The Audit Agony Aunt
Published: 09 Jul 2013 By Carol McLachlan
Carol McLachlan, theaccountantscoach, is a qualified accountant, NLP Practitioner and professionally qualified coach. Her 18 year career at Ernst and Young as a chartered accountant and a Director of Resources has equipped her with a real understanding of the professional and personal issues that accountants face. Here Carol answers your career questions as our very own Audit Agony Aunt.
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 CareersinAudit.com Facebook Page or in our LinkedIn Group where you can discuss current issues with other auditors and audit jobseekers from across the world.
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 have been a forensic accountant in the profession for 33 years. I am 66, fit and healthy. What might you suggest as a change of career?
I would advise that you begin by reading our article, Your Career by Design. This piece will provide you with a process to approach your career strategy, taking you through a ‘self’ audit and personal review of Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities and Threats (SWOT). And importantly, it will also enable you to work through your current needs, interests and preferences to help align these to an appropriate career move.
As opposed to ‘advising’ you on a particular job role, career coaching is much more about facilitating your thinking to help you come up with personal insights to make an informed choice. What I would say though is that, without a doubt, 33 years in the profession, an ACA qualification (and a Bachelor of Science degree) together with your considerable experience in forensic accounting will have equipped you with a very broad range of transferable skills. You might not actually realise how broad! Accountants typically focus on their technical abilities and it is usual to see a chronological, task-based CV which lists out duties and roles through the lens of accounting accomplishment. If you are interested in continuing along the forensic pathway – either upwards or sideways (perhaps with a sector or employer move) then some of this will be relevant. But even where this is the case, and especially where you are looking for a more lateral move, then your technical experience will only be part of your story.
Thinking more creatively about your transferable skills and experience will also help you consider alternative career pathways. Here are a few examples:
- Commercial exposure. Your broad base of clients, your knowledge of their businesses (financial and otherwise) and an understanding of a wide range of systems and processes would be a strong base to build a non-executive career, either as a non-executive director of a business or as a trustee of a not-for-profit organisation. If you can match particular sector experience or industry expertise, this could further mark you out as an expert and put you in a good position to provide consultancy and/or business coaching.
- Leadership and Management. What have you achieved as a leader of people and/or a manager of processes? Reflecting on your achievements and how you have added value in these roles will be a useful information gathering exercise to demonstrate your more general management abilities. General management experience is highly transferable and could place you in a cross functional role across any industry.
- Communication skills. Verbal and written, reporting and presenting, public speaking, coaching and training are all immensely transferable skills. Not only could they be used to support a career path in lecturing, teaching or writing, but they are all facilitators for a distinct career change. Examples include: fund raising, business development or sales and marketing.
These are just a few examples. And you will note that I have not gone down the route of the more obvious opportunities – joining an accounting practice as a general practitioner (back to your roots!) consulting as a forensic specialist or financial analytics.
Many of these opportunities are, or could be, part-time and they present an appealing flexibility to create a portfolio career which can combine employment with self-employment and the space to pursue non-career interests.
I am currently working offshore as a Hydrographic Surveyor conducting seafloor surveys for oil and gas, renewable energy and cable route industries. I have been following this career for 2 years after graduating with a BSc Marine Geography First Class degree and have loved the experience it has provided me. However, I am now looking for a change in career path with a more structured and reliable work environment. I would like to transition into a career that involves more data analysis and investigation.
I was recommended working for the National Audit Office by a friend. I hear that the organisation could provide me with an opportunity to work towards a further qualification simultaneously to earning an income. I am interested in and preparing to apply for the graduation scheme offered by the NAO that I was told opens in September 2016. However, I am open-minded and will work hard and consider all options available to me. I aspire to work in London or surrounding areas, and would also like the chance to travel in the UK or abroad occasionally.
Is it possible to enter into previously mentioned careers without achieving a masters or further qualifications prior, that would mean investing money and taking time out of full time work?
Additionally, my job restricts my availability to apply for other jobs and attend interviews as I am away for months at a time between unknown dates. I have always been advised that it is better to look for jobs while being employed, but this is proving difficult. Would it be advisable to find temporary work to develop the skills and understanding I need to change careers? Or would this look bad to potential employers?
I have to say, with your academic achievements and impressive CV, an auditing career with the Big Four immediately comes to mind. Just as a bit of background, the Big Four are the largest global accountancy firms: PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY. They all have very large offices in London, take on substantial annual graduate intakes and offer a wide range of professional services beyond accountancy and audit, such as tax, management consultancy and corporate recovery. You will find, on the jobs pages of CareersInAudit, a good selection of the sort of roles they offer, although these will be directed principally at experienced hires - you would apply through the graduate intake programme.
Audit and Assurance has the largest annual intake and provides a highly coveted foundation business career, with exposure to a wide range of organisations from plcs to own-manager firms and public sector establishments. The Big Four recruiters are interested in top academics as well as seeing a CV that demonstrates personal achievement, together with a rich selection of transferable skills such as communication (written and verbal), teamwork, leadership potential, initiative, innovation and analytical prowess. They tend to be open to early career shifters as long as you can demonstrate a real commitment to the career change and articulate how your current skills will transfer across.
There are of course many other different types of accountancy firms beyond the largest, from the mid tier (BDO, Grant Thornton, RSM etc) right through to small local firms. Like the Big Four, they will offer you the chance to achieve a professional qualification, with either the Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICAEW) or ACCA, while providing well paid business experience, although depending on the employer their offering will be narrower than the biggest firms. All firms will generally offer a three year training period and pay your fees for courses, exams and study leave.
So why do I suggest Big Four auditing? Firstly, I think you've a good chance of getting in - and they really do provide a blue chip foundation to any business career. In Audit & Assurance you would be able to develop your investigative and analytical interests over a broad range of projects during your three year training period, and you could then choose to specialise and deepen these skills in say, forensics or financial analysis, upon qualification. And thirdly, there is a strong opportunity for both your employer and yourself to benefit from your industry knowledge of oil and gas and renewals by gearing your client portfolio to these particular areas. You would be travelling to different clients on a daily basis and that could well include locations outside of the South East and, by choice, internationally, usually upon qualification.
There are a couple of things to be wary of though. I am not sure what finding a 'more structured and reliable environment' means for you at this stage. Big Four audit will provide some predictability, in that you will generally know when and where you will be working for the subsequent few months, but often the hours are very long, you may be under high pressure to meet deadlines and will be balancing studying for professional examinations with your 'day' job out at clients.
While there is no need for further postgraduate qualification like a master's, I think that some additional business or commercial experience would stand you in good stead, particularly in articulating your reasons for the career shift. It may be that you can demonstrate this from your retail work but some financial exposure would also be very useful.
I definitely would continue with the NAO application, as this also offers interesting and challenging opportunities, although perhaps not the breadth of opportunity that Big Four might offer. If you Google the two career paths you can compare and contrast and consider the pros and cons of each, as applicable to you.
And finally, the conundrum of applying for jobs. You are correct in seeking to minimise career 'gaps' but if your marine placements are completely unpredictable, you could consider taking a 'bridging' role as a stop gap career transition. This could be an opportunity for you to get some valuable commercial and/or financial experience.
On the other hand, both the Big Four and NAO do have structured and scheduled annual application schemes, so if you can navigate around these, perhaps by taking some leave, then you should be able to enjoy an uninterrupted period of employment!
I have just qualified (ACCA) and been working in industry for the past 6 years in London. I got offered a junior position at a Big4 in Luxembourg, which I accepted due to time constraints, and I am struggling to make my mind up whether to re-train as an auditor for investment funds is such a good idea after all – I will have to swallow a big pay-cut, having to go through the transactional side of things again, moving to an apparently boring country, plus the long hours… and only just after I thought to be done with all of that… at 28. In fairness, the audit manager conceded that they are willing to fast track promotions when foreign qualified accountants join – a 1-1.5 year time frame to become manager, but it seems a bit overtly optimistic to me.
On one side, I believe this to a be a great opportunity which I would NEVER have had due to personal circumstances/lack of prestigious qualifications, and in an industry I do find fascinating (investment funds). I also feel the lack of Big4 experience has been an hindrance in the past and this could be a way to rectify that. Professional friends, one of whom is a manager at the same firm I am going to, suggested I go as there is nothing to lose and all to gain, especially on the technical side, plus I could always ask for a transfer should I not fancy the country. I concur that I will learn a lot, but beg to disagree on a salient point: there is to lose should things go awry, both professionally and personally. Additionally, should I wish to come back after a year or so, would the sudden change from accountant in industry to auditor (and abroad too!) count against me when looking for a new position? I also believe that a few years in audit might be very helpful should I want to switch to compliance in the long run.
It is a bit of a conundrum as both option have pros and cons. Going: great company and experience, but low starting salary (and pay-cut for me!) and new country/no connections. Stay: stable and decent (high-ish) salary, but with limited opportunities to brake in more professionally challenging industries.
My advice would be to take an even broader 'helicopter' view than you are already doing; in other words think in terms of your longer term career path and where you see yourself in ten, or even twenty, years' time. You can do this by working your way through our article, Your Career by Design and take a more strategic approach to your both career (and life) planning. While this might seem challenging at this point in your twenties (and your professional vocation will by no means be set in stone), it is very illuminating to reflect on how you imagine the apex of your career, and beyond. This type of visioning will help to inform if Big 4 experience is going to be a pre-requisite to what you'd like to achieve longer term; if you see yourself in the blue chip corporate world and/or as a financial services specialist, then you have some rationalisation for the Luxembourg move and justification for the short term pain of loss of status and salary. But even if you do see your future in this arena, then your current offer is not your only option; you can hold out, while you actively seek alternative Big 4 opportunities. The market is pretty buoyant for candidates at the moment and with a credible professional strategy and a CV that fully leverages your six years experience (so employers can clearly see 'what's in it for me'), I think you can expect a wider choice of Big 4 opportunities.
Note the term 'a credible career strategy'; this is where it's vital that you do your personal due diligence so that you can tell a convincing professional 'story' that justifies and validates your applications in the light of your past, current and future choices. On this basis, I don't believe the switching from industry to audit and the overseas experience would count against you in your subsequent career journey, although the specialisation in investment funds could be construed as a more limiting option.
Overall however, I would say that, on the face of it, the relocation to Luxembourg and audit retraining from the ground up, with the prescribed specialism in financial services, could be an unnecessarily drastic move. You might very well find that this opportunity does evolve into your personal niche, but it could equally dig you into a specialisation (that is, investment funds, rather than audit which is much more transferable) that you end up having to make the best of. So before you make your final decision, be prepared to think wider, fully capitalise on your past experience and please rethink your self-perception of your professional achievements: ACCA is an esteemed and highly marketable qualification which will open an impressive array of doors for you, if only you will let it!
I am currently awaiting an expected termination interview with a Big four company having failed to pass an accountancy re-sit - by two marks. Only 7 weeks into what I hoped to be the start of a great career qualifying as an ACCA I am really uncertain what to do next. With a 2:1 in history from a top ten university but such a fast exit, is my career in audit over before it has begun? Will other accountancy firms even consider me? What options do I have realistically?
Bad luck on your exam results, I'm sorry to hear that you are facing termination. Unfortunately, the Big 4 are notoriously rigid on exam policy, so let's expect the worst and I'll base my advice around the prospects of you having to face a career re-start.
The absolutely key question here is, how do you feel about audit and accountancy in general? While I don't know what practical experience you had beforehand, I'm wondering how you took the decision to go from a history degree to a finance career. Is this really what you want? How have you found the work so far? Can you see this as being your passion? It may be that you have already answered these questions in the positive - as a history graduate myself, I found my vocation in audit - but for some from an arts and humanities background it can prove rather an unknown quantity and doesn't always prove to be the best career match. If you are certain audit is where you want to be, read on, if not, then go back to the drawing board and work your way through Your Career by Design.
If you do want to stay in accountancy and audit, despair not, some of the very best practitioners have worked through one or more exam hitches and come out the other side stronger and more resilient for the experience.
Your practical experience in a Big 4 environment can be put to use in your job search as you will now have a much deeper understanding of audit, assurance, compliance and risk - and of course accounting and financial management. Be prepared to cast your net wider: you may want to start with applying to some of the mid tier or smaller firms to stay in professional practice but don't forget that there is a much wider audit world out there too. You might like to consider internal audit; take a look at our guide for graduates. Internal audit could take you out of professional practice into 'industry' or the public sector and don't forget there are many other accounting and finance roles too - management accounting, financial analysis, business partnering, commercial accounting - and so on.
The beauty of the ACCA is that it is a flexible qualification (not structured round a three year training contract, with strict timescales like the ACA) and I can promise you that many, many successful ACCAs will have encountered exam re-sits during their career. So don't give up if this is what you really want. Once you have done your own personal due diligence and know that you are in the right career area, take a deep breath and start again, you might find it useful to work through our Resilience Programme to take stock and rebuild your personal resources.
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!
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 have worked for a Big 4 firm (external audit) in a small European country for two years now, and have passed all ACCA foundation exams F1-F9. I came to Europe from Australia due to a set of very unique circumstances in 2012 and started working for my firm in 2013 (I am a citizen in this country as well as Australia).
Lately I have been doing some thinking and have decided to move back to Australia for many reasons. One of the big reasons is my career development. The market in which my firm operates is quite small and very rigid and I feel I am not getting enough exposure to complex business world.
The advice you gave to Amjad regarding his move to Sweden is also relevant to my situation. How do I go about “convincing” employers that I am a good candidate given my experience abroad and not in Australia?
Are there any specific factors I should consider when applying for jobs in Australia (keeping in mind that I am citizen and was educated in Australia)?
As you will no doubt be well aware, the ACCA is a highly regarded global qualification and Big 4 audit experience is readily transferable all over the world, so I can reassure you that you are in a strong position for international mobility.
There is really no reason that you shouldn't turn your European experience into a competitive advantage to support your return to Australia. Do some brainstorming to flush out what these benefits might look like for an employer: wide experience of diverse cultures, systems and processes, personal risk-taking, independence and initiative, mature interpersonal skills, relationships and networks. These are just a few examples to help you identify the general benefits but there will also be a whole raft of specifics, from your technical repertoire and particular industry sector exposure to your portfolio roles and responsibilities of the last few years.
You'll need to balance up these advantages by determining what a recruiter might accuse you as having missed out on from a lack of recent Australian experience. For instance they could reference national accounting/auditing protocols or tax case law. But typically you should be able to bat this back with illustrations of your aptitude for life-long learning and continuing professional development - take some time to put together some 'case studies' from your practical experience.
