Where can a career in External Audit take you?
Working in external audit can be extremely rewarding. It plays on your strengths with numeracy, relationship management and communication, and your understanding of finance and business; all of which provide an excellent foundation for the progression of your audit career. The question is, in which direction will your career in external audit take you?
Lars Sigmond, former External Auditor with KPMG and now Business Controller at Smit Lamnalco, suggests starting with one of the Big Four accounting firms as a solid launch pad to a career in external audit.
“There are typically more opportunities if you start with the Big Four,” he says, explaining their ‘grow or go’ culture aimed at encouraging people to find what suits their personality. Certainly there is greater exposure to a variety of industries, clients and areas of the business if you’re working for the likes of Deloitte, KPMG, EY or PwC, which only aids in clarifying an individual’s preferences, strengths and weaknesses. Sigmond also explains that the Big Four tend to offer a more organised and professional environment with the benefit of continuous annual training programs to help you grow in every area of the role.
Generally speaking, only around 2% of all starting trainees will eventually make it to partner. The Big Four operates on a sort of pyramid hierarchy that will see some skilled workers drop out of the partner race to pursue other related opportunities that may better fit their circumstances.
A vast majority of ex-auditors will end up in positions such as Financial Controller, Business Controller, CFO, or Group Reporting Specialist, according to Sigmond. “Working as an External Auditor gives you a pretty good base understanding of things like financial statements, internal controls and so on,” he says, “so your skills are put to good use anywhere in the final stage of the consolidation of a bigger, complex firm, gathering all the financial information from all over the world and making sure that the reporting standards are aligned and merge into a set of comprehensive financial statements.”
Some will go on to work for a smaller, boutique firm, or to step into an interim CFO or manager position working on improvement projects and implementing new sets of internal controls.
“You can also switch to working in internal audit,” says Sigmond, “which will expect you to have more of a focus on internal controls or preventing internal fraud and so on.” Fundamentally both types of audit require similar skillsets, though internal audit is less about financial statements and more about risk strategy, implementing the correct set of controls and ensuring the entire company is complying with those controls.
As for the size of firm you work for; there are pros and cons to working for a big multinational like one of the Big Four or choosing to work for a smaller firm. The Big Four offer diversity and a great deal of exposure to help you really find your place within external audit, whereas a smaller firm may reward you with greater recognition for your work in more of a trusted advisor role. Smaller firms however won’t give you access to the larger more complex engagements meaning a big multinational would be unlikely to contract you in a position as Group Controller, for example, because you wouldn’t have had the experience with consolidation of multiple entities. Your trajectory from a smaller firm may see you take on the role of Financial Advisor or start your own firm in that area, you could become CFO of a smaller-sized company, or take your knowledge of administration and accounting to work in procurement or another back office department.
Traditionally, it can be easier to transition from the Big Four to a smaller firm as opposed to the reverse, however it is possible as the Big Four do serve medium-sized outfits as well. The important thing is to choose the path that you feel would best serve your career in external audit and give you the greatest potential to utilise your skills while complementing your personality and work style.