then, shine the flashlight on your current situation and test out those limiting beliefs:

  • If you decide partnership is not where you want to be, check out the viability of being a ‘career’ manager.
  • Challenge the assumption that ‘the only way is up’ by having some frank discussions with your line manger and/or a personal mentor within your practice.
  • Look around you, both within and beyond your organisation for examples of colleagues who have reached, or continued, to peak in the second half of their career.
  • Right now you are seeing scrap heaps because that’s what you’re looking for.  Loosen those tethers and start looking for success stories and get modelling!
  • And once you’ve completed all of the above, accelerate into action mode.  Plan your approach and execute your strategy to get you moving from where you are now to where you want to be.




"For 9 years I was a Head of Internal Audit within a public organisation - now I find myself within the growing ranks of the unemployed. I have applied for over 100 roles; sometimes I am told that my application had been lost/never received/ failed to complete a section (actually I have but the recruiter has lost it - 3 times that has happened).

I get interviews, but come 2nd – why? - better candidates.  But if you ask for feedback nobody will supply that information.  The latest excuse that I am getting is that I am over qualified or I might not fit with the culture of the organisation was the excuse given - reality was I was better qualified than the interviewer. 

Have you got any advice at all?"

First up, I appreciate your frustration in suffering the clerical hiccups of the job search process – documents mislaid, deemed incomplete, misunderstandings etc.  In my experience, though frustrating and unfair, this is not uncommon and you have to accept it as a natural consequence of the sheer volume of your applications; there is simply a higher probability of something going wrong.  But I can provide the reassurance that you are not the only candidate to experience this and I urge you not to take it personally; accept the inevitable and move on.

My second observation is that you are doing well to have come ‘second’ so many times.  Not much consolation at this stage, I know – as being second doesn’t get you a job. But you’ve been in a tough recruitment market and the fact that you are being ‘screened in’ on application form and getting so close at interview, suggests that you really are already doing a good deal ‘right’.  As for excuses of being ‘over qualified’ or not a ‘cultural fit’ – have you considered they may have a point?  These are legitimate objections.  You may have fallen into the mass application trap, applying for everything and anything and along the way you’ve lost your true direction, your true passion.

Let’s take the ‘over qualified’ issue.   From an employer’s perspective, particularly in this candidate-rich market, you could be perceived as higher risk.  There is a danger that if you accept a job punching below your weight, as soon as the market picks up you’ll be off to a role that more closely matches your experience and grade.  However, if you are genuinely interested in down-sizing or a side-ways move, then you need a convincing case to mitigate the risk perceived by the employer.  That is, a convincing case for the recruiter, and  a convincing case for yourself.  You need a story that you buy in to.

And all this means going back to basics; examining what you really, really want at this stage in your life.  Is it a job on any terms? A job for job’s sake?  Unlikely.  You will have tolerance levels and you have to figure out what these are and understand your own personal values and motivators.  What really matters to you in your career? In your life?  What are the things that you cannot compromise on, no matter what?  Think about your attitude to: reporting to someone less experienced, degree of autonomy, job stability, personal challenge, work life balance, routine vs flexibility, team work, technical stretch/technical comfort?  You decide.  It may help to work through the approach in my article Your Career by Design.

By consciously focussing on your personal blueprint, you bring passion, conviction and commitment to your job bid.  You equip yourself with the ability to articulate all of this to a potential employer.  Even if it is a down-wards move.  And once you’ve got your blueprint you can be selective.  You’ll apply for fewer positions but they’ll be positions that meet your criteria and you can put your heart and soul into the application.

Do this and you will also be sharpening your sales technique, conveying more powerfully what makes you special, different and perfect for a particular job. All under-pinned by genuine self conviction.

And finally, if you aren’t already doing it, look at contract work.  It provides a great opportunity to test out and shape your blueprint based on real work place experience.

Above all, this is about trying something different, tweaking an approach which is getting you so far, but not quite far enough.  So go for it!