All of this takes a modicum of hard work but the factual examples to support your career move will be there, but for the digging. The more complex piece is (as you may have heard me say many times before) getting your own career story straight - in your own mind and as a compelling communication for prospective employers. This takes a different type of seeking - more of the soul searching variety. You will need to construct an authentic narrative that responds to all those 'whys, whats and hows'. Why did you leave Australia in the first place? What were you looking for? How have you met your aspirations? What has subsequently changed? Why have you changed your strategy? What is it that you are expecting to find and achieve by coming back? And what might your subsequent career path look like? Etcetera, etcetera...
Don't underestimate the professional development investment that you have to make in this area. I have given you a few pointers, but this genuinely does need to be your career story - you have to be crystal clear about why you are making the move and able to convince an employer of the efficacy of your strategy. Together with really leveraging your experience to date to meet the needs of another continent, this is the best advice I can give you as regards your Australian applications.
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 had a tax internship with one of the "Big 4" and right now I am doing an audit internship. I have to make a decision as of whether I want to start my full-time in tax/audit. Honestly, I enjoyed my tax internship more than audit one but I worked very long hours. For audit, I am in metro right now but I feel like more interested in FS. My dilemma is that it is so hard to pick which one to start my career and I do not want to regret my decision later on.
So could you give me some insight/helpful points that would help me with my decision?
Thank you for getting in touch and I appreciate your dilemma, it can feel like a big decision to have to make at the very start of your career.
Having said that, you are in a stronger position than most, in that you will have directly experienced work in both tax and audit. Many new starters make the choice blindly as they don't have the benefit of practical, hands-on experience. So do make sure that you really leverage this experience in coming to your decision. First though, take the long hours out of the equation; the reality is that in any Big 4 service line, you are going to find yourself doing long, demanding hours at certain times of the year. In this respect, internships, owing to their seasonal nature, do not necessarily give a representative picture of potential work patterns.
So starting with your tax internship, what exactly did you enjoy about it? Was it the work itself? And if so, what skills and competencies were you employing that gave you the most satisfaction? Perhaps you enjoyed the opportunity to translate technical learning into a practical benefit; maybe you liked using your analytical expertise and logic to solve problems or you discovered a natural proficiency for a high level of accuracy and attention to detail. But besides the actual work itself there are other reasons why the tax internship might have been more enjoyable for you; were you more office based (as opposed to going out to clients' premises) or did you especially appreciate the environment, the atmosphere or your particular team? It is helpful to separate these extraneous factors from the work itself. Environment is, of course, important, but you need to be absolutely clear on the precise aspects of the internships that captured your imagination and be sure that they are indeed replicable in your chosen career path.
Consider also, your experience in audit, and decide what it was about the audit internship that swayed you towards tax. Use the questioning techniques in the previous paragraphs to get to get the nub of the issues and really dissect the two experiences.
You also mention Financial Services but do not say what it is that might appeal to you as opposed to mainstream audit. On these pages recently, I have offered advice on making such an audit sector decision. The key here is whether you can credibly establish a strong interest in FS (or indeed a particular area of FS - banking, insurance, pensions etc.). This is quite tricky to do at this point in your career but it is not a major deal breaker as newly (and not so newly) qualifieds do frequently make the move from mainstream audit to FS and vice versa.
Similarly, Big 4 trained professionals do often move from audit to a tax specialism post qualification (and vice versa, though less frequently). This is made possible by the broad base of an ACCA or ACA (the latter being the norm for Big 4) training contract, although if you did do a tax qualification (eg CIOT) then a sideways move to audit would be unlikely.
So in summary, use the self coaching questions I have suggested above to test and analyse your motivators. You will never get a perfect decision but you can be reassured that, in the main, the decision that you make now is not a self-limiting career one. Just aim to make the most informed choice that you can at this point in time and ride that decision through your training contract, after which you can continue to career plan strategically.
I am about to start an ACA training contract with one of the Big 4 Firms in London.
I can't decide if I should join the financial services audit or the non-financial services audit. The main objective according to some of my seniors is to pass the exam which takes up a lot of time. According to them, financial services has longer hours than usual audit which will give me less time to focus on my exams.
My question is, does it matter which sector I choose? Would I be able to transition from one to the other if I have a change of heart? Say from FS to non-FS or vice-versa.
Hello, and congratulations on your Big 4 training contract, no mean achievement!
You've done the hardest part by getting the job offer, now you have some leeway with your career choices. If you are qualifying as a chartered accountant, then there will be a broad general business base to your learning and development whichever department you choose to join. As such, ACAs, both qualified and part-qualified, make the switch between Financial Services and mainstream audit all the time so you should not think of your decision as a career-limiting one.
If you look at the job ads you will see plenty of call for financial services specialists, often with 'conversion' training for mainstream auditors and there is certainly scope to make the move vice versa too. I also think that the 'long hours' argument is a bit of a red herring. In Big 4 Audit there will be times of the year when you will be expected to work very heavy hours, regardless of the sector. Financial Services may or may not prove heavier than one of the other audit groups, it's difficult to generalise as you don't know what you are comparing it to.
So transfer possibilities and hours aside, here are some other considerations for you. Financial Services itself is a broad sector comprising banking, capital markets, investment management, insurance and pensions, and that's just for starters. If you do decide on FS, your specialism will be more precise than just 'financial services', so you may like to do some research into these segments and ascertain if they could inspire passion in you. Ultimately, finding a passion and building a deeper specialism could potentially enable you to carve out a very marketable and lucrative niche as an expert in a particular strand of FS.
The other consideration is geographical. The various sectors within FS are less geographically diverse than for general mainstream audit and consultancy work. Of course, specialist clustering doesn't just apply to FS, Silicon Valley in California and Tech City in London being two of the more obvious examples. But within FS the concentration is more pronounced, with a high proportion of jobs being centred round one of the world's top international financial centres - New York, London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Zurich and so on. Of course, these cities are not exclusive, and you can find FS roles anywhere in the world but the consideration of the cluster effect is not to be dismissed for career progression.
So the question comes down to how strong an interest you have in FS. Financial Services can offer you a fast track to roles in highly marketable positions which is great if you have a passion. If your interest is less pronounced you may be better to take a broader foundation in mainstream audit and unearth your passion from actual doing the job. It's time for reflection...
I am a Chartered Accountant (South Africa) with 10 years of audit experience (5 years at a mid tier firm and 5 years at a state audit institution). I am currently looking for a position in the Middle East (job search 9months). My problem is that none of the big 4 audit firms have got back to me. No request for further information, no telephone hr interview, nothing. The same applies to recruitment agencies, major corporates and public sector organizations.
I am a consistent high achiever, recognized within the firm (3200 employees) as a problem solver, technically sound experienced auditor. I have a wide variety of industry exposure yet it seems as though recruiters are somehow missing my CV.
I am not sure what to do, is my experience not marketable? I've tried for junior roles, I had my resume written by a professional, I tried LinkedIn, but still nothing.
My questions are;
- can a person with my qualifications and experience get into the big 4 in the Middle East
- does the market perceive public sector audit experience as inferior. If so, have I committed career suicide by spending 5 years in public sector auditing?
- How can I get noticed by big 4 recruiters
Hope you can help.
Thank you for getting in touch.
While I can’t give you specific advice on Big 4 positions in the Middle East, I can give you some general direction in making global applications. And, just to reassure you from the outset, you won’t have committed ‘career suicide’ with your public sector experience, the secret is leveraging this to support your current career strategy.
There are two main areas that I would recommend you working on:
- How you are presenting yourself via your CV and other communications
- What you can do over and above ‘paper’ (or virtual) applications
Let’s start with presentation. You need a ‘master’ CV or biography which describes your Unique Selling Proposition (what you’ve got that other candidates haven’t), your skills, experience and your achievements. But this is only a master, consolidating everything in one place. Do not be tempted to use the master to apply to specific organisations or for specific jobs. Your master should be tailored to the precise role for which you are applying, which means that you will be selective in deciding what to include and exclude. I'm wondering, by the sheer breadth of applications that you mention, if this is might be a part of the problem. It could be that you are selling yourself as a generalist instead of looking for roles that allow you to leverage your specific experience (for example particular aspects of your public sector career) for specific roles.
This is a prime opportunity to apply the maxim ‘less is more’. It’s a good discipline to keep your CV to just two sides of A4 paper (with moderate white space), as this will force you to be selective and really think hard about how your personal experiences align to the role for which you are applying. Quality beats quantity in this context, and quality means ensuring your CV reflects the words used in the job spec as well as responding to the demands specified. And don’t forget that your CV is a sales document, so you should be thinking about how it is perceived by the employer. In marketing-speak, take the employer's perspective and ask ‘what’s in it for me?’ which, in practice, translates as expressing your achievements as benefits to an organisation.
Once you've got your presentation sorted, it's time to move on to getting noticed. You are particularly seeking a Big 4 role, but you are also failing to get a bite from corporates, recruiters or the public sector. I assume that this is in respect of applying for specific roles, but you can also start to seek roles more speculatively, as well as making more strategic forays into career development. They key to both of these approaches is to build and nurture relationships. In other words: it's about who you know and how they can help you.
You have ten years of audit experience, so start with who you know now, have known, and have simply had contact with, through the full span of your career. You've been in a mid tier firm so there will be plenty of alumni (past, present and future) not to mention contacts from your client portfolio. LinkedIn is a great way to explore and develop this network. Look at your relationships, internal and external, in your public sector career and also consider friends, family and colleagues from outside your mainstay career (people you know through pursing hobbies, interests and community activities). This network will be huge and, once you have identified and plotted it, you can reach out and ask for help and support to fulfil your career ambitions. Your request is simple: you are looking for introductions into Big 4 firms (or cast your net wider) and while you might not necessarily get a recommendation or direct referral, at the very least you will get some actual names who you can contact direct as opposed to going through the anonymous application route. You might be lucky enough to get an informal meeting or even an interview, but your immediate goal should be about getting those names. These are then the contacts that you can tap for introductions, information and opportunities. The network you identify and build will be global, and even if you don't directly identify contacts in the Middle East, you should be able to trace a path into this area. Remember the Big 4 are truly global and you can rest assured that there will be somebody in the UK (just as an example) who will have the right contacts in your target destination; you just need to be patient in tracing this path.
And patience is the key here. This is a longer game than the quick fix of direct applications but, together with making your CV smarter and more savvy, by working up your network, you are building your own opportunities, taking control and giving yourself a great chance of making career progress in the direction you want.
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.
I was offered a position as a state revenue tax auditor trainee. The salary is significantly less than what I would want however I am hoping that the experience would be much more valuable. My question is would having a few years of experience in auditing be worth the sacrifices in the long run. For example it is my understanding that with a few years of government auditing experience I would be able to return to the private sector and make close to or more than 6 figures (in DC metro area) or possibly go into the federal government with a similar salary range. This is all very important because I'm a single parent and I am trying to put myself in the best position to care for my family. Auditing is something I have always wanted to do but I need to make sure that the time I will be away travelling is going to be worth the experience.
Hi there, and thank you for sharing your dilemma. I'm not sure I have all the information necessary to provide you with a fully rounded response (such as what you are currently doing or thinking of giving up), but I can certainly offer some pointers to be going on with.
On the one hand, you have highlighted a number of benefits from accepting the state revenue trainee position: auditing is something you have always wanted to do, you see it as a potential door-opener to subsequent lucrative roles as well as providing valuable and marketable experience. On the other hand you feel that the role requires a degree of sacrifice, namely, lower short term earnings, as well as the burden of extra travel.
Firstly, I would strongly advise you to test out all of the assumptions you are making. You know, factually, what the starting salary is, but what do you really know about salary progression, the reality of the working hours and the actual travel expectation (where, how much, how often)? You also need to do your due diligence on the anticipated future prospects; what evidence do you have for the forecasted high-earning career pathway and how reliable is this evidence? You can test out all of these by doing some very focussed research, asking specific questions of your recruiters, tracking down auditors who have already trodden this path (online networking is a good place to start) and requesting the opportunity to speak to current employees for their perceptions of the job and prospects.
You've cited being best equipped to care for your family as a key driver to making the right choice so this is clearly a very important decision point for you. And for this reason, I would advise you not to scrimp on your research or rely on untested assumptions.
While I can't advise you on the specific career opportunities in your particular geographical location, I can confirm that auditing can be a very strong foundation to any career. Most auditors do not fully appreciate or leverage the breadth and depth of transferable skills and experiences they develop: communication and inter-personal skills for starters, along with analytical and project management expertise, as well as the invaluable breadth of exposure to processes, systems and cultures. So, in theory, a foundation in auditing is a great door-opener to lateral career moves. But this will only work if you are able to fully leverage your 'human capital', with robust and specific understanding and articulation of these attributes.
It sounds glib, but whichever pathway you chose, it is ultimately up to you to make it work best for yourself and your family. No one particular path is a golden ticket to the perfect career. Do your research and test your assumptions but be prepared to work hard at making whichever route you finally choose work for you.
I 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.
Congratulations for your articles about 'The Resilient Auditor'. I found them very funny and full of interesting suggestions. There is a deep understanding of the audit job. Without hiding the big difficulties every auditor has to face during the year, you can motivate passionate people. I can't wait for the new 'Audit Advantage' series. The list of themes is great. I vote for 'Dealing with difficult People'. It seems to be my priority now.
Just to explain the situation I have to face just now: there is a Director in my Company, he is my peer as we are leading two different service lines, but he is some years older and he started in this Company 2 years before me (14 years!), just on establishment time. Therefore he thinks to be more than a peer for me (even if there is no defined higher level).
Occasionally he starts to scream against me or to complain about me with my team or our further peers, just like a sport. The grounds can be various and different: sometimes because I am too strong or too smart with my team, because I show too strong opposition when I disagree with my peers, because my success is due to my team and not to my own effort, because my team is too loyal and doesn’t want to criticize me, because I should work more… I don’t know. This week he wanted to have a meeting with me and I had to sit in front of him and hear about 90% of people working with me do not want to have anything more to do with me, because… I don’t know why. He wants to treat me really badly every time and if I ask him why I am still on board in a leading position, he just tell me “I am not in the position to decide!”. (This is the confirmation that he is just a peer…).
What can I do? In the past I decided to ignore him. But at the end, there is always someone who is caring about him and usually this appends when bonuses have to be defined at year end. So I am definitively losing the game. Moreover even if I try to ignore him, the way he is acting is disturbing me and I cannot avoid thinking of him and being distracted from my job and business priorities. This is damaging my quality of life.
How can I handle with him? I am not sure he can be considered a “difficult person”. Usually I am able to deal with difficult persons. This is different.
