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Guidance to an undergraduate considering a career in an accountancy firm

December 20, 2015

It is a factor of my age: my children are now late teens/early 20s, and so are those of many of our friends. As a result, during the last year or so I have had several discussions trying to guide undergraduates and graduates on choosing firms, choosing departments.

Often, I say similar things to each; I do try to tailor to their background, understanding and preferences, but there are common themes. This short series of  blog postings  is an attempt to record several such thoughts. For ease of expression, I will refer to the people I am trying to help as undergraduates.

Random career paths

Ask your parents to describe their careers; ask your aunts and uncles; ask other adults that you know, especially those in say their 30s, 40s or beyond whose careers are passed the initial years. How many planned when they were your age to be where they now are? I suspect, hardly any.

Where a person ends up in his or her career depends on the vagaries of life. Effort, hard-work, direction, planning come into it, but so do chance, luck, if and who you partner with, if and when you have a family, illness of selves, parents, caring responsibilities. Very, very few people whom I know, and have talked about such things in the past, had planned as undergraduates to be where they now are in their mid- or later- career stages. I think my philosophy of career planning is: stuff happens. Lives and careers may be capable of being understood in hindsight, but with rare exceptions, the randomness of life is the paramount factor.

So, this philosophy is central to my perspective not to specialise too soon, not to decide based on frankly limited or no information to specialise is a particular area of tax or accountancy. Instead, keep options open.

In fact, I think there is a trick which is played on new starters as they train to be Chartered Accountants. The trainees themselves think the main requirement is to digest and regurgitate masses of technical information, never to be used again; memorise, memorise, memorise. But no, whilst this is a major factor, I think the early years are more about learning working life skills. Getting up on time, getting into work on time come what may, wearing a suit or work clothes, looking presentable, balancing work and social life- having a social life, including transitioning from the cacooned buzz of university life int0 the wider world-putting in the hours. I think these work aptitudes, the mind set to serve clients, to work hard, to try, to be honest, to suffer the review process, to learn from the review process, all these work skills are I would say just as important.

Three or four years later, once qualified, much of what you learnt in the ICAEW or other syllabuses will have been forgotten (hopefully some will remain) but the drive, the effort, the commitment to do a good job will remain. Such work skills are why you will progress if you stay in your training firm, or be recruited to where you apply if you choose to leave. They will also be why in time clients come to you for advice.

So don’t fret about which department or role. Don’t try to over think about what areas you would be most interested in- you really have no idea-just seek and relish the chance to work in a top employer and, once recruited, put effort in.

My mentors

Writing these blogs brings back memories. Probably the first person I learnt from when I moved into tax was a senior manager at Deloitte, Peter de la Wyche, who happened to be someone I was assigned to do a lot of work for.

Peter was a stickler for accuracy. Good enough wasn’t good enough. Tax reconciliations- quite a hard, and sometimes a very hard, exercise for large groups didn’t need for Peter to be done just to “materiality” but had to be done to the £. Often a pain, some times a considerable pain, and often not very useful, because you normally knew by feel whether the figures were right. But, fortunately, very quickly I learn that Peter’s approach was right, for professional pride in a job well done (think: the electrician who tidies up before leaving the customer, leaving things spick and span) and also because on occasion the requirement for accuracy leads to insights.

Years later, nearly 30 years later, when I retired from Deloitte I got numerous emails and letters (numerous emails; several letters). One letter I received was from a long since former colleague, now a partner in a mid-tier firm, some one who I thought was narked whenever he worked for me. But he wrote how for years he was indeed peeved whenever he worked for me, because, unlike other partners, I insisted on things being right, often sending him away to prove things to the £ or amend an already good report to make it even better. But in his letter he wrote that, looking back, it was the best thing that happened to him, propelling him to go for the best and eventually getting him his promotion to partner.

My point in relaying this story is that in your first several years in a professional services firm, whether audit, tax in my case, or, I suspect many other disciplines, is to learn the rudiments of professional life- hard work, attention to detail, quality, reliability…and turning to my main subject of guiding undergraduates in selecting departments, it really, to use present teenage text speak, “DM” – doesn’t matter.

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