"The budgets set in our department have just been set for 2010 and I’ve been told that it will be my responsibility to ensure the department keeps within this budget.  I’m very happy to be given this extra responsibility but the trouble is they are unrealistic (and reduced) budgets and I can’t see how we are going to achieve all the targets.  What should I do – I don’t want to offend anyone?"

It sounds glib but budgets will always seem unrealistic.  Their very nature is about stretch, inspiring us to give that little bit more to hit target.  So the question here is more about how unrealistic they are.  You can check this out by looking at prior experience.  How tight have they been previously?  Does your department normally hit budget?  What are the repercussions of missing targets?  By how much?

Next you need to look at what’s within your control and what’s not.  Once you’ve pinned this down and can articulate it, concentrate on what’s within your remit and don’t waste time elsewhere.

And then get your concerns on record.  Be specific.  You won’t be taken seriously with sweeping generalisations  – even if you do think the whole thing is impossible.  Pick out some specific areas, prepare a well-researched case, and you might achieve some negotiation room to flex the figures.

Whatever happens beware of ‘all or nothing’ thinking.  If you don’t think you can hit budget, don’t allow the fact to de-motivate you.  You must still go all out and do all you can, to very best of your abilities, with the resources available.  Remember, even if you don’t pass the exam, they’ll be plenty of marks available for your technique along the way!



"Can you give me some tips on dealing with a difficult team member? I supervise a group of trainees and one of them just doesn’t seem to fit in. She challenges everything I say and I know that the rest of the team feel she is not pulling her weight."

Establishing team ground rules would be a good starting point.  You are looking for team buy-in to a process that supports an individual’s right to be heard but respects team roles too. Once you can define this it’s much easier to establish a code for ‘the way things are done around here’.

You’ll need to precisely define what the team mean by ‘not pulling her weight’ so you can communicate an effective message.  Articulate what you want her to do differently as opposed to what you don’t want her to do.  Illustrate with contextual examples, taking an illustrative task and describing what success would look like.  But it’s vital to understand her perspective too, find out how she thinks she did on the task and then work at closing the gap between any discrepancies.

As there’s already a perception that she doesn’t fit in, beware of singling her out. Set up a series of ‘one to ones’ in privacy, with the time and space to thoroughly explore the issues in a safe environment. And keep an open mind; you may be surprised at her ‘take’ on the situation.



“I’m 35 and have just been made redundant from my firm. I’ve always wanted to start my own business and dreamt of being an entrepreneur, but I’m worried that now would be a bad time to do this. What is your advice?”

Well we still have an economy, many businesses are still trading and people are buying, so a precise reply to your question will depend specifically on your market, your product and how sensitive it is to the contraction of the economy.

Draw up a business plan. Do some market research and test the sensitivity of your financial projections to determine toe viability and risk. Consider your personal situation. Business start-up will entail a period of nil or depressed earnings. Determine your personal survival budget and figure out how you are going to pay your bills. You may need to take employment, possibly on a contract basis or part time, to cover your PSB while you work in parallel on your business start-up.

Lastly, grab a copy of Michael Gerber’s E-myth Revisited here for an overview of what it means to be an entrepreneur.



“I am working in a small firm as an audit senior, responsible for preparing accounts (60%) and audit (40%).  I’ve now been offered a job as a Big Four Assistant Manager.

I understand that auditing under ISA is about identifying weakness in internal controls and its implications.  However, during my 3 years experience I have never come across such a thing. We normally do substantive testing and follow Kestrian audit programmes.

Please could you give me an example of an internal control weakness and implications for the Financial Services sector?

Also what’s the best way to prepare myself before joining?’’ Noel

Dear Noel

First up, the easy bit.  Insufficient segregation of duties is an example of an internal controls weakness.  For any key process there should be division in the responsibility for: authorizing transactions, processing and recording them, reviewing and approving them, and handling any related assets. No single individual should control all key aspects of a transaction or event. Implications in any industry would depend on materiality, business risk and the potential financial effect of the weakness.  For the auditor this could translate into finding and testing alternative or mitigating internal controls, additional substantive work to provide sufficient assurance, or ultimately audit qualification.