Thank you for your kind words on the Resilient Auditor series and your enthusiasm for the new programme. Your current challenge is quite complex, so I have broken it down into three areas:
- Your performance
- The behaviour of your colleague
- Your wellbeing
First up, I would suggest that you take an objective look at your own performance, particularly in the areas that he is criticizing. This will involve reviewing or gathering feedback from your line manager, your direct reports and possibly other peers. You probably already have an appraisal process but if not or you need to collate some more in depth evidence, then you should request feedback and gather facts and data that support your self evaluation (as opposed to his). The purpose of this is firstly to build your confidence and help you articulate your 'case' based on third party testaments but also to test your self assessment for any vulnerabilities that he may seize on. You sound self-assured and this exercise is effectively 'due diligence' to support and boost your self confidence by encouraging you to be personally critically reflective.
Secondly, by any measure, your colleague's behaviour is not acceptable. While there is no legal definition of workplace bullying, according to the UK's Health and Safety Executive, experts believe that bullying involves negative behaviour, targeted at an individual, repeatedly and persistently over time. I would suggest that the screaming, the criticism of you to your team and his destructive attitude, which is clearly causing you distress on an on-going basis, would all fall within the definition of workplace bullying.
To tackle workplace bullying you will need to get help. Writing to CareersinAudit and laying out the problem is your first step but you also have to seek support from within your organisation. Asking for help may not come naturally; you may feel that you are being overly sensitive or you may, deep down, question some of the criticisms that are being levelled at you or even fear reprisals as a result of whistle blowing. That is why we suggest that you first employ the critical self reflection exercise described above, this will help you more objectively appraise the situation and to make a case to yourself for the need for support.
The next step is to look at your organisation's process with regard to bullying. There may well be a formal policy in place which will provide a definition of unacceptable behaviour and take you through the steps to access support. In the absence of a formal policy, find someone at work that you trust to talk through the situation. This might be someone you know well, like your line manager or a peer, but it could equally be an HR representative or a helpline. You may find with their help that you can manage the situation informally by having a frank discussion with the perpetrator about your feelings around their behaviour towards you. Or it may be that a more formal approach is required via mediation and/or making a formal complaint.
You do need to do something. The overarching consideration here is your own wellbeing. You have said that his behaviour is disturbing you and affecting your quality of life, not to mention the potential affect on the quality of your work. You are describing precisely the sort of work place anxiety that feeds into a mounting cycle of pressure that builds to stress. If you need a reminder of the insidious effects of chronic stress on your health and wellbeing, have a look at part six of the Resilient Auditor. This is not a situation that you can afford to let lie. I hope that my suggestions have empowered you to take action, get back to a place of control and receive the career recognition you have earned and continue to deserve.
I came across your site while searching for acca related articles, I have a dilemma that I would like you to help me solve, can one break into the big four audit firms with a second class lower degree in accounting and an acca affiliate. Thank you in advance.
Thank you for visiting the site and raising this interesting question.
Despite the hype, there have always been ways to enter the Big Four outside of the mainstream routes. The obvious example is via the school leaver path, which has been available in some shape or form since the Big Four began, and is today particularly prominent as a way to avoid university debt. In the early 2000s, I led a major staff change programme at EY which involved drastically reducing the number of traditional graduate entrants (the ones with the very high academics) in favour of a much broader mix from diverse backgrounds able to contribute a wide array of experiences. We called this the 'technician' track and it included entry level accountants as well as qualified and part qualifieds from all the accounting bodies, with and without a whole mix of degrees and classifications. It sounds divisive, and I suppose it was, but it actually reflected more accurately, reality; the high academics were clearly on 'partner track' and their reduced numbers was a better reflection of the percentage who actually make it to this elite Big Four position. Today, I see many of technicians I recruited back then as senior managers and directors, indistinguishable from their high academic contemporaries who are more than likely holding the same positions.
You will find contemporary versions of this model throughout the Big Four, sometimes clearly publicised but more than likely to be found by digging deeper. As you would expect, the competition will be strong so you will need to find your personal differentiator(s). At one level this may simply be sector experience; so if you are in the fortunate position of having, for instance, an expertise in a particular areas of Financial Services that is short on supply but high on demand, then you are already in a strong position. However, due to the nature of the markets served by the Big Four, this not the norm, so you will need to look deeper to find your USP (unique selling point).
Don't do this in isolation. First make sure that you fully understand the competencies, behaviours and values that the particular firm is espousing; they may sound similar to the uninitiated but the language will be different and it is critical that you appreciate and acknowledge this in your application. And then look to your experiences and achievements and see how you can align them to support and exceed their requirements. Don't limit this to your work experiences; think broadly about extra-curricular activities and events to demonstrate your high-performing mindset or entrepreneurial skill-set.
And one last tip. Relationships with current employees can be highly valuable in helping you break into the Big Four arena. They will have a good knowledge of their service line, know what recruitment strategies are in place and understand what a differentiator might look like. Further, they are likely to be highly incentivised to help you as, in most cases, very generous introduction bonuses are on offer for employees (and alumni!) who bring in new starters. So get virtual networking - you could make some very influential new friends!
I am an audit professional with 9 years of experience in internal auditing. Currently, I am working with a multinational bank in their Internal Audit department for the past six years. I have received an offer from another Multinational bank for the role of Operations and risk control - SOX Compliance. While all the aspects of the offer are good, I am apprehensive about the prospects of the role:
1. Is it a right move considering that my current role within Internal Audit has more expanded scope as it gives me exposure to all the operations of the organization compared to the prospective SOX role which will be restricted to SOX Compliance related activities?
2. What is the future of Sarbanes-Oxley considering that there has been criticism and discussion around the success/failure of the law?
Thus, should I accept the offer of SOX role? What would you do? Looking forward to your advice.
If I was you, I would go right back to the drawing board. You can't make this decision unless you are clear about what you want from your career, both now and in the future. In some respects the future of Sarbanes-Oxley is a red herring, as it can only seriously impact your career if you paint yourself into a corner with specialist labelling.
So, you have two roles to consider. Where did the SOX offer come from? Were you head-hunted? If so you need to understand what it is about your professional profile that the recruiter thought was a good fit. And what do you think about their evaluation? Have they properly identified your strengths and anticipated your interests and aspirations? Or did you go out seeking the SOX role of your own accord? What was in your mind with regard to making a career move right now? What were you looking for in terms of role content and future prospects? The answers to these questions will help you focus on getting to the nub of what you really want and need.
You are already aware of the obvious difference between the two roles, the SOX position being more specialised than the broader base of general internal audit. But the comparison doesn't stop there. What else is on offer in the SOX role? Is it essentially a promotion? Does it bring more management and leadership responsibilities compared to your current role? If it does then, despite its perceived specialist nature, it might bring you wider, more advanced transferable skills and development opportunities.
Also consider your attitude to risk. It may be perceived 'safer' to stay where you are, but how do you feel about safety and stability? Can you see yourself doing the role you are doing in five years time? If not, what would you like to be doing and how would the SOX position align with these future aspirations. And look again closely at the details of the SOX role. What is attractive about it: prospects, content, reward? You could consider how your current employer might replicate these benefits, either in your present department or with a role transition. You can do a fair bit of due diligence yourself but ultimately you will have to take some risk by having an open conversation with regard to your career aspirations.
There's quite a bit to think about in making your decision, so don't be pressurised into moving quickly. Take your time, do your research and some personal reflection and ultimately go with your heart as well as your mind!
I 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 qualified as an ACA about 10 years ago and more recently sat the Institute of Internal Auditors exams and am now also an MIIA. I have worked for the last 10 years in a variety of audit and risk roles in the financial services industry and for the last 5 years as an internal auditor for a bank.
Whilst I enjoy my current role I don't think that it will be right for me going forward. I now have a young family and the travel requirements plus the fixed hours and lack of opportunity to work from home make my current role less than ideal.
I would like to pursue other roles but am unsure how to approach a change in career path. I would ideally like to fall back on one of my qualifications and possibly work for a small local accountancy firm but lack any experience so worry that I would not be an attractive candidate for them or that I would enjoy the role as it would be completely new to me. Any guidance you could provide would be most welcome.
I also read in one of your replies the possibility of doing research but wondered what you meant by this.
You raise some interesting and topical issues around new ways of, and attitudes to, twenty first century working. I'm going to start with your last point as it's ambiguity has touched on an area that I haven't been asked about before.
You refer to my alluding to 'doing research'; what I normally mean by this is researching roles, jobs and employers by means of formal or informal internships, work-shadowing and networking. All of these are very relevant to your current situation and are a vital part of your due diligence when exploring potential career paths, as well as building new relationships which, in turn, strengthen your professional networks.
However, I did wonder whether you might be referring to 'research' in an academic sense? So for the record, I thought I might add some thoughts from my own recent (and ongoing) experience of doing a master's degree.
For me, this return to academia was as a direct result of a consultancy project I undertook. While the project didn't explicitly require research training, I felt that I would have benefitted from more formal experience of data collection and analysis techniques, among other pertinent skills. The master's is a very flexible, part-time, work-based, work-related degree which means that everything I study is linked back to my day to day work. And that in turn means that every single module I study adds value to me as it directly contributes to my credentials as a researcher and consultant.
Now, I'm not suggesting that you embark on such an academic pathway at this point in your career but you might want to consider some aspect of part-time, flexi-study to contribute to a potential portfolio career. You have a marketable mix of experience and qualifications, with a strong core base and an element of specialist expertise . There is no reason why you shouldn't find a role in a small accountancy practice, albeit at non-qualified level while you get up to scratch with your general accounting and tax core skills. Alternatively, you could self-employ, doing book-keeping and tax returns - you will be surprised how hard-wired these skills are! In parallel you could look at a work-based, self-funding study or project to use your auditing specialism - which (as it has for me) can bring speaking, consultancy and training opportunities. These are just a couple of examples of how a portfolio career might use your existing skill-base while meeting your work-life balance needs.
You might also consider lecturing, tutoring or teaching auditing, either at an academic institution or as a freelancer, full or part time, and potentially as a route to doing paid research.
Of course, the other advantage of a portfolio career is that you are keeping your options open - trying before you are buying - or in this case, investing in a different career track. Portfolios are another way of performing deeper due diligence, managing the risk, and increasing the potential rewards of committing to significant career change. Even if you don't feel the portfolio route is for you at this point , consider the other suggestions on a standalone basis - training, lecturing, consultancy and general practice, as options which could fit with your work-life balance.
I'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’m thinking about doing a degree in accounting and finance. Is this as well regarded by the big 4 firms later when I want a training contract as a degree in a more traditional academic subject? Someone has suggested that such a degree could be seen as a ‘soft option’.
Thank you for raising this very relevant and intriguing question. It's also a topical area too, bearing in mind the dynamic academic times in which we operate.
And I can confirm that the assertion of 'accounting and finance' being seen as a soft option by the big 4, historically, has some veracity. But only historically, and even then, it's a perception particular to certain geographical regions, namely the UK.
The academic and accounting landscape of the twenty first century is very different place. Big 4 firms are now actively engaging with a variety of academic institutions to sponsor accounting and finance degrees in a plethora of different ways, so clearly they are voting with their feet as far as the 'relevant' degree is concerned.
However, many students will not take the this route and the traditional pathway of 'non-relevant' degree and training contract is still highly popular as it keeps open a wide range of options which can be imperative at such a formative time in a student's professional life. For this reason, the age-old advice of using passion and aptitude to choose your degree subject is as relevant today as it ever was. For the big 4, you will need a first or 2i so you should select a degree subject where you are most likely to achieve this. This is not just a hard measure; if you have passion for your academic area you are in a much better position to portray this attribute convincingly at interview. In other words, talking animatedly about your studies can convey much about your potential professional enthusiasm too.
In theory, a wide range of degree subjects could be acceptable, but in practice, a graduate of a subject far removed from accountancy, let's say fine art, will have a challenging job aligning their degree interest with their career interest. But that is an extreme example. With most of the more traditional subjects - say history or biology - it's not difficult to make a strong case for transferable skills (and passion). But also consider the quality of the academic institution you choose too. The concept of 'facilitating' (competitive) and 'recruiting' universities could be relevant and a degree from the former has the potential to give you an edge.
The advice above is specifically for big 4 careers. As you work down the (size) league tables the picture changes. At the other end of the continuum, a local firm is more likely to consider a business-related or accounting degree is as a pre-requisite for a career in accountancy. At the mid tier level you will see a gradual evolution from the big firm stance to the smaller firm position.
So all in all, do your career due diligence as thoroughly as you can. Don't embark on a degree in accounting and finance unless you are sure this is the right career direction for you, and choose a degree which gives you the best chance of achieving at the highest level and exhibiting the most passion!
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 have had four years of internal audit experience in one of the big 4 firms and am effectively bilingual in Mandarin and English. I am looking to move out of the big 4 as the workload is increasing at an exponential rate, which doesn't not commensurate with the pay. Would you have any suggestions on what other career options can I undertake other than internal audit? I find myself increasingly jaded with the number of hours having to be put in and the unreasonable demands of bosses."
What you have identified here is that work life balance is one of your core, fundamental personal values. This is a really good start to taking control of your career strategy and particularly valuable as you've identified this at an early stage.
You don't mention your qualifications, so I'll keep the career advice quite general.
Start by taking stock of what you've got: the kudos of big 4 experience, exposure to the systems and cultures of a broad mix of businesses and two languages. That's a very strong career base and your next step is to break these down into transferable skills and experience. So for example, the big 4 experience might mean that you have blue chip technical experience, as well as proving that you can deliver under pressure to the highest standard. The internal audit experience translates into team work, communication skills, expert knowledge of systems and business processes. And so on. You need to spend some time on this but you will certainly come up with a very marketable list of transferable skills.
The next step is to figure out the careers and/or employers who would value these skills. That's quite an overwhelming task, so one place to start is with your own interests and preferences. From your long and very rich list of skills and experiences, what are your own personal top ten? You won't find a career which exactly tallies to this but it does provide a starting point.
What you might discover from this exercise is that internal audit is actually a good fit! If this does transpire then you might consider changing role or changing employer to get round the work life balance issue.
What else might you consider? Well you haven't given me a lot of information to go on but here are some general considerations. If maintaining a career in business appeals to you, have you looked at general management and/or more specialist compliance roles? If you really want to capitalise on your two languages you might consider translation or an interpreter role. It also depends on your financial needs: can you afford to retrain or invest in some additional learning? You might consider teaching, lecturing or research.
As you can see there is huge scope but it really depends on what you really, really want to do (and can afford to do) and to determine this, you have to do the ground work first.
One final thought though. Beware of jumping ship too hastily. You've clearly invested a considerable amount in your career to date and if you are still fulfilled by the work and fit into the culture, it may be worth talking to your line manager and/or HR to see what the firm can do to alleviate the work life balance issue. Possibilities might be a sideways move, a reduction in hours or a change of portfolio. You never know until you ask!
