Like a lot of things in life, people judge the career of accounting like judging a book by its cover, thinking that it is a sure fire ticket to financial success.
But as with lots of things in life, people are very wrong in this initial judgement, as a start in accounting is by no means a ticket to financial “success”, however you may choose to measure that.
For me, as a person who is very goal driven, I found accounting to be a very compatible career due to its clear career levels, good financial payoffs if you can get promoted, and the requirement to have some form of personality to go with the academics to keep things interesting.
Because I was (and still am) quite goal-oriented in my career, I might have a slightly different perspective on career than some, but I thought there might be value in giving my view on how to get your accounting career going from day one so that the reality has some chance of matching the generic impression that people may have.
The traditional path
I came through the more traditional path in accounting, something that seems to be much more rare in the industry nowadays. This traditional path went something like this:
- Start straight out of high school as a cadet/trainee, working part time at a big 4 firm while completing my university degree.
- Once finished your university degree, begin your post-graduate qualification (in this case, the Chartered Accountant qualification).
- Go on a secondment to another office to get more experience.
- Get promoted to Manager by your mid-20s.
- Work overseas in finance (but not public accounting) to get more experience and get a different perspective on life and work.
- Come back to your original firm and work your way through to Partner like a bat out of hell as Meatloaf would say.
Fortunately for me, many of my characteristics make me an ideal candidate for the traditional path, with some of these being:
- I was academically strong, and getting good grades at school was easy. Passing my studies while working also wasn’t too difficult.
- I am male, caucasian, tall, not overweight, and I understand that I am normal in my physical appearance. My wife even thinks I’m attractive (surprise surprise).
- I’m also straight, got married in my mid 20s and started having children in my late 20s. This shouldn’t have anything to do with anything, but I essentially fit the cliched image of the family man of yesteryear and it is my belief that compliance with this image is essentially rewarded by society in many ways (it shouldn’t necessarily be that way, but I believe that it is).
- I have a personality, can relate well to most people (and put in the effort to make this happen), and have a sense of humour.
- I can pick up new concepts fairly easily.
- I have more of a leadership-type of personality, and can speak publicly in a reasonable way (I’m no superstar but I can get the job done when I need to).
- I am prepared to make tough decisions and take on tasks (e.g. tough clients, high pressure situations) that others arguably wouldn’t to achieve my goals.
As sad as it is, people with the greatest chance of getting to the higher pay grades at a young age would have these characteristics and would take the traditional path. That isn’t to say that others can’t do the same, but I believe that the system is stacked against them.
Tips for getting promoted at a young age
Irrespective of your background, I detail below my tips for getting promoted at a young age that in theory anyone can follow:
- Take the traditional path. By this I mean either take a cadetship/traineeship (to work at a firm while studying for university), or complete your accounting/commerce degree in three years by studying full time and completing vacation work at a big firm in the holidays.
- University for cadets/trainees: If completing a cadetship/traineeship, focus on completing your studies as quickly as possible by ensuring that you pass all subjects on the first attempt. Our firm had you complete six subjects per year, with your degree over in four years, but if you were really committed you could easily complete eight subjects per year and have it done in three years. For cadetships/traineeships, university is just something that can hold you back, so get it done as quickly as you can. You don’t need High Distinctions as you already have the job, but you’d better make sure you keep the job otherwise your grades will matter to the next employer. Once you have your post-graduate qualification, no one looks at your university marks.
- University for graduates: If you are wanting to come in as a graduate, your marks need to be good otherwise you won’t get the job. You don’t need to get High Distinctions (although that would help), but as long as you can get a Credit or Distinction average then you should be right. Don’t fail subjects – it just makes things harder plus it slows you down. Make sure you complete your degree in the three years – any longer and you are just wasting time.
- Relationships: Build relationships with your managers and Partners that you work for. I don’t mean that you have to suck up to them, but take the time to get to know them. If you can relate to these people you have a far greater chance of working for them, and this is the best way to get noticed. If you aren’t noticed, you won’t get promoted quickly.
- Do a good job: Always do a good job for your Managers and Partners, as one good job will be rewarded with another opportunity, and this becomes an endless cycle. If they can get good results out of you then they will want to work with you all the time, and they will also want to promote you.
- Post graduate qualification: Start your Chartered Accountants qualification as soon as possible and ensure that you get through all subjects on the first attempt. The program takes 18 months to two years, and if you follow the plan then you should have it completed by age 25 or 26. Many firms will not promote anyone to manager until they are CA qualified, so you need to get this out of the way. It won’t necessarily get you promoted, but it might stop you from being promoted.
- Performance appraisals: Take every performance appraisal seriously and ensure that you are prepared and happy to discuss anything that comes up. You should be on the front foot with what you are seeking in terms of role, promotion and pay. I have always had these every six months, and they typically go quite well provided that I am in the right frame of mind beforehand. If you are under-prepared you will get slaughtered, and the most you will ever get from one of these appraisals is what you ask for. If you don’t ask, you won’t receive.
- Career plan: Have your performance manager prepare a 5 year career plan with you, and ask them to put it in front of relevant Managers and Partners for endorsement. You can then have this career plan updated/extended at every performance appraisal.
- Secondments: Take a secondment at another firm in your network (e.g. if you work at Big 4 or a mid tier firm there should be other offices in other cities) for at least 12 months. Some people believe that this is a way of accelerating your career progression, but like the qualifications, I believe that it is one more thing that stops people from holding you back from promotions. If other people (e.g. at another office) think you’re great, then it effectively endorses further promotions which is quite powerful.
- Win over your detractors: Work out who (if anyone) is not a supporter of further promotions and deal openly and honestly with these people to address their concerns. Even if these people don’t like you (for whatever reason), if they feel that you are genuinely trying to build a relationship with them and address their concerns then they will eventually come around. If you ignore them they won’t go away though, and they could be holding you back (by voting against you) for years.
- Volunteer: Get a community-based role at a not-for-profit organisation. Engaging with the community through not for profit organisations is seen as a good way to build profile in the community and generate leads for clients. Plus it is just an expectation that Partners and society have of anyone aspiring to reach Partner level. To get the most out of such roles, you really need to be on a board at least, and even better if you are the treasurer of the organisation.
It’s not easy, but it’s by no means impossible either
The list certainly isn’t easy (if it was easy everyone would be doing it), but if you’re committed to achieving financial independence at a young age then earning the bigger bucks is a key ingredient.
If you keep all of these points in mind, and if you fit the traditional profile, then you have a good chance of success. I would however say that if you don’t fit the “traditional” profile, or are working in a smaller/different type of firm, then a lot of other factors could still come into play. Even so, these factors would still be worth considering.
Given that I did not come through the ranks from a smaller firm I don’t have first-hand experience of what a different path might look like, but would be keen to hear any tips for starting in a smaller firm.
So what do you think? Are there any other points to keep in mind when striving for success in your accounting career?