Moving on to your preparation for the new job.
Firstly, congratulations on taking the initiative. In my years as a Big Four Resource Director, I recruited tonnes of candidates in exactly your position and I don’t recall this request coming up at interview or in the pre-joining period.

There’s no doubt that this will be a big transition for you.  Moving jobs is always a major step, but transferring into the Big Four environment is likely to result, not just in a change to your role (technically and operationally) and in your environment (people and location), but will also expose you to a quite radically different culture.

The good news is that you won’t be the first who has made such a move, so your new firm is likely to have a good tailored induction or ‘conversion’ process for people like you.  But there is plenty you can do (and should do) to help yourself.

Here’s a 2 stage approach to your preparation and transition:

First, brainstorm all the changes/challenges you are likely to encounter.  Start with the obvious.  Think about stuff that would apply if you were going for a new job in a similar firm.  Then start to dig deep.  Compare and contrast your old and your new roles.

Here’s a checklist of a few potential differences to get you started:
The new role. What is actually expected of an assistant manager here?

  • Changes in levels of your autonomy, use of judgement, independence
  • ISA auditing
  • Firm-specific audit methodology
  • IFRS knowledge
  • Pure auditing, without the accounts prep
  • Materiality
  • Bigger, more complex clients
  • New industry sectors, with their own industry regulations
  • Culture and politics, including reporting lines

Next, look at all the possible solutions and resources you have at your disposal.  Some of these may only be available once you have joined, but there is no harm in asking for them at the pre-joining stage.  (They can always say no and you might earn some brownie points for keenness in the meantime!)

  • Find out from the person who recruited you who your nominated contact is and then ask for some advice on preparation.  There may be a pack or intranet resources they can share with you upfront
  • Find a buddy and/or a mentor.  Preferably someone who has made the same transition but at the very least someone is currently working in your new firm
  • Do some workshadowing. It gives you the chance to see the job and experience the culture at first hand without the pressure of performance.  Watch, observe and learn!
  • Ask silly questions.  Ask your buddy, your recruiter, HR………Ask.  Ask. Ask.  You can get away with virtually anything at this stage
  • Use Human Resources.  You might have a local HR contact but you will also have access to a massive national HR support system who will be waiting to help you at the end of the telephone
  • Attend socials and join networks as soon as you possibly can – even pre-joining.  You can specifically to be included in these
  • Leverage you past experience.  You may be able to share with the Resource Planning team, the type of jobs you have done before.  If they can factor this into your planning then this puts you at a standing start

All this will stand you in good stead.  But there is one other thing you can do which will really make a difference……Hone your mind set.  Don’t approach this move as daunting, scary and fraught with problems.  DO adopt a mind set that speaks exciting, stimulating and solution-orientated. Remember the Henry Ford quote ‘whether you think you can or you can’t you are usually  right’.  Expect success!

Good luck!



“I’m an Internal Audit Manager.  I had been making enquiries about alternative employment only to be served with a letter giving me 3 weeks notice (I am entitled to 3 months). The problem is that I am finding it very difficult to find alternative employment.

When I contact some agencies – I normally either never hear or I get told that the candidate field was very strong and that’s why I have been rejected.  Later I see the advert on a website seeking candidates from perhaps another agency.

What advice can you offer?" James

Dear James

If you haven’t already done so, I would strongly suggest that you request written explanation for the non-statutory notice period.  Armed with this information you can then seek the advice of an employment lawyer.  It may not be appropriate to take the matter further legally but you can at least understand the situation from a legal perspective and get some closure in your own mind.

With regard to your challenges in the employment market, you need to focus your attention on the matters that you can change.  There are many reasons why an advert might be re-run but as you can’t do anything about it – don’t let it zap your energy.

What you can do for starters is get some feedback from the agencies.  Here are a few topics you can cover:

  • What experience/attributes are successful candidates demonstrating?
  • Where are my skills gaps?
    • Based on CV
    • Based on interview feedback
  • What do I need to do to become more competitive?
  • Am I seeking the most appropriate positions?
  • If not, what would be a better fit for my skills and experience?
  • How are the agencies communicating my USP to their clients? (Your USP is your Unique Selling Point. What makes you special?  What is your differentiator?)