"I am an ACCA finalist and I will be writing my final papers soon. I don't have any relevant work experience yet. I want to know if prospective employers (especially the Big 4 accounting firms) will be interested in first time passes in all ACCA papers and if they will also be interested in my scores. I have a bachelor's degree in accounting. How much do these issues really matter in terms of getting a job?"
First time passes and high scores are the icing on the cake. Nice to have, but they only count if the cake they are on is top quality!
So, let's take them in order. A degree in accountancy demonstrates a solid interest in, and commitment to, the profession. A good result in your degree is important since degree categories are broad and anything less than a 2i will raise eyebrows as regards perceived dedication to accounting study. With your ACCA results, it is less clear cut. There is no doubt that first time passes will impress, but scrutiny of detailed scores is less likely.
Note that the Big 4, and some of the mid-tier firms, will also look at A level grades. Many candidates get screened out of graduate training contracts on UCAS scores alone. With an ACCA qualification, I assume you would not be applying for entry at this level, but if you did, then check the firms' individual websites for their current UCAS point requirements.
So, there's your icing; strong A levels, a 2i degree in accounting and first time ACCA passes, together they all present a robust image of hard working, academically strong, fledging accountant.
Now for the cake. You won't get far on even the strongest academics without a rounded CV. That is, a CV that supports your interest in the profession, preferably with some relevant work experience (unpaid is fine) and evidence of transferable skills. Use your wider experience at work and college to demonstrate your work ethic, conscientious attitude and ability to self-manage. Further proof of interpersonal skills is crucial. While undoubtedly these will be tested at interview, to even get to interview stage you'll need examples on your CV. Typically any customer facing experience helps, from any and all areas of your life and experience.
So while academics are important, make sure that you have some relevant accountancy exposure and wider work experience to demonstrate that vital rounded skill set.
"I am an ACCA affiliate with no relevant work experience. I completed my qualification almost a year ago but have had no luck landing a job in audit/accounts/finance. Ideally, I would love to work in audit mainly because of the exposure it would provide me. I am currently based in Pakistan. I have even tried to go to the Gulf countries but the job market there doesn't seem to be looking up either. My greatest handicap seems to be the fact that I do not have a Bachelors degree, even though ACCA offers the opportunity to complete a thesis, which on achieving a pass mark results in the Oxford Brookes degree in Applied Accounting. I recently considered pursuing an MSc Accountancy and Finance from Birmingham City University. I would like to know if this would be a worthwhile investment given my current situation. Also, would it improve my prospects of starting a career in audit, even though I possess ACCA. I have great communication skills, recently scoring a 8.5 overall in IELTS Academic. How would you suggest I go about starting my career should I choose not to pursue the MSc program?"
I would be inclined to steer you away from further professional or academic qualification at this point in your career. What you really need is some solid hands-on experience to demonstrate that you can apply your learning to practical effect and to prove to yourself that accounting is the right career for you.
In lieu of a full time, permanent, paid role which is the ultimate objective, I would strongly advise you to get some relevant field experience. This could be anything and everything, from helping a family member with some book-keeping, to an unpaid internship at a accountancy practice to shadowing a member of the finance team in a local business. And there is no reason for you to look further afield than your immediate neighbourhood. The best thing about accounting and finance skills is that they are universally in demand; every organisation needs them - education and healthcare as much as professional practice and corporate business. Granted, you may not get paid to begin with, but you do already have valuable skills that can make a contribute to any organisation.
Once you have some tangible practical experience to supplement your CV you can use this to establish your worth to a recruiter. You will be able to describe on-the job achievements and articulate how you have added value or made a difference to an organisation. An example, might be your communication skills, which on paper are clearly of the highest quality. Hands-on practical experience will allow you to demonstrate on your CV how you have applied them in a work environment, to practical effect, to the benefit of the business.
In addition, you will have a much more convincing case for choosing a particular career path, based on real, hard job experience. In due course you may decide to return to studying but until you have proved to yourself and potential employers by actually having a go at doing the job, that accounting and finance is for you, then I would advise against further investment in study at this stage.
"I have been in HR recruitment for about 18 years, recently I had some exposure to recruiting Accounting Professionals. There is one aspect of Accounting that has caught my interest, Risk & Assurance. I would like to get your advice about which is the best route to pursue a career in Risk & Assurance. I am considering going to graduate school to get my Masters of Accounting because it opens up the possibility of getting on with a Big 4. I also know recruiters who work for a couple of the Big 4 organizations, I was wondering if I could approach the recruiters about possibly having a discussion with one of their managers about the possibility of bringing someone in with little to no accounting experience. I have been told this has happened before.
Which route would you consider the best route. I realize I will have to take a substantial pay cut either way. I am okay with this, but wanted to make sure I am putting myself in a situation that I can be successful."
Thanks for getting in touch and for raising this interesting question about transitioning to a career in Risk & Assurance.
As an in house big four recruiter, I did, on a fairly regular basis, encounter mature candidates seeking training contracts for the more traditional graduate entry positions. And I did indeed recruit them, and while I would say their search for a position was no easier than conventional entry into the big four, I would not say it was necessarily any harder either.
As with graduate entry, the big four will be looking for a very strong academic record (particularly at A level, 280 UCAS points being typical). While they may be prepared to relax slightly, the number of points for a mature candidate, you'd still be expected to demonstrate robust educational attainment.
Beyond academics, you will need to vigorously justify your career move, demonstrating that you've done your due diligence and really understand the demands of a role in Risk & Assurance. Be prepared to map across transferable skills and experience from your recruitment career to your proposed career in accountancy. Competencies such as communication, relationship building skills, team work and working under pressure are all highly convertible but you'll need to find a way of demonstrating, through practical anecdote, what you will bring to the new job. In fact, I would say that the latter is probably more important that taking a post graduate programme. Indeed, a master's in accountancy would indicate a strong commitment to the career change but it is a pretty costly investment with no guarantee that you'd meet the big four entry criteria.
And of course, the big four are not the only purveyors of a career in assurance. You'd be wise to consider mid tier firms as well as internal, as opposed to external, audit careers and qualifications in the public sector and/or industry. So, as I'm ever wont to say, you need to get your story straight and be able to articulate robustly why you have chosen to change careers, what you expect to get from your new career and what you are bringing to a new potential employer.
I think you are on the right lines by using your current network to do some due diligence and also build some relationships in assurance. While not openly acknowledged, targeted in house relationship building can sometimes be a method of short circuiting the traditional recruitment process, and if not, it will at least add to your invaluable sources of background knowledge.
"I trained with a big 4 accountancy practice, qualifying in 2010 with first time passes and an excellent reputation within the firm. I trained in the internal audit department and to be honest never really enjoyed the work but stayed until Manager simply because I knew I was in line to be promoted – in hindsight I wish I had left earlier. I always felt a disconnect between my studies and what I was doing at work and since then struggled to get a role in a more technical accountancy position simply due to a lack of practical experience. The realisation of this led to me getting depressed about being stuck in a career I didn’t want to do. I eventually secured a move into a commercial finance role at a plc retailer which essentially proved to be little more than data entry and analysis and I left after 9 months. This time proved to be a bit of an eye opener for me and I have come to realise my long term goals lie in working as a sole trader accountant. On that basis I re-joined my big 4 firm (taking a demotion from my previous manager grade) in the tax team and am currently completing CTA. However again this is not giving me the skill set I am looking for. I have been very light on work and what I have done is all advisory based. I’m not really sure where to turn or what to do. I feel like starting my whole career over, I’ve no kids as yet and could realistically do that but I want to regain my drive and enthusiasm which seem to have deserted me over the last 18months."
There are so many pluses here, I genuinely urge you not to despair. First up, you are only six years into your career and that really is the embryonic phase! There are still tonnes of opportunities for you to experiment, sidestep and indeed, diversify; to get you on to a path you feel is more 'you'. Indeed, it might help your mindset to point out that what you are going through is a normal career pattern for the 21st century. Albeit, you've had to do quite a bit of soul searching in a short period of time, but this wouldn't be un-typical for, say, the first ten years of a professional career.
What you do have in abundance at this point, is lots of experience of what you don't want, and this is a very firm foundation to make some really powerful strategic career decisions. So my first piece of advice is to really capitalise on the knowledge and experience that you've earned. Apply your analytic and critical reflection skills to a deep consideration of what you did and didn't like about the roles and the organisations you have encountered thus far. Be specific, so if you are less than enamoured with the big 4 culture, ask yourself what exactly is it about the culture? Is it specific to your office? Your service line? Is it the people, and if so what is it about them, their behaviours, attitudes, ways of doing things?
Having established what you don't want, use this as a benchmark to identify what you do. Think laterally here and use your creative skills to conceive an image of something approaching your ideal career. What would you be doing on a day to day basis? Where would that be taking you? Who would you be working with? What skills would you be employing? What level of personal stretch would you be experiencing? And so on...
You've already identified professional practice and tax as areas of focus. Now break down these options and see how they map across to your ideal career. Once again you need to be very specific. If its general practice that appeals, it's hardly surprising that big 4 tax doesn't tick your boxes.
Reading between the lines, and picking up on the references to your technical interest and expertise in your studies, I wonder if it is technical stretch that really appeals. If so, unless you are in a very specialised niche, you are unlikely to get too much of that as a sole practitioner. Other considerations, more in alignment with your preferences, might be a technical internal role in a bigger firm or a teaching or research position.
I hope I've managed to reinvigorate your enthusiasm. You really do have it all to play for. You can afford to sit tight in a solid career position, for the moment. Take the time to reflect and do some strategic planning, drawing on all your experiences so far, and you really are in a strong position to make some very exciting career plans.
"I am CPA working in the USA but want to relocate. I started with a Big 4 and then transitioned to industry. I have 7 years of audit (financial statement audit, internal audit, and SOX implementation and audit), and 4 years of healthcare acquisition services. My work is interesting but I would like to relocate to Australia or New Zealand. I am in my late 40s. I will need sponsorship to obtain a work visa. I would not mind consulting but don't want to be caught working 15hr/days. I have some experience in trading floor audit (with a power company) and find the operations fascinating. What is the best way to start a solid job search that can truly yield results? I am ready to move but won't do it without a job. Thank you."
Clearly, a life changing decision and, as you indicate, not one to be taking lightly. I think you need to start by being very clear on your principal drivers here. What is the most important aspect of this major change for you? Is it primarily about the experience of living and working abroad? If so, how important will the work itself be? Are you considering taking anything within a reasonable salary range, or are there certain career paths that you prefer to explore? What about location? Why have you chosen Australia/New Zealand? How do these countries fulfil your aspirations? Could any other locations meet your requirements?
It's crucial to really understand these drivers. First, to ensure that the direction you take is likely to meet your aspirations. And secondly, because you will need to have a strong, watertight story to convince potential employers that you are worth the risk and reward of investing in.
Once you've completed a due diligence exercise on your own motivations, your job search research could begin with the Big 4. I say research because I'm not just thinking of working directly for the big 4 per se, but as much about accessing, more broadly, the international client bases they serve.
There is a plethora of ways to deepen your search, from making direct contact from the USA with their international desks, to joining discussion groups online, contacting international agencies or following leads from the CareersinAudit site. Or you could, of course, make direct contact with the Australian offices themselves. Maybe consider a vacation to check out the life style as well as develop some direct face to face contacts for your network.
Whichever option you choose, I must reinforce the advice that you need to get your story straight before you start your job search. Be sure you can clearly articulate what you are looking for and why, and how you will reassure an employer that you'll not pose a risk. And, crucially, how you are going to satisfy yourself that your ultimate decision will have the best possible chance of meeting your expectations.
"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 found out about your column through Simon Wright on LinkedIn. I am hoping you will be able to help me too!
As a little bit of background, I am ACA qualified from PwC and then worked in Internal audit at EY. Having been on a career break for 2.5 years, I am now looking to make a move into Tax. I am most interested in personal tax planning (eg high net worth individuals) and returns but also want to gain experience in corporate tax. What would you advise as being the best route to undertake in terms of gaining experience in tax?
My concern lies in whether I should apply for graduate training schemes at accountancy practice firms in tax or should I be making an "experienced hire" application with my very limited and rusty tax knowledge?
Another question I had was around whether I should undertake exams such as Chartered Tax Advisor exams privately while I am making my applications. These, as you are probably aware, are very expensive and ideally, I would like to be sponsored for them.
Any advice would be most appreciated! Thank you in advance" - Ayesha
What I understand is that you are in a position to make a significant investment to regenerate your career. Ideally you would join an organisation at post-qualified level, on a commensurate salary but if necessary you would also be prepared to start at the bottom and re-train as a tax specialist at graduate entry level.
To be able and willing, to consider such a broad continuum of options, puts you in a pretty unique position. There are a lot of possibilities here and you need to do some research and hard thinking to find the best solution to fit your own particular needs and preferences. Here are some suggestions:
- Get clear on why you are choosing tax. Get it clear to yourself and how you articulate it to others. What exactly do you want from a career in tax that you can’t get from your training and experience to date? Be very specific. Differentiate between personal tax and corporate and also compliance versus more strategic consultancy work. Each of these specialisms offer quite different career experiences.
- I highly recommend testing out your thoughts on this by getting some hands-on experience. This could be via work place shadowing, a short unpaid secondment or by finding a mentor. Approach contacts from your Big 4 network (past and present) and through the ICAEW. But also explore beyond the Big 4. Many of your former colleagues will have moved to different types of organisations and you need to be aware of the options in industry as well as different size firms.
- This research will not only test out your perceptions of tax as the best career fit but it will deepen your knowledge and market intelligence and raise even more questions! It will also strengthening your network of potential mentors and contacts.
- And when you’ve reached this point – recognising your own needs and motivations, understanding the opportunities and options and created a powerful resource bank of knowledge and contacts - then you can make an informed decision which minimises your personal investment and risk.
"More of my team are working from home and I feel that as a result I am getting lumbered with fielding more enquiries and sorting out more problems. Communicating with them is also proving more time consuming. I can't help feeling resentful, especially as my workload is already very heavy. What should I do?"
Communication is key here.
Open up this topic for ongoing discussion with your line manager. You are looking for formal acknowledgement of differences between the roles and responsibilities of office-based and home-based workers. Once this has been officially acknowledged you can then negotiate on reward and recognition (salary, benefits, status etc), additional support and/or compensatory change in other parts of your role.
This discussion will also highlight to management, the need for an organisational strategy regarding home-working. You may find that they are unaware of the practical differences between the two roles and they may choose to look at alternative ways of tacking some of these issues. Examples might be:
• Is it practical or even possible for home-workers to deal with the problem solving aspects of the of the job?
• Is there another or better way of fielding enquiries, sorting non-routine problems?
• Does department need additional or a different type of resource?
In the meantime, you can take the lead on a team communication strategy that can give you some immediate relief. For each team member document, agree and circulate the following communication information:
- Days/times not contactable
- Preferred means of communication – mobile, landline, email, instant message or other
- Target response time
- Arrangement for contact regarding ‘urgent’ business matters and definition of what constitutes ‘urgency’
- Alternative named contact for specific projects/functions of role
"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.
"I am an ACA graduate who has been with my current firm for just over a year. I would not say that I am unhappy but I know that once qualifying I would need to move in order to progress.
I have recently been approached by another firm who have offered me a similar role within external audit. Whilst I believe the working environment of a smaller firm would suit me, the opportunities to progress and gain more experience would be better, I am not sure it is the right move just now.
I have had a career change prior to my current role and feel I need to make the right decision for a longer term career move next. Whilst I enjoy external audit I also feel there are other disciplines better aligned to my personality perhaps, and I should qualify with one firm and then look to make move.
It would be great if you could give me advice on qualifying with one firm? Is it best to move after being in my current role longer?"
It’s fair to say that, usually, although not always, it is better to complete your contract with your training firm. Why? Well clearly there are the obvious aspects such as loyalty to the firm, evidence of robust decision-making and sheer steadfastness. Don’t underestimate how it ‘looks’, both inside and outside the organisation and the longer term impact this can have on your career.
But even more importantly, training contracts are designed over specific periods (usually three years) and it’s only over the complete contract term that you can truly experience and benefit from the full range of development opportunities. Completing your entire contract enables you to professionally develop, build momentum and fully leverage your training opportunity, without the stop/start of dealing with the challenges of a new environment, culture, team and set of processes.
In your particular case, all of this is reinforced by the fact that you’ve already made a career change.
The perceived opportunities to progress quicker with a smaller firm may seem appealing right now, but with all due respect, you are only a year into contract. At this point you can’t fully appreciate the bigger picture of your training contract; you don’t know how you’ll evolve over the next two years, how your preferences might change as you build a new skill set.
Of course there will always be exceptions to the rule. For instance if you find yourself in a situation where you are uncomfortable with the organisational cultural or values, where you need a different type of study support or where you are truly unhappy. As this isn’t one of them, I’d advise you to stick.
"I’ve been looking for a new career challenge for some time, as I’ve been in my current job for nearly three years. However, I’ve stayed put because of the downturn. With all this talk about ‘green shoots’ and ‘increased confidence’, I wonder whether now might be a good time to make the leap? What if I do make the leap and then realize it’s not the job for me? Would I stand a chance of getting my old job back? Am I being too rash in this current environment?"
Back in March of last year, I answered a similar question in this very column. Twelve months later, my advice is the same: beware of the knee-jerk career move! Reporting from my position as a career coach right on the frontline, I can report that, despite the proverbial economic green shoots, many accountants are still facing the toughest market they’ve ever seen in their careers.
Of course, progressive moves are being made right now by accountants all over the globe. It can be done, but it’s tough. Securing the best role, the one that’s right for you, right now, will depend on your unique mix of experience, skills, requirements and mobility, as well as your preferred industry sector, discipline and level. But generally speaking the odds are against you. Less opportunity, more candidates, intense completion and the probability of finding your optimum role is still quite low.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no hope at all. You need to decide exactly what it is you want from your next career move. You’re looking for a challenge and you must define this more precisely. Using your current role, take stock of where you are in your professional development and where you’d like to be in 1-2 and 3-5 years.
Draw up a personal SWOT (strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and use this to identify areas where you’re already proficient and those you’d like to develop.
Think ‘soft skills’ such as leadership, influencing and problem solving, as well as considering your technical and industry ambitions. And be as specific as you can. Once you’ve completed this exercise you will be able to articulate your aspirations and identify your skills gaps. This will give you a personal blueprint to take an informed approach to career planning. Now you can start to research roles that better align with your personal requirements.
As for going back to your job if the career move doesn’t work out, it’s possible, though improbable. If you leave on good terms with your employer and they rate you highly and still have capacity in the role you left, they may consider bringing you back in. but that’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and the chances are they won’t all hold. Think of it from your employer’s point of view. Nothing will have changed – you’ll still be wanting a challenge.
Having said that, if you perform your personal careers audit and take informed action, you won’t end up needing to go back to your old job. In the meantime, you might like to consider how you could work with your current employer in partnership to create a win-win career plan. Go back to your soul-searching on the specifics of your next challenge. Could any or all of these aspirations be met in your current position?
Talk to your employer about specific development opportunities. Could you take on some more responsibility? Build a new skill? Gain exposure to a new sector? Even if you can’t fulfill all aspirations, you may be able to meet some of them and continue to sustain your professional development- albeit at a less accelerated speed.
So my advice would be to use, in tandem, this combined career advancement strategy:
- Define your specific personal requirements and begin your search for opportunities that match them.
- Work with your employer on devising a plan for your professional development.
Use the two together to ensure you are fully equipped and in the best place to seize the right opportunity when it arises, while steadily moving forward in your professional progression.
"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 feel like my new line manager is undermining me. She started off criticising me in front of just one person, but now seems to be humiliating me in front of the whole team, raising her voice and making sarcastic remarks. She is always very short with me and doesn’t always share vital pieces of information. Is this bullying? I was so upset the other day that I ran into a meeting room and cried. Is there anything I can do before I complain to HR? And I’m worried about this backfiring on me if do decide to make a complaint."
Recent allegations at No 10 Downing Street have put workplace bullying firmly in the spotlight in recent months. What we have learnt from the global media coverage is that there is no universally agreed definition of what constitutes workplace bullying. And, that it is depressingly widespread. Trade union, Unison claims a third of us experience bullying at work, while The National Bullying Helpline states that 1 in 4 allege they are being bullied, and 1 in 8 are affected by bullying, in the workplace.
We’ve seen bullying dismissed as merely the ‘robust management' of hard times or as a particular type of tough management style: ‘it’s just the way he is’. However, there are some common threads, namely: humiliation, giving offence, personal attack, and abuse of power.
To decide whether your experience goes beyond robust management and constitutes bullying, consider these best practise principles for workplace feedback:
- Non-personal. Focus on actions or behaviour that can be changed as opposed to personality traits. For example, telling someone they are incompetent or lazy is a personal attack on their character.
- Specific. Illustrate with practical examples of behaviour. Generalisations or inferences should be avoided. Talking about ‘bad attitude’ is not specific enough to enable change.
- Constructive. Aim to help improve behaviour or performance, linking to professional development and individual or business objectives. This is as opposed to causing discomfort, anxiety or stress.
- Non-judgemental, factual, timely, private and confidential
Does your treatment violate any or all of these principles? From what you’ve described and the emotive words you’ve used: undermining, criticising, humiliating, as well as the emotional effect it has had on you, I’m guessing that you would conclude that this is bullying.
So what can you do?
It should be reasonably straight forward to unobtrusively access your organisation’s policies and procedures. Ask HR, download from the intranet or check out your Staff Handbook. Familiarise yourself with the Anti-Bullying Code and Grievance & Disciplinary policies. You’ll understand your rights, as well as the process, should you ultimately decide to take a formal route.
However, in the meantime, there are some effective actions you can take to help relieve your anxiety and actively manage the current situation:
- Seek support. Find someone to confide in. A friend, family member or colleague – someone who can provide a listening ear and help ease the pressure. An independent perspective can provide a different dimension, help you organise your thoughts and plan a way through. Some employers offer a free confidential counselling process which is completely independent from HR. Or you can talk to The National Bullying Helpline on 0845 22 55 787.
- Go direct. Talk to your line manager. Book some uninterrupted time and tell her how you feel and how her approach is affecting you. Do not accuse her of ‘bullying’. And aim to be cool, calm and unemotional. Be specific: describe precise instances and how they have upset you. And request that the two of you work in partnership in exploring other communication strategies. It may seem hard to believe, but it could be that your manager does not have any awareness of her effect on you.
- Keep records. If you do end up going down the official route you will need written records of times, places and specific incidents. Be factual and objective but also record the impact on you. Start now as diarising can be emotionally beneficial in itself.
Bullying in the workplace takes many forms and each incident can seem unimportant in isolation. But there will a cumulative effect which can impact your mental and physical well-being. Take some time to work through my recommendations and see what change you can affect. But do protect yourself and seek the help of your HR department if you don’t see an improvement in the situation.
"I am currently an ACCA finalist and have recently taken my final exam and now am awaiting results. I have always work in commerce and industry with solid experience in management accounts but have always had a passion for auditing and forensic accounting. I have applied for many audit jobs but seem to be rejected for most of these. I’m finding the market quite tough at the moment and even harder to break in to the audit field. Can you help?"
In theory this should be quite a straightforward career transition, but as you’ve discovered in tough market conditions, employers ‘play it safe’ and are less likely to take a chance on a cross-disciplinary move.
To maximise your chances of success, be prepared to invest time and energy into the following areas:
- Understand what potential employers really want. Don’t make assumptions but do some first-hand research. Recruitment agencies plus online groups and forums will provide valuable intelligence. Supplement this with direct contact with potential employers and their employees. Consider informal ‘off the record’ talks, work-shadowing and even getting yourself a mentor. And use modelling to really get to grips with what counts. What are the requisite skills, behaviours, characteristics and competencies?
- Look hard at your own experience and skills to identify the transferable components relevant to this particular career move. Do your own skills audit, together with a gap analysis and come up with a plan to fill that gap.
- Become a consummate communicator. What value are you going to bring to an audit role? Can you articulate your ‘business case’ to a potential employer? Use your experience in commerce and industry to really stand out against competing candidates. If you are thinking that this is all about your Unique Selling Proposition – you would be right! Check out Discovering your USP.
- Finally, you need a strong and convincing personal ‘case’ for your career move. In other words you need to persuade employers that this is not just a ‘whim’ but a properly researched career strategy. Don’t underestimate this. Conveying your passion and authenticity could prove critical in managing employers’ risk concerns.
"I work from home three days a week, but my boss keeps bothering me on my days off. At first it was the odd five minutes, which I didn’t mind, but now it’s pretty regular and it’s getting difficult to juggle with my other commitments. I’m worried that if I make a fuss it will put my job at risk. Any ideas?"
Clearly a frustrating situation for you, but from the perspective of your boss and indeed the organisation as a whole, then the challenge is likely to be even more exacting. Think about the sheer size of the transition for an employer, from the familiarity of the one-size-fits-all traditional full time office-based work week - to the myriad of flexible working options.
And that is why it is incumbent on you to educate and communicate. Whether you enlist the support of your HR department or go direct to your boss, here are some areas where you need to agree ground rules:
- Does your boss appreciate which days you are working, and which days you are not? Make it easy by implementing aide-memoirs to remind him and flagging up with appropriate telephone and email alerts.
- Agree criteria around contact on days off. If it’s to deal with an ‘emergency’, then you need to define together, what constitutes an emergency.
- Implement ‘back-up’ for days off. That is, in your absence the first port-of-call for your boss. For many matters cover could be provided by designated support staff who can debrief you on your next working day. For other projects, a team member or peer could be your back-up.
Above all adopt a positive and constructive approach to your communications. Your overtures can be framed around getting in place the best working practices for the organisation, with of course the ancillary benefits of meeting individual expectations – that is your own, and those of your boss.
"I sit next to my boss who has a booming voice, a loud sneeze and often eats loudly at his desk. I’ve tried making light of this, but he’s not taking the hint. What can I do?"
Move desks? Sounds a little trite but it really is one option! There’s a certain amount of subjectivity here with regard to personal tolerance levels. What you find unacceptable may be within the bounds of normal to others. A move could put him in the company of like-minded colleagues.
But if a move isn’t on the cards then you are going to have to be more direct. You could tackle it from the point of view of your own concentration levels. So rather than getting into the delicate area of his personal habits ask him to help you with your ‘problem’. Enlist his help in improving the acoustics of your work area, minimising distractions, removing potential disturbances – like taking lunch elsewhere. Play on your own delicate sensibilities in working towards a solution which will ultimately benefit the business.
"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.
"I'm at a career crossroads and don’t know where to turn. I'm a qualified Chartered Accountant who has circa 6 years post qualified experience in internal audit and risk management. I have worked predominantly in industry. I have been giving a lot of thought over the last year to move away from audit into another field - the question is what? I have the opportunity to move into a big four firm and specialise in IT/Security advisory, which will be a move away from audit.
My concern is whether I want to go down the consultancy route as I have been told by others coming from the Big Four that there is an expectation to sell, have no work life balance and have excessive work loads. I'm worried about making the wrong move and as I have two short moves on my CV (though no fault of my own) I need to make the right decision.
Help! Is there any advice on working in the Big Four and/or IT/Security Advisory? What should I expect?"
Full marks for taking the time to reflect on this career move holistically, as part of your bigger life picture. Regular readers will have heard me caution against the ‘knee jerk’ career move – the temptation to grab the opportunity that presents itself. It’s always sensible to be circumspect in this situation but with two shorter moves on your CV, you are right to be extra judicious regarding your next move.
Start with examining the reasons for wanting to make the change, that is, moving out of your current role but also specifically leaving audit. Ask yourself the big why? Consider the pros and cons and likes and dislikes of your present position. What do you enjoy doing? What would you like to do more of? What new skills/experiences are you looking for? What are you seeking that you are not getting from your current role? And what are you inherently good at? A personal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) can help here. And in all of this, be specific. For example if you like working as a team, analyse what it is about teamwork that fires you up. Is it pulling together to meet team targets? The opportunity to talk through issues, bounce off ideas? Or simply the team dynamic that fuels your momentum? You really need to get down to a precise level of detail to make this investigation meaningful and useful. Use my transferable skills checklist to help you identify areas to consider.
This is not a quick exercise. I would advise 3 or 4 sessions, over a week or so. The result though, will be a blueprint for your next career move.
But before you start comparing the Big Four role to your career blueprint, you need to fully investigate what’s involved in the job. There is huge generalisation about Big Four working practices. As an 18 year veteran myself, I can tell you that roles, work load and pressure can vary significantly by department, by line manager and by location. So don’t rely on sweeping assumptions in making your decision.
Instead test out those assumptions. Get a real understanding of the role. What skills and experiences will be developed? What core competencies are required? What are the ‘selling’ aspects and what does this mean in reality?
Don’t rely on generalisations regarding work life balance. Talk to the line manager and team members to discover the reality for this particular role in this location. If at all possible, ask to do some work shadowing so you can see at first hand the culture and environment and how you might fit in. And if that’s not possible, try some internet research; talk to employees and alumni via online forums, like the ones on Linkedin.