(Bear in mind that agencies may not be able to help you with all of these.  You may need to seek the services of a careers coach, like the

Once you’ve got the feedback you can then put together a plan to address any skills or perception gaps.  And don’t forget that USP.  You may well not have been fully capitalizing on this.

And finally. regarding communication with the agencies, it’s not unreasonable to request and expect this.  Set up a verbal agreement with each agency. 
Agree that they will get back to you within, say 48 hours, regardless of whether there’s anything to report or not.  Similarly request a monthly catch up call so you can keep on top of what the agencies have been doing for you, how the market is and the implications for you.  Make it easy for the agency by setting up an effective contact arrangement. For example, evenings between 8-9pm on a specific telephone number. 
Of course this will all be much more achievable if you can work with one nominated contact at each agency. You will then build a relationship, get to know one another and ultimately the agency will be better placed to serve you.

Good luck!



What’s the best way to approach the partnership about changing clients?” Natalie

First be clear in your own mind why you want to change clients.

If it is due to a short-term, one off issue relating to chemistry/relationships or ability to do the job, then act now.  It could prove an ethical matter if there are implications in the standard of your work.

However, if it’s more to do with career progression, personal strengths, likes/dislikes then you can afford to take a more measured approach.

As ever you need to start by considering why you want to change clients and what exactly you are seeking.  And this is especially important here as you will need to be able to provide a clearly thought-out business case too.

Use a brainstorming technique (mind-mapping is a good one for this).  This will help you to flush all your thoughts, including the pros and cons from both perspectives – yours and the business’s.

You can then use your mind-map as a foundation to articulate your case:

  • What you don’t want, and why
  • What you do want, and why
  • How your proposition aligns to your professional development
  • How your proposition meets business needs and indeed, can benefit the business

So that’s the content.  Now you need to consider your process.

Do you understand the process within your organisation with respect to staff planning?  Is there one dedicated Resourcing contact or are you expected to deal directly with your line manager/partner?  Who exactly are the decision makers?

It’s important to get this right.  You don’t want to go over anyone’s head and potentially have politics mess up your approach. Plus in the interests of efficiency you want to do it ‘properly’ and ensure you don’t have a number of parties putting in their oar on your behalf – that won’t help your case either.  However, if used subtly a mentor or a sponsor could have a role here.  As long as process and politics are respected, it can very valuable to have a bit of extra ‘clout’ behind your bid.

Be aware of timing too.  If staff planning is an annual process in your firm, it may be appropriate to take a more strategic approach to making your case and respect normal procedures.   If the system is more ad hoc, then use common sense to time your request.  For instance it’s not going to go down well to put in a last minute request for a change – just before the job is due to start. Once again consider tying in to the firm’s normal practice on career/portfolio development, which may well be linked to the performance appraisal system.

Whichever approach you choose, remember that a bid that provides solutions rather than creating problems is going to be much better received.  So rather making it ‘all about you’, think wider.  Can you suggest a successor? If not a particular person then in general terms be prepared to articulate the type of individual who would benefit from the vacated role.  Think level, experience, natural strengths, career aspirations.   This could prove very helpful to the organisation and a ‘win-win’ outcome is going to get you much further in meeting your own aspirations.



“I feel the past year was a very good year in terms of my productivity for the company, how do I approach my boss about a raise?” Thomas

Dear Thomas

Great start!  You’ve already tied the cost to the benefit.  It might seem obvious but in any commercial organisation, it’s going to be vital to establish that connection between ‘cause and effect’.  You’ve made that link by relating your request for a raise directly to the measurable benefit that you’ve conferred on the company.

You now need to consider the official policy on pay rises.  It could be that your organisation has a flexible, ad hoc approach to salary review.  More likely though, there may be just one or two salary review points during the year, probably related directly to performance appraisal.  But this doesn’t mean that you are confined to taking action at certain dates only.  On the contrary this is an initiative that you should be working on all year round.  I just point this out to stress that although your company’s pay review system may mean waiting for the actual dosh until the designated time, there is every reason to be sowing those seeds right now.  If you do decide to make your case outside of the normal pay review timetable then the most valuable thing you can do is to look for precedents.  Study those who have succeeded before.  Understand what has worked for them and be prepared to model their approach.