Once you’ve acquired some first hand, specific information you can compare this to your personal career blueprint. If the results for the Big Four role don’t tick the right boxes, move on and start looking elsewhere. This time you’ll be searching from an informed position, understanding your priorities and the criteria you need to satisfy, and where you are prepared to make compromises.
"I have a client who is very tactile and ogles a lot at meetings. He has never taken this further, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. What should I do?"
Is it just you or have you noticed this pattern of behaviour with anyone else? If this is his universal style then you could seek safety in numbers by planning a way forward together with other affected parties. If you don’t feel personally threatened, and you can see that this is the way he is with everyone, you might even choose to accept it and live with the discomfort.
However, if it is only you that gets this treatment or you feel personally threatened and decide that something has to change for the relationship to continue, then you are going to have to tackle him. Try responding directly to a specific example of unwanted behaviour with a brisk ‘I’d rather you didn’t do that if you don’t mind’ or ‘is there something wrong. I was just wondering why you were looking at me’.
Give it a try but don’t risk jeopardising your own safety or the client relationship. Trust your instinct and get help from HR if your initial tentative attempts don’t quickly elicit any change.
"I’m a new Dad and I haven’t had a whole night’s sleep for weeks. I’m exhausted all the time and find it difficult to concentrate. I even feel asleep in a meeting the other day – luckily an internal one. My colleagues seem sympathetic, but I feel my performance has taken a dive and I’m worried about making mistakes. Have you got any advice?"
Congratulations! Although, it is indeed a tricky time, balancing the joys and pride of new parenthood with the relentless demands of business as usual.
First up pay attention to your overall health. Don’t under-estimate the essentials: regular exercise, relaxation and a balanced diet. No need to be too ambitious; a daily 20 minute brisk walk will take care of the first two. Healthy eating diet can be one of first things to go when there’s a new baby in the house. Make sure that you are eating fresh, nutritious balanced meals at regular intervals. Go easy on the take-aways and don’t get by on quick fixes from caffeine or sugar.
On the sleep-side, look for opportunities to ‘grab it when you can’. Studies have shown that power naps can benefit us all, not just the sleep-deprived. If lunchtime is out of the question, consider a quick one when you get home (after you’ve done your Dad stuff!). A typical powernap is 20 minutes, but it can be even less.
At work you’re feeling that your performance has dipped. Check this out – it may only be your own perception. Talk to your line manager; be up front about your concerns and explore how the organisation can help. Extra resource, flexible hours, a change in responsibilities- these are all possibilities to ease you into your new routine. But do come clean. You’ll feel better for sharing your worries and if you do fear mistakes, you owe it to the business and yourself to get help to manage any risk.
"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!
"At my Christmas party, I had a bit too much to drink and I made the mistake of telling my line manager exactly what I thought of him, I wasn’t particularly flattering. Since then relations between us have chilled. I was hoping for a promotion in the New Year but now I think I may have blown my chances. What can I do to get things back on track?"
First up, it may not be as bad as you think...
Your reality is not the same as your line manager’s. You don’t really know how he took the exchange, you don’t really know what he’s thinking now. Can you even recall the hard facts – what was actually said, how did he react at the time? Right now your concerns are heavily based on assumption and speculation. Plus your imagination is working overtime to fill in the gaps with worst possible scenarios.
Beware particularly of the self-fulfilling prophecy: are you making a sensitive situation even worse by perceiving a chilled atmosphere and responding accordingly? You need to interrupt this pattern immediately. Cut the ‘chills’ on your side, right now. Don’t over-compensate – clearly being too ‘nice’ is unnatural , insincere, and won’t help you achieve your objective. What you’re aiming for is the resumption of normality. And once back to ‘business as usual’ on your side, at least, you can note the response elicited. A thaw may be an indication that you have been over-reacting, while continued frostiness suggests that there probably is some damage to repair.
Either way, I’m afraid there’s no getting around it – if you want to repair the damage – perceived or real – you are going to have to have a frank conversation with your manager. Its cards on the table time.......
But first do some ground work. Get some support. Did anyone witness your conversation at the Christmas party –either the full monty or the aftermath? A ‘witness’ may be able to help in recalling what actually happened and interpreting how it was received – two perspectives are always better than one.
Alternatively, who could you confide in at work? Perhaps someone who knows your manager well and can share with you, any fall-out they’ve witnessed. Talking it through with someone who knows both him, and the politics of the organisation, may prove beneficial, as well as providing that valuable alternative perspective.
Once you’ve marshalled your resources, it’s time to take action.
At all costs avoid the desperate apology ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t know what came over me. I didn’t mean any of it’. This will sound, and be, unconvincing and will do more damage than good. Your manager, like the rest of us will no doubt be familiar with the old adage ‘in vino veritas’!
Instead be upfront, honest and sincere. Use the ‘feedback sandwich’ technique – positive-negative-positive. Along the lines of:
‘I’m really embarrassed about that conversation we had at the party. You’ve always been very good at......But I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about.........and it just all spilled out. I really value your...... And I hope that you’ll accept my apology, as I’d hate to damage our relationship’
It’s imperative that you fill in the dots with specifics – generalities are hollow and just won’t cut it. If you can’t immediately think of anything good to say about him – think hard – and think hard again. There’s something positive in everybody’s character and behaviour – and your ability to find it is a good discipline to develop – it may be challenging but it’s an invaluable people skill.
Depending on the response you get you can then decide whether to be upfront about your promotion prospects. As you were hoping for promotion in the New Year then this may well have been a proactive conversation you would be having anyway. Common sense would suggest that you do uncouple it from the apology conversation. But when you do talk promotion, don’t hark back to the party incident – if it’s relevant let your manager bring it up – otherwise draw a line and move on.
The sooner you have these conversations and face up to the consequences, the better, both in terms of your own peace of mind and your plan for getting back on track. Don’t procrastinate any longer – just 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!
"My line manager is always shifting the goalposts in terms of objectives we’ve agreed. When I try and broach the subject about specific agreements, he is vague and then goes on to set completely different objectives. How do I deal with this situation?"
Time for ‘managing upwards’. For whatever reason, this isn’t one of your manager’s strengths so you’re going to have to find a way to fill in the gaps and really take control of your own performance management.
If you have HR department, check out how they could help. Possibly a confidential conversation with some advice and guidance. At the very least HR can provide resources such as competency frameworks, job specification and the organisation’s policy on performance management.
As for tackling your manager, start by (re)- introducing the SMART acronym. Effective goals have to be: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-framed. Together, get the habit of testing all objectives against the SMART criteria.
A key benefit of using SMART comes from the discipline of assigning hard measures and fixing timescales. This helps with moving goal posts. Remind him ‘we agreed to achieve A by B, if we are now look at achieving C we need to agree a new timescale’. This will also ensure you get the recognition for A before he’s got his sights on C.
To encourage specificity use questions like: ‘so what exactly would that look like’, ’how will you know when I’ve achieved that’ and reframing in your own words - ‘what you mean is ..... ‘
Perseverance is key. Think of it as educating your manager; if he doesn’t get it first time, you’ll be using repetition, re-iteration and persistence to change the process. Hang on in there – patience will pay.
"I find it really difficult to say no. As a result I seem to be the ‘office mark’ in terms of picking up loose ends when people have left, clearing up other peoples messes and being in the frame for any extra duty that’s going. I’d love to be more assertive. What can you advise?"
As accountants, we’re members of a profession and that means we pride ourselves on high standards of technical knowledge, client service, ethical conduct. We aim high. Our culture encourages professional stretch. Against this backdrop, is it then surprising that ‘no’ is often considered a dirty word?
But unless you’re a person with complete mastery of life’s chessboard, the inability to say no can mean loss of control leading to frustration, ill-health, stress, poor performance. It can take you away from your core goals (professional and personal). And it can lead to emotional unrest – guilt, unhappiness, loss of confidence.
Plus, of course, it’s not always easy to say no. For instance, when should you say no? Obviously, you would decline a task that’s beyond your competence. In other cases, though, you could ask yourself a few questions. What would be the consequences if you refused? Does your contract allow you to say no? (Serious question – your contract won’t say that exactly but your role description or your HR contact will give you a decent heads up.) If you did as asked, would your own core goals be advanced?
These are all valuable self-coaching questions to determine when its right to say no. But how do you actually do it?
- Tone is total. Be convincing but not aggressive. You are aiming for an assertive, firm retort that is polite and respectful. Say no and mean it; to the person you are saying it to, but above all, to yourself
- Body language matters. Align your body with your words. What is your expression saying? Is it reinforcing your ‘no’ or is it expressing heartfelt regret? A mixed message will dilute the effect and open you up to possibly unwarranted negotiation. Look the propositioner in the eye, take an assertive stance, reinforce with a robust shake of the head. If you are sitting down, stand up. A written ‘no’ should adopt the same style, firm, direct, straight to the point
- Words count.
- The first 5 seconds are crucial. Say no at the start of the sentence
- Be concise without being abrupt
- Avoid ‘I’m sorry’, it suggests guilt and the potential to weaken
- Beware of excuses. Reasons are the truth, excuses put you on the defensive. Give your reason, without apologies
- Appreciate the importance of the need and state that you have to say no because you do not want to let them down; you care enough to want to fully engage and commit
- Stick to your guns. Don’t take no for an answer in response to your no!
Other useful tactics:
- Negotiate. Particularly useful when you feel you don’t have the right to say no.
- Ask questions to understand the need. Use open questions: tell me, what, how, when…
- Say what you can do to help.
- State the repercussions. If I offer to do this then…
- Suggest an alternative solution. Offer to take a partial role. Find someone else to do it.
- Ask for time to think and get back to them. This is especially useful because it allows reflection
- Be prepared for non-acceptance. Set boundaries. Know how far you are willing to negotiate
- Pre-empt. From the start ‘I need to let you know…’, ‘can I stop you there’. It is important that the request does get too far.
Many of us are so rusty at saying no, we’ve forgotten what it feels like. It’s a transferable skill, so rehearse outside of work, then graduate to the professional ‘no’. The more you do it, the easier it will become.
"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 work part time in a manager role. At this level we don’t get paid for overtime. I’ve been finding lately that I am effectively working full time hours on a part-time salary. What can I do about this?"
First up check the details of your contract and your staff policy and procedures guidance to ascertain if there is any small print that deals with this situation. You might very well find the answer and the protection you need in contractual form. If not here’s a practical alternative.
When I was in this situation myself, I put together a compromise proposal that went like this. I established the average over-time hours of a full-time manager over the course of a year. This was accessible from management information but it’s also possible to find out just by asking around. I then pro-rated the average over-time in proportion to my own reduced hours contract. Then I tackled my line manager.
My approach was not to protest about the extra hours, but to point out that as a manager I duly expected to work over-time. And I would expect my over-time to be fully proportional to that of an average full-time manager. So what I was seeking was some recognition for what had become ‘excessive’ overtime. In my case it worked; I got paid for the excessive hours and we looked at my job spec to see how we could take out some time to bring down my hours on an ongoing basis. Hope it works for you too!
“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 very unhappy in my current role. It is my first role since qualification and I do not enjoy the day-to-day work. I am beginning to feel that all the hard work in qualifying has been a waste of time. I feel trapped and don’t know what to do.” ACCA qualified auditor
Don’t panic. The ACCA is a superb business qualification that opens doors to an infinite number of opportunities in practice and industry. All you’ve discovered is that you are not happy in this role. Don’t write off accountancy just yet! And even if you’re tempted, remember it is a business qualification.
Right now may not be the ideal time to change jobs. Beware of making a knee-jerk career move. There’s plenty you can do within your current situation to optimise your career choices.
Take stock of your likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Be specific. If you don’t like auditing, be precise about the aspects and then determine why. This will give you a personal blueprint to take an informed approach to career planning. Start to research roles that better align with your personal inclinations.
A quick tip on keeping you sane in your current role is to try reframing. Think of this as learning for your career ahead. What positives can you extract from your current situation? Look for ways you can turn passive into active. What are you discovering about yourself? How is this building you as a person? There are many ways you can reframe – it simply entails finding a different meaning in what you are encountering – so think laterally!
"I am currently studying an Msc in Audit Management and Consultancy at Birmingham City University which I will finish in September. My first degree was in History and I have two years banking experience, but not in Internal Audit. I am wondering what the career prospects are for a trainee auditor. I have no audit experience but as part of the course I will be sitting IIA exams during the year. Will this count as experience?" Abdullah
You’re in good company; my first degree was history too! I entered into an Institute of Chartered Accountants training contract with Ernst & Young, undertaking my practical experience in their Audit department. This, of course, is a well-trodden graduate path into audit, indeed a path that you could consider yourself. If you look back at my ‘Agony Aunt’ responses over the last few months, you will find some considerations and advice on this particular route. Your banking experience could prove very appealing to a potential employer if you choose a firm with Financial Services clients.
However, I appreciate that you wish to take into account your IIA qualification. By far, your best port of call for advice is your university careers service as well as the team who are actually delivering your MSc learning. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel as they will be able to share with you examples of how previous students have exploited their IIA qualification. This specific advice will be very valuable because on the face of it many students will be in your position – where the academic qualification is not parallel to the practical experience. Some of your banking experience may be relevant but if you were not involved in auditing itself, most will not be.
The Institute of Internal Auditors lay down the criteria for what constitutes ‘approved practical experience’ and here’s a taster for the PIIA:
- Participation in audit assignments
- Observation/understanding of risk assessment exercises
- Participation in improvement projects within the internal audit function
- Understanding the importance of effective business communications
- Demonstration of practical IT skills
Without a doubt your university department will have worked closely with the IIA on the syllabus, so they will have a good appreciation of how to bridge the gap between the theory and the practice.
Part-qualified IIA jobs are available with a variety of different organisations in both the corporate and public sectors. Worst possible scenario is starting from the bottom in terms of practical experience. However, the fact that you have already completed the exams will give you to a head start over other potential trainees and could make you a more attractive candidate.
But that’s worst possible scenario. Talk to your tutors and career advisors and find out how past students have exploited the qualification before you. Good luck!
"I was wondering if you could highlight some of the specialisation available in the global industry after obtaining the CA qualification (the degree I am doing is audit focused). I am from South Africa, and the only obvious paths here are to do a Masters in Tax or Accounting science. The universities are rather tight-lipped about what the curriculums entail.
Are there any general guidelines you could share with regards to the international trend and demand for post qualification specialisations?" Max
Just to be clear, let me summarise your request. My understanding is that you are doing a first degree, with an audit focus, then planning to qualify as a Chartered Accountant in South Africa. You are also now considering a further qualification or specialisation.
So here are some considerations:
Where does your passion lie?