In the meantime…

The key is preparation.  You need to plan your approach.  This is not the time to go for it, all guns blazing.  A measured, rational, supported argument will take you much further towards your objective.  Think business case.  You must let go of emotion here.  To negotiate the best deal you will need to logically articulate the justification for your raise.  Put aside for now any feelings of what you might ‘deserve’.  What will count is validating your request in the context of the benefits you have provided to the business.

So build your personal case as you would build a business case.

  • What does the business value?  Check it out because it may be very different to what you personally value.  Your case will not be persuasive unless it’s based on what the business wants.
  • What is the boss looking for?  It’s perfectly reasonable to ask your boss a very direct question.  What do I have to do to secure this pay raise?  Precisely what evidence do I need to do to demonstrate this?  What does that mean in the context of my career?
  • Ensure that you understand the company’s criteria for salary increases.  Is it related to performance measures?  If so understand what you need to demonstrate to reach this level. And again, what exactly does that look like?  You need to get it down to practical tasks and behaviours.  Talk to your line manager and/or HR.  Look at precedents and use them as role models.
  • Provide evidence to support your increased productivity and relate this back to what you know the business values.  Construct a hypothetical defence.  How would you respond to any challenges?

And don’t leave all the hard work until appraisal time.  It’s always the right time to work on your strategy.  Keep it on your agenda all year around.  Find out what is expected and be sure that you are not only doing it but are seen to be doing it.  This is not the time to be hiding your light under a bushel.

As for getting the most out of the meeting itself…..well that’s another matter entirely.  Think: first impressions, focussing on your key objective, building empathy, reading and responding to body language, skilful questioning, optimising your language, clarity in communicating your case, negotiation,   designing your concession strategy and setting yourself up for success.  I could go on.  But these are the answers to another question.  Ask me that one next time!



“My peer group is extremely talented with strong individuals, how can I differentiate myself and be noticed?”  Kate

Dear Kate

I would recommend a three stage approach. First examine your objectives.  Ask yourself why do I want to be noticed?  What do I want to be noticed for?  And what is my ultimate aim here? 
Asking and answering these questions is vital to ensure that you adopt an appropriate strategy.  For example: is it about being promoted?  Or simply to keep up with the rest of your peer group and not lag behind?  Perhaps it more to do with your longer term career path - developing skills and attracting opportunities with a more strategic goal in mind?  Or could it be that there is a cultural expectation of individuality?

Next examine precisely what is valued in your organisation. 
You could start with the formal performance management system.  What are the key competencies and core skills that are expected in your role?  What level of proficiency is expected and how would it look to over-exceed in each area.

But this is only your starting point.  You will also need to look at practise as well as theory.  Consider in real terms what attributes individuals are noted for.  What makes people stand out?  What is reward (salary, promotion, opportunity) matched to in real terms?  How does this line up with your perception of a peer group of talented, strong individuals?  By doing this you are also testing your own assumptions about the rest of your peer group and potentially your place within it.

Resources that will help will include your Human Resources contact and your line manager.  But go wider than this.  Consider talking to individuals who are seen as role models.  Find yourself a mentor, someone more senior (but who has no influence in your performance appraisal) who will view the terrain from a different perspective and may point out some real eye-openers.

Finally, once you’ve done all of this, you can put together your personal differentiation strategy.

Using all the knowledge you’ve gleaned, draw up your personal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats).  Having figured out what works for your organisation you can now line it up with what you can offer.  You are looking for your innate USP (Unique Selling Point) which is clearly unique and valued by your organisation, but also comes naturally to you (perhaps with a bit of nurture).  As I am fond of pointing out, at all costs avoid the ‘square peg in the round hole’ syndrome.  If you can’t find a relevant characteristic that is inherent and capable of being polished up to perfection, then you may be better placed seeking an alternative role which values your particular USP.