Always, always, this should be your starting point. It’s no good going for the most marketable experience or qualification in the world if it’s not going to fulfil your aspirations or suit your inherent strengths. I suggest that you compile a personal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). Call up experience from all aspects of your life: academia, work experience, leisure interests, extra-curricular activities, to determine where your strengths lie and what excites you. You can use your findings to map across to your ‘perfect role’. For more information to flesh out this exercise, read my article Your Career by Design, here.
You are, or you will be, of course, already highly qualified for the global market. The decision to take another qualification will depend to a large part on what you discover about your ‘perfect role’ and whether it requires further specialised study. And it may seem obvious but there is a risk attached to ‘putting all your eggs into one basket’ at such an early point in your career. Deep specialising at this stage will not take into account either your own personal evolution nor commercial developments. My advice would be don’t box yourself in too soon; at the very least get some hands on work experience in your chosen field before you add another qualification to your repertoire.
Specialisation by experience, on the other hand, comes in all shapes and forms: by industry (say, financial services), by role (audit, tax, IT), by organisation (public sector, global, practice, industry). And that’s just for starters. It could be that by doing the exercise above you come out with a very obvious match, say tax (perhaps because you’re looking for a technical role with strong intellectual challenge) which takes you clearly down a particular path. But it is likely at this stage in your life the match won’t be so clear cut and you are left with the possibility of a number of different paths to follow. Don’t despair! This is why a high percentage of graduates choose a broader base to start with – like audit, where they can develop a wide range of transferable skills. A couple of years in, this puts you in a great position to make an more practically informed career choose with the benefit of hands on experience. You might choose to make audit your long term career specialism or you may select aspects of this early career choice to develop into deeper expertise in another field.
Specialisation is important. But it doesn’t have to happen at once. The trick is to find some specialisation in whatever you choose – to give you your USP (unique selling proposition) – but build a broad range of softer, transferable skills at the same time.
Global trends and marketability
And it’s these softer, transferable skills that are really going to count as we move into the second decade of the 21st century.
While the traditional fields of public accounting and auditing, cost or management accounting, internal auditing, taxation and corporate recovery still figure, some new accounting specialisations are emerging. The post Enron world requires increasingly, assurance services for quality control and risk assessment as well as forensic accounting and fraud detection. Additionally environmental accounting is a big growth area. And e-commerce continues to flourish and will have huge impact on work in the sector in the future.
Vastly improved technology itself means that accountants spend more time on financial analysis, adding value to the business and to their role. A role which is broadening as the corporate world continues to globalise, becoming more team-oriented and business practices develop increasing complexity. All of this will require a more diverse skills base from flexible interpersonal abilities to project management and adroitness to change.
Any experience you can leverage right now on the transferable skills front, will stand you in good stead in ultimately securing Your Career by Design.
And a last word on geographical demand, check out our Region Focus series, where you can see the trends and demands in countries from Australia and Greece, to the Caymans and the Middle East.
"I want to build my career in Audit but I do not have any specific experience in auditing field. I have been trying to find an audit related job but the employers require audit experience.
Please advise me how to get into audit field and find a placement." Mo
Thank you for your question. Your CV portrays a part qualified accountant, with an honours degree in Commerce and nearly 3 years general practice accounting experience.
As you don’t have any specific audit experience, my first recommendation would be to identify and communicate more strongly, those transferable skills which would be relevant to audit. For example, you could mention your client handling experience, as well as expand on your team skills and analytical strength. It would be evident then that you have a strong foundation, as well as a proven track record, with some practical experience directly relevant to an audit career. This would have the effect of making your CV more appealing to a prospective employer.
Remember, that each CV should be tailored to the individual position for which you are applying. It is a good idea to have a master CV – like the one you have – but be prepared to adapt it for specific roles.
I am also wondering if you are applying for audit jobs at the appropriate level. While your accounting experience provides a useful foundation, it would not be valued on a pro rata time basis. In other words you could not expect to enter audit at the third year experience level.
Have you considered graduate entry programmes? It might mean starting at the bottom with the new graduates, but with your professional experience you could expect to rise at swifter rate.
Finally, you could try and find some pro bono audit work – for a charity for example. A few hours a month, ‘apprenticed’ to a more experience auditor would provide you with some creditable audit experience as well as making a valuable personal contribution.
"I am 37 years old and have worked in IT Security for almost ten years from a Mainframe Administrator, trainee project manager to a technical author which is my current position. In the evenings I have studied and completed the AAT qualification and I am in the process of studying towards the ACCA qualification. I am looking to steer my career towards auditing as I feel that I would be able to bring with me my work experience in IT and develop the knowledge obtained from my studies.
Please could you offer some advice as to the best way to get into this area. Are there specific recruiters who specialise in companies who will be prepared to train new employees in this area? Any advice that you could offer me would be gratefully received." Tracey
As a mature entrant embarking on a new career in audit, you are not alone. Recent research has shown a distinct trend upwards in the starting age of trainees. This may well be down to the added value that the more mature trainee brings from their background and experience in other industries and roles.
If you are willing to start at the bottom of the ladder and work your way upwards, there are many possible ways into the profession. To start at this level, you won’t necessarily require any directly relevant experience or qualifications. For example, you could join external audit with one of the Big 4 firms. You are likely to find more than one entry level; from graduate trainee (which requires top UCAS points) to ‘experienced hire’ where understanding and passion for the role plus transferrable skills will count. And it’s not just the Big 4. There are a wide range of auditing practices who recruit new entrants, from small local firms upwards. Similarly, you will also find internal audit trainee schemes within commerce or the public sector.
Clearly you need to do your research and figure out the best fit for your experience and aspirations. I would suggest tracking down representatives from a variety of organizations, including those I have mentioned above. If you can find more mature entrants like yourself, all the better. Pick their brains to learn about the organisation, the role and their personal experiences. This will also help you determine how you can best exploit your prior experience. While you will still have to start at the bottom to learn the basics, there may well be opportunities where your experience can be used to accelerate your progress. For example, specialisng in ISA (Information Systems Audit).
Not only will this type of research assist you in targeting the best fit but it will also help you articulate your case and commitment for the career switch. Together with clear communication of how your past experience and skills can be transferred across and a strong dose of enthusiasm and excitement for the new career, and you’re looking at a winning formula!
Good luck with the rest of your audit career!
"I would like your help in deciding about which qualification is more suitable for me in the UK job market. I would like to know if it’s better to do ACCA or PIIA/ MIIA. I am interested in working within areas of internal auditing, risk & compliance." Usman
With your extensive experience within the accountancy profession, it may be advisable to keep your options broader at the outset of your UK career. Bear in mind that you’ve not yet experienced working in the current UK market and you will be new to a career in internal audit. Both are untried areas for you and there is no guarantee that either will fulfill all your career aspirations in the medium or longer term.
Instead, first consider your existing qualifications and find out what will be recognized in the UK. This will also very relevant regarding exemptions from any UK qualification you eventually decide to pursue.
Your existing qualifications may well be enough to get you started in the UK, experience the market and give you a base on which to build a more strategic career plan.
And you do need to consider your career aims. Where do you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years time? Where do you see your career taking you to? Whether you’re considering settling in the UK or working in other locations will determine the need to consider a global qualification. What sort of organisation do you want to work for? And more imminently, what are your short term earning needs? How do these map across to the individual qualifications and their career paths? What do the qualifications cost and how long is the study period? What type of studying methods and study/work mix are available and how do these reconcile with your preferred style. How portable is the study package from job to job?
You are already considering two qualifications, and I would use these as the start point of your research. Clearly, the ACCA is a global qualification and this may be important to your longer term career plans. The PIIA and MIIA, diploma’s of the Institute of Internal Auditors of UK and Ireland are more specialised, and of course, very relevant to the UK market. But there are also many other qualifications what could be appropriate for you, including CIMA for example.
So take some time to consider your short and long term career aims. Talk to the student advisors at a variety of different professional organisations. Consider your existing qualifications. And use the questions above to help you make a fully informed decision that will best equip you to reach your aspirations.
"I am ACCA part Qualified, still studying. I am really interested in taking a pathway into audit. At the time of this mail I have got no work experience. How can you help me - even for a voluntary role in audit. This will help me kick off my path to the profession. I live in the UK and am ready to relocate to any location. Thanks" Tabot
You’re absolutely right to rate highly the importance of practical work experience – for two reasons. Firstly, to ensure that you make your career decision from a fully informed stand point. And secondly, to effectively market yourself once you have made that decision. Even unpaid work will be valuable in confirming your suitability for your chosen career and equip you with the knowledge you need to articulate your strengths and ‘fit’ more effectively to a prospective employer.
Work shadowing is a great place to start. Many firms offer this to school leavers as well as those further on in their studies. Some of the bigger firms operate formal work shadowing schemes but you also have a good chance seeking an ad hoc opportunity. You will generally need to contact the firms directly. But also consider if you have any contacts who could introduce you to their organisation and short circuit the application process.
Another way in is to use networking to build your contacts within the audit profession. You could consider online networking and forums to find a buddy or a mentor – who could the find you an opening in their organisation.
Work shadowing can be a great introduction into an organisation. Once you’re known around the place, it could provide the break you’re looking for – leading to further unpaid or paid work.
Of course, the other possibility is direct entry. Many organisations have direct entry schemes where they’ll take you on with nil experience, providing on the job training and put you through the relevant exams if appropriate. And this is not just Big 4 graduate schemes. There are opportunities for non-graduates in external and internal audit positions in a vast range of organisations.
That said though, some work experience will boost your CV. Even if not audit experience, any commercial exposure will be well-received by prospective employer. And it will give you a commercial, practical base from which to make an informed decision on your chosen career. Take retail work for example; get the practical experience and use this to appreciate where the role of an auditor would come in. This sort of practical understanding and articulation of the role could prove very beneficial in securing your success at interview.
"I am AAT qualified and an ACCA finalist. I ‘m currently in the process of obtaining a degree in Accountancy as I feel it’s important to have a degree qualification. I have been in industry & commerce and also a short stint in the practice, (not BIG 4). I have also worked in an internal audit department of an airline but not in the UK. I’m in my late thirties.
At present I’m contemplating embarking on a career in audit. Will this work for me or should I stick to the industry & commerce? Appreciate your advice." Kumundini
Your professional qualifications and experience in industry certainly won’t preclude you from a side-ways career move into audit. Indeed, many employers will see these as a strong foundation. However, to give you specific advice on the move and its suitability for you personally, I’d need to know a lot more about you: likes and dislikes, talents and weaknesses, personal and career goals and aspirations.
What I can do, is provide a model that you can work through that will assist in your decision- making. Here goes:
Phase 1: Know Yourself
- Where do you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years time? What’s important to you in your life and career? What are your core values? (Values are your personal operating principles which if not met, will cause you unhappiness. Email me to request your own Values Matrix).
- What are you looking for from your career move? Use your current and past work experience to identify aspects of your roles that you have found more/less satisfying.
- What can you offer? What are your personal skills, talents, strengths? What makes you special?
- What are you prepared to invest? Where are you willing to start on the career ladder? What salary and benefit package do you require? What further learning are you prepared to undergo?
Phase 2: Understand what’s involved your favoured career
An easy way to do this, is to simply compare and contrast the audit career you are considering with your current position. What’s similar, what’s the same, what’s diametrically opposed? Areas you might consider include: core skills, work life balance, travel, working environment, pressure, office and client relationships, team structure, autonomy, career progression, financial package and security.
Phase 3: Map across the first 2 phases
You’ve now got 2 lists and you can simply map across from Phase 1 to Phase 2. You will then be able to determine if your favoured career is going to be a good match to satisfy your aspirations within a satisfactory tolerance range and at an acceptable level of personal investment.
"I am an ACCA Professional Stage student in Nigeria. I work as finance manager for a small privately owned company but my real desire is to work in audit for one of the Big four audit firms.
The challenge is how to get recruited by them as employment by these Big 4 firms here in Nigeria is highly competitive. I have submitted my cv at these firms and I wonder if there is any advice you can give me in order to help me increase my chances of being called for an interview at these firms." Temiloluwa
Your starting point should be to get a strong handle on exactly what these firms are looking for, what they really value in their experienced hires at the relevant entry point for someone with your particular background. Your knowledge and understanding of the firms’ competency framework is vital to enable you to measure your current skills and experience against their basic requirements. Core competencies for the Big 4 audit will vary but are likely to comprise: communication skills (written and verbal), team work/relationship building, leadership, drive and ambition, problem solving and practical intellect skills, and ability to add value. This information should be readily available from recruitment literature, Human Resources and/or an informal discussion with a current employee.
But don’t overlook less formal research. An example would be investigating the background of successful part qualified entrants and experienced hires. This will help you build a modelling blue print to enable you to design your own recipe for success.
Once you’ve identified the essential requirements, you can move on to develop your personal USP (Unique selling proposition). You are looking for personal qualities and experience that make you stand out above other equally qualified candidates. Remember though, it is vital to map this across to the firm’s requirements. In other words, your particular USP has got to be something that the firm will value.
Your research will obviously involve acquiring information about the firm - from hard copy brochures and from their website. But I would also highly recommend ‘people’ research; try and get to know some of the incumbent staff to add a further dimension to your knowledge and understand the underlying culture. Use your own local networks to find employees of your target firms but also look out for open meetings (recruitment days, technical updates etc) where you can extend your network of contacts within the firm and request introductions to other relevant contacts. You can even consider contacting the firm direct and asking them for a work shadowing opportunity – invaluable in optimising your understanding of their requirements but it also gets you on the map in terms of them getting to know you. Don’t forget online networking too; you may be able to track down ‘insiders’ via blogs and forums.
Once you’ve grasped what the firms really want in their candidates you can then turn to your presentation to ensure you can effectively communicate it. You will have built up a checklist of competencies and you need to map your own experience and skills to match these. This is not just at the application stage; make sure you can clearly articulate these key qualities and be prepared to back them up with practical examples. You may find at this point that you’ve identified gaps in your skill set; depending on the degree, you may decide to seize the opportunity seek practical experiences or further training to fill those gaps.
Clearly your CV and/or application form will be your point of entry to the firm, so it is vital that they effectively communicate not only that you meet the firms basic requirements, but also in such a competitive environment, that you have even more to offer. Beyond the initial application stage, the networking activities that I’ve mentioned above will also be very useful in achieving that ‘foot in the door’, getting your face known and remembered, and possibly even short circuiting your application as a candidate ‘not to be missed’.
All in all, the key is patience. A highly competitive market place means you can’t necessarily expect overnight success. Instead, take a longer view and plan your medium term strategy – and this will maximise your chances of getting you to where you want to be.
I hope this points you in the right direction
"I am currently at the stage of final assessment for various firms for a graduate audit position. I do not have an accounting background (degree in Biology) but have read up on auditing and have a fairly good feel for what the job is. Could you give me a few things that you feel are crucial for me to know about within auditing so that I am fully prepared for my final interviews." Chris
The key point here is that the interviewer is much more interested in assessing your potential as opposed to testing your breadth of knowledge. That’s precisely why recruiters are happy with non-relevant degrees – it’s not the discipline that’s important it’s the potential demonstrated by the achievement of that degree.
That said, it is vital to demonstrate a genuine interest in business, particularly where you don’t have an accountancy degree. So be sure to keep up to date with the latest business stories; scan a decent newspaper on the day of your interview(s) and make sure you know more than an inkling of what’s going on economically – at least in the UK.
The interviews and assessments will be designed to measure you against the core competencies required for the job. These will vary depending on the organisation you are applying to, but here’s an indication:
- Communication skills, written and verbal
- Team work, relationship building
- Ethics, professionalism, personal motivation
- Attention to detail, high quality standards
- Problem solving and practical intellect skills
- Ability to work under pressure, to deadline
And typically for a graduate entrant:
- Drive, ambition, leadership potential
You can expect a good return on the time you spend investing in a strong articulation of how you can demonstrate these qualities.
As for the technical side of auditing, it’s actually your practical understanding that will count. For instance, be sure you can articulate what you perceive as a typical ‘day in the life of an auditor’, crucially for that specific organisation. Your research could include speaking to an incumbent staff member in this or a similar firm.
And be ready too, for some very practical questions, calling for common sense and creative problems solving skills. A favourite in my previous firm was: ‘as an auditor at a chocolate biscuit factory, how would you go about verifying the stock figures’.
Lastly, but somewhat down the priority order, it could be handy to be up to date with developments in auditing (eg the world post-Enron, ISA – International Auditing Standards, UK IFRS convergence) but this will be specific to the organisation to which you are applying.
The real crunch will be the aforementioned: general business awareness, core competencies and a practical understanding of the job.
P.S. a real differentiator is an ability to articulate a strong, convincing business case for choosing a particular firm. Challenging but priceless.
“I am a US citizen contemplating taking the Certified Internal Auditor exam in 2008. I wish to know if there are opportunities for me in the UK, whether London or elsewhere. Is there enough demand for internal auditors that the Home Office will approve work visas for this occupation?” Richard
Although the Certified Internal Auditor is an American qualification, it is well-recognised in the UK and indeed across most of Europe. So if part of your question concerns whether this qualification holds any value outside the US, then the answer is yes, it does.
Whilst demand for auditors in certain sectors remains strong in the UK, generally speaking the market has cooled to the point at which most companies are able to fill vacant roles with UK nationals, or failing that, with Europeans who can work in the UK without any additional visa arrangements. An application from a US national is therefore less appealing that it may have been, say 18 months ago.
If you do wish to come to the UK, I would look into obtaining a Highly Skilled Migrant Visa. This would allow you to work in the UK without company sponsorship and may be the most realistic way of securing your move.
I hope this points you in the right direction.
"I am currently trying to embark on a career in audit. I hold a degree in an unrelated discipline and would like advice on what is the best qualification to obtain. I am starting a 1 year full time AAT diploma in September. I have found that as I have little accounts experience and no formal qualification I am not very employable. For this reason the AAT will give me at least a foot in the door.
I have worked since I was 16 years old but from 30 to 34 I have a 4 year gap in my work history due to a health problem. I am now 35 so would like to be in work as soon as possible. Any advice you could give me would be very much appreciated." Mark
My first thought: are really capitalising on all the assets you already have? For example, have you considered graduate entry programmes? A non-relevant degree needn’t be a deterrent; many graduate employers are looking for the skills and potential conferred on the degree holder rather than the technical subject matter itself. Also, as a more mature candidate with 14 years work experience there will be lots of transferable skills that you will have within your repertoire. The trick here is a bit of lateral thinking to match the relevance of your past experience to your future aspirations – tricky-but loads to play for.
As you have already committed to the AAT diploma make sure you get the most out of it during your year of study. Once you’ve mastered the basics of double entry book keeping you should find it easy to get some practical experience, working with a charity for example. This will be a valuable addition to your CV as well as giving you the opportunity to turn theory into practice and really hone those skills. In fact any practical experience you can get paid or unpaid during the one year course will stand you in good stead.
Having decided that audit is your future, I would recommend that you actually find your perfect role(s) and then look at the route to qualification. Is it internal or external audit that you are attracted to? What sort of organisation do you want to work for? – SME, blue-chip, not-for profit? What are your personal financial requirements and aspirations?
First find the job you love, then travel back from the destination to find the starting point.
And once you’ve done a bit more delving, to paint the picture of your dream job, come back to us and we’ll talk more specifically about qualifications.
“What is the average first year salary of a qualified auditor and what can I expect to earn after 3 or 4 years?” Mona
Salary levels for newly qualified auditors vary from region to region and there are obviously substantial differences between the salaries paid by the ‘Big 4’ and smaller public practice firms.
Additionally, the type of qualification you have also has an effect on your market value, with the ACA qualification usually commanding the highest salary levels. However, in the interest of answering your question without providing a myriad of variations, I could say that newly qualified auditors should be earning somewhere in the very high £20k level in smaller firms or regions, moving up to mid- late £30k for London and the South East.
An additional 3-4 years experience should see you in a managerial role and earning in the mid- late £40k level, up to anything in the £50k- early £60k bracket range for the most prestigious firms.
I hope this information has been helpful.
“Considering the current state of the UK economy, is now a good time to move jobs?” Rebecca
The current credit crunch and its implications - alarming forecasts of slashed consumer spending and imminent job losses – is never out of the news. But the actual impact on the labour market, particularly in finance and audit sector is a little less easy to read.
While we can’t deny the front pages news of jobs losses at KPMG and Citigroup, some commentators are pointing to a resilience in the employment market . Of ‘labour hoarding’ - supporting current employment levels by curbing pay rises as opposed to major layoffs.
So what does it mean to your career plans? Well the short answer is, it depends.
A natural reaction of job seekers is to fear the LIFO (last in first out) mode of operation. And maybe in the old ‘jobs for life’ days this was a very realistic fear. But in the 21st century where the ‘war for talent’ is rife, is this still a logical outcome? If an organization has spent heavy, in time and money, to recruit you - you’ve clearly made the more than likely competitive cut. Are they really going to axe you at the first sign of economic downturn? Unlikely, though not impossible. But it does all comes down to competition. Any slowdown in the job market is going to intensify the ‘war for talent’ and increase competition. This is where the quality of your CV, the relevance of your skills and experience, will count big time.
But it’s not just about the market. It’s primarily about you. The real test will be your strategic plans and how a career move will ties in. You need to do your own ‘career audit’. You don’t want to move ‘just for the sake of it’ which could be a real temptation if the number of vacancies is depleted. You need to take stock of where you are now in your current role. Are you still getting the level of stretch you need to develop your skills? Are you running out of learning opportunities or at risk of stagnating? How is your quality of life, your work life balance? These questions are all paramount in making that decision - whether the time is right for you, personally, to tackle a potentially more challenging job market.
So to sum up. Right time to move jobs? Well it depends. It depends on where you are in your career plan. It depends on the competitiveness of your skills and experience. It depends, of course, on your location, sector, level and role. But above all it depends on you. Your quality of life, your tolerance level, your values and your aspirations.
Best of luck!
“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
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
- 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!
"I am an ACCA professional stage student and have passed the first 9 modules of ACCA . Currently working for Deloitte in the United Arab Emirates with one year's experience in internal audit, I am planning to move in Sweden . Will it be easy for me to find trainee level job in Sweden?" Amjad
Many thanks for your question regarding your proposed move to Sweden. I would offer the following advice:
- Attempt to secure the move through your current company, Deloitte. Their willingness to support you will depend on a number of factors, such as on the time you have been with the firm, the amount of work that the office currently has…but they may be more inclined to support a move if it is motivated by personal reasons (ie you are following a spouse/ partner etc) or if they see a chance that you will return
- If a move with Deloitte’s is not possible then make applications to others within the Big 4. They will understand your experience, and as they are international companies, they are more likely to support someone who does not speak Swedish (which I assume you don’t)
- If this fails, apply to the internal audit teams of Swedish multinationals. You may also wish to look at a company called Audit Value International, which is effectively the internal audit team for a large and diverse group of Swedish led companies and regularly employs auditors from the Middle East & India
- Do as much work as you can on the visa and be prepared to answer questions on the mechanics behind your sponsorship (the time it would take to complete etc etc). You need to do this work for any potential employer
- Contact the major recruitment companies in Sweden and ensure that you meet with them if you ever find yourself in Stockholm for a visit
Best of luck! Let us know how things develop and keep a close eye on the jobs on the website!
“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
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 accountantscoach.com)
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.
“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
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
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 am very interested in moving from the audit into the general management consulting of my company – what’s the best way to go about this?" Wedian
This will be a competitive move and first impressions count. Consequently, before you ‘go live’ with your career aspirations, ensure you are knowledgeable about the sector, understand what’s expected in the role and can articulate your personal differentiator. Bearing in mind these three key requirements, here’s some tips to help.
Start genning up on Management Consultancy as a career. What does the job entail on a day to day basis? What does the longer term career path look like? What skills and experience will be required? And vitally, what characteristics are being sought to demonstrate longer term potential. You will need to appreciate all of this and clearly express it to your prospective employer.
So how do you go about this? Start inhouse. Look at networks you already have and then identify and develop further support. Use your commonsense to gauge when to release your career aspirations into the public domain, bearing in mind that there may be political tensions between the different service lines. Plus you don’t want the Management Consultants judging you before you are up to speed. So find a confidential mentor (senior to you) and/or a buddy (similar peer group) who has made the move or has insight into the department. Pick their brains to find answers to the questions above. Get them to help you to identify the key decision makers recruitment-wise, so you can look for subtle means of being seen by the relevant people in a positive light.
Continue your research outside your organisation to glean more intelligence on the industry. Recruitment agencies may be willing to help. But also use your own networks to talk further afield, seeking those who have made or considered the move. And use the rich resources of the internet; blogs and forums can be invaluable for the ‘inside story’.
When you are certain you can speak confidently about the career and the sector, start to share your aspirations more publicly within your firm. You can seek the support of HR/your line manager/the movers and shakers with Management Consultancy. Use a personal SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) to identify your differentiator and ensure it is aligned to what you now know is valued by the Management Consultants.
And last, but by no means least, don’t forget to consider what you actually want from this career move. What are you seeking that is not being satisfied in your current role? How does this move align with your long term career aims, your lifestyle needs, your core personal values? If inhouse politics permit you may be able to undertake a work-shadowing experience or even a secondment so you can see at first hand what it’s like at the sharp end.
Due diligence complete, you’ll be in an excellent position to make an informed decision as to whether this is the most appropriate move for you. And if it is, you’ll be in great shape to surge ahead with that application.
"I have just got an HSMP Visa for UK and am planning to move over there next month. I am an ACCA fully qualified member and have an experience of about 5 yrs in audit and risk services but of course it is outside UK.
Is it possible for me to secure a job online before i get to UK? What is the quickest way to find a job in a practice in UK after i get there?" Mohammad
It is certainly possible to start a job search before you come to the UK, although it is unlikely that you will complete it until you are here.
If you already have ‘Big 4’ experience then you should be applying to those companies now. Spread your net widely when searching their jobs and make sure that you also look at jobs outside London. London tends to be very popular and attracts the highest number of applications so looking outside may help your chances of securing an interview. You should also visit the websites of practice firms below the ‘Big 4’, such as BDO and Grant Thornton.
If you don’t have ‘Big 4’ experience already then it is very unlikely that you will find a job with them in the UK. In this case, the best approach would be to start making applications to audit specialist recruiters, many of which can be found via CareersinAudit.com and pushing for an interview with them when you arrive in the UK. You should also start exploring temporary work as this may provide you with fast employment and act as a bridge to a full time audit role.
Finally do ensure that your CV communicates your ACCA qualification and HSMP in the clearest possible way.
“I don’t seem to have any time for a personal life at the moment. What tips can you give me to better manage my time during this busy season?” Alex, Internal Auditor
First up, I am assuming that you are referring to a limited period of time here. That is, a seasonal workload peak as opposed to a permanent state. Here are some tips to help you with a temporary increase in your workload. Bear in mind that a different approach would be recommended if this was a permanent situation.
There are three areas that you should consider:
- Planning. It is invaluable to take some time out from your technical responsibilities to work ‘on’ your job as opposed to ‘in’ your job. There is a school of thought that suggests that 10% of our time should be spent working on planning ‘how’ to do our jobs. 10% might seem a bit heavy at this time of year so I would suggest that any time at all that you use in this way will give you a good return on your time investment. Even if it is just 15 minutes a day, spend some time standing back, reminding yourself of the bigger picture and give some thought to what you are trying to achieve and the best way to achieve it.
- Goals. You will greatly benefit from having a real understanding of your priorities. Under time pressure it is vital to understand exactly what has to be achieved within the deadline and then focus completely on these priorities. Also consider what absolutely has to be performed by you. With everything else, firmly: eliminate, delegate, reschedule. This approach has added value when you break down your task into its smaller components and proceed to eliminate, delegate, reschedule. It will guard against the risk of seeing an assignment as a huge lump, and being seized by panic.
- Last but definitely not least, you need to commit to some leisure time. Hard as this may sound when you are working long hours to tight deadlines, you must do this for the sake of your health. At this time of year you may not find it possible to achieve a ‘balanced’ life and your personal time may not be at a level you would aspire to all year round – but you do need to take some time out. Even if you just commit 30 minutes a day ‘wind down’ time, doing nothing at all, this is helpful in combating stress and re-charging the batteries. If you can plan in some physical pursuit each day, all the better. Also aim to have at least one leisure activity to look forward to each week. Once you have decided, make a promise to yourself to honour these commitments. Cast them in stone. Treat them as you would a work deadline. Decide, commit then focus. Let nothing get in the way, and enjoy!
Have your career questions answered by emailing Carol at email@example.com
To look for a new audit job, visit CareersinAudit.com, the leading job site for auditing vacancies.
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Carol McLachlan, our careers' agony aunt is now able to offer you a personal written response or a direct coaching conversation to discuss a wide range of your career questions:
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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.
Working in partnership with a coach who was been an auditor, and therefore understands the challenges you face, you’ll make decisions and learn skills which will optimise your career path. Whatever your situation, she can offer you an independent, confidential collaboration for career success.
Depending on your needs and tailored to your budget, you can choose between telephone, skype, instant messaging or email coaching for advice on a one-off issue or a more extensive mentoring programme.
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