Bear in mind that you can have more than one USP. Here are a few examples: a specific aspect of communication skills (negotiation, influencing, dealing with conflict, building rapport with a particular type of client), leadership, tenacity, quality delivery under pressure, efficiency and effectiveness, technical expertise in a niche area.  And many, many more.

And don’t forget once you have identified what it is that makes you special you will then need to ensure that your organisation can see it too – but that’s another story!



"I’m currently in my second year of my three-year audit training contract for the ACA. I’ve just found out that I’m pregnant and I’m wondering what impact this will have on my ACA.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to still study from home and qualify that way or will I lose my training contract as a result of this? I currently work at a Big 4 practice.

I’m 24 and I’m happy to be pregnant but I also want to have a career in Finance/Audit. Could you offer some advice please?"  Dee

First, congratulations on your pregnancy; I do hope you are keeping healthy and well at this exciting point in your life journey!  And thank you also for your kind words regarding the website, glad you have found it useful.  

So, pregnancy and maternity leave during a chartered accountancy training contract, where do you stand?  While I am not a Human Resources professional, I would firstly point you in the direction of your statutory rights during pregnancy. The Citizen’s Advice Bureau is a good starting point for this.  You can follow this link to get an overview of the relevant regulatory framework.  Note that there is a set of overarching Health and Safety protocols which apply.  For instance, a ‘risk assessment’ of your role should be conducted and this will consider any modifications that may need to be made for factors such as long working hours as well as the physical demands of the job. The statutory guidance also covers your right to time off for ante-natal appointments, as well as maternity pay and maternity leave.

At this point it is also worth emphasising the importance of your employment contract, the agreement that you have directly with your organisation, as this will describe any further rights beyond the legal minimum.  You will be able to access this via your employee handbook; contact your Human Resources department for further help and questions. 

Of course, what makes your situation rather more complex, is that you are also subject to a ‘training contract’ to qualify as an ACA, which I assume is in conjuction with the ICAEW, ICAS or a similar professional body.  You’ll be relieved to know that, they, of course have also got this covered.  The ICAEW, for example allow for a training agreement to be suspended for up to 24 months (depending on your maternity leave requirements); work experience before the suspension will still count and the suspension has no effect on exam eligibility.  This would mean that you would still be able to study for the exams during your maternity leave, subject to a mutually-agreed programme, designed by yourself and your employer.  

It is this ‘mutual agreement’ between you and your training office though, that is the critical point here.  Remember that the statutory rights and the regulatory framework are there to defend you against any potential discrimination as well as safeguard your personal health and wellbeing.  But when the rubber hits the road you will need to find a practical way forward that works for both you and the organisation and ultimately results in you achieving the requisite number of days of work experience as well as passing the exams to get your ACA qualification. 

In addition to talking to the HR professionals at work (and that can be confidentially at first, if you prefer), familiarise yourself with the government guidance. And if you are an ICAEW student, you can also use the services of the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association (CABA).  CABA provide information on maternity-related matters but can also offer one to one counselling for a more in-depth discussion.

In summary, there are lots of resources out there, as well as sources of help and guidance.  The formal regulations provide protection, to ensure you are treated fairly, but do bear in mind that you are entering a life-changing phase of your personal journey (I can personally vouch for that!).   A career in finance/audit is absolutely compatible with this phase, and beyond, although it may not be quite as simple as studying at home and continuing your training contract as it stands right now (although, I’m not saying that it necessarily couldn’t be either!).  You may change your mind about how you want to complete your training (more than once) as your circumstances change, and this is where a mutually beneficial arrangement, with some inbuilt flexibility, will be the ultimate way forward.

I hope this helps, and we all wish you the very best for a happy, healthy and trouble-free pregnancy. 


Have your career questions answered by emailing Carol with your queries.

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Aka, theaccountantscoach, Carol McLachlan FCA has been CareersInAudit's very own agony aunt for over five years.  A qualified accountant, NLP Practitioner and professionally qualified coach, Carol's 18 year big 4 audit career has equipped her with a real understanding of the professional and personal issues that auditors and accountants face.

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