When it comes to training for finance and accounting professionals beyond the ACA, the formal and technical requirements of continuing professional development (CPD) are frequently at the fore. Undeniably, those core technical skills are crucial. Specialist areas demand finely tuned knowledge, and it’s imperative to keep up with changes in an ever-evolving profession.
But in building a truly satisfying and successful career, the technical aspects are just one part of the whole, says Sharron Gunn, executive director, members, commercial and shared services, at ICAEW. “We continuously engage with a lot of our members, many of whom are FDs, CFOs, CEOs or chairmen of FTSE companies, and partners in accountancy firms. They say that while their qualification was really what started them off and gave them a great grounding, that wasn’t what had made them successful.”
“They are successful because they learned and developed commercial acumen and interpersonal skills. Managing people and complex situations also featured among the top priorities in today’s environment.” It is all about the soft skills, agrees Professor Cary Cooper of Manchester Business School. Cooper, who is also president of both the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and the British Academy of Management, says: “If you get into managerial roles, you might be extremely good technically, but you will be an absolutely lousy people manager if you don’t have the soft skills.”
Indeed, in 2013, Cooper took part in an All-Party Parliamentary Group on management called Management 2020. He sat on a panel with two other academics, questioning business leaders on the key skills required in managers of the future. “We said to them, ‘of all the skills you have mentioned, give us the one area that is the most important in management’, and 90% of them said soft skills,” he says.
According to Cooper, these soft skills – interpersonal skills, the ability to communicate effectively and understand others – are vital in enabling people to work effectively. “It’s about managing people who may have fear of new technology, of change. You need managers who are socially sensitive, who can manage people and empathise.”
It is a message that the Big Four are hearing. “We know we have very strong technical people, but softer skills are important in bringing your technical expertise to the fore,” says Tom Hartgill, who works in learning and development at PwC. “Technical skills are clearly very important, but that is not how you differentiate yourself.”
With this in mind, PwC has created a curriculum that aims to be flexible and relevant, giving staff the opportunity to select training, frequently in bite-sized, digital form, that fits perfectly with the questions their jobs raise for them, as they arise. “We have moved away from a ‘sheep dip’ approach, where everybody who’s a third year does that course, everyone who is a new partner does this one,” explains Hartgill. “This new curriculum is largely just-in-time training, tailored as far as possible to individual needs, and not tied to your grade or how long you’ve been with the firm, or your area of business. If it’s Friday and you know that on Tuesday you have to have a difficult conversation with a client, for example, there are learning assets you can access on how to do that.”
At KPMG, continuous training and education across all areas of development is also at the heart of the firm. Anna Purchas, interim head of people at KPMG, says: “We know people who join us come for the learning experience. As for me, I thought I would be leaving after my three-year qualification. But I have stayed because the firm has continuously offered me development opportunities. Either formal qualifications – for example I did an eMBA as part of our emerging leader programme – or through soft skills or experiences.” Something must be working – Purchas has been with the firm for 25 years.
“We also have a reverse mentoring programme which is run by our Afro-Caribbean network for our executive committee,” says Purchas, who is about to embark on this particular scheme. “I’m really looking forward to it. It has been set up to broaden insight into how it feels to be an Afro-Caribbean colleague in KPMG.”Beyond the big firms, there is plenty of scope for learning. ICAEW’s Academy of Professional Development is structured around providing post-qualification career support across a spectrum of training areas, and offers courses to members, the public and organisations.
“The Academy provides around 90 courses a year,” explains Dharmesh Chheda, head of professional development. “With every course we design, it’s not just about accelerating skills and knowledge in that area but proactively helping a person advance their career and contribute better to the finance function as they move through their career stages.”
There is an emphasis, too, on how the needs of the profession will change. “In an age of technological advancement, with IT replacing a lot of the traditional roles, as well as cloud computing, robotics and finance transformation, we are focusing on how to future-proof finance professionals,” says Chheda.
Training can be tailored to suit finance teams to address business needs and course titles are as varied as technical Converting to FRS 102 from old UK GAAP and Lease accounting, through to the more esoteric Develop a world-class business partnering function or Communicate with impact. “It starts with the basic technical categories you need for different types of roles, and goes on to cover training in terms of, for example, how to manage people, all the way through to at the top end, looking at how you influence the business,” explains Gunn.
The right training and education can help to steer a career along a chosen course – but it can also help to find a new direction. Professional development, after all, is about taking control of your future. “Once you have built up those skills, you can ask yourself, what is your career goal? You may say to yourself, ‘I don’t want to manage people’. You may say, ‘maybe I’ll take my skills and work with the third sector,’” says Cooper. “Once you have both these sets of skills, technical and social, you can really decide what you want to do next.”
BRUNA NIKOLLA, CACI
Eight years ago, Bruna Nikolla was accounts assistant at CACI, “helping the finance department with the accountancy side”, she says. Today, she is head of finance and operations and part of the company’s executive management team.
“When I came to this position, I knew I would have to motivate my team and look after planning and managing, all things I’d never done before. I was looking for some training to help me progress.” Nikolla found ICAEW’s Network of Finance Leaders course, a strategic leadership programme for ambitious managers aspiring to FD or similar roles.
“It was such a great experience,” she says. “There are many skills you learn, which are not tangible. Back at work, it was as though the course switched on something in my brain and I began to see things differently and think: ‘I can do this’. It’s not something you learn from a book; you learn things without even realising you are learning them. You become braver, more relaxed, more open minded, you understand other people’s views better.
“I used to get so stressed. I was getting bogged down with all this admin because I wasn’t trusting my team to learn from their mistakes and get things done,” Nikolla says. “Now, I’m properly managing; I delegate everything. My staff are valued, they feel more important, I make them part of the decisions.
I have a completely different mindset. I wouldn’t be able to do my job without doing that course.”
MATTHEW GRANT, GARBUTT & ELLIOT
Matthew Grant was a senior manager at Garbutt & Elliott in York when he and two colleagues took part in ICAEW’s Developing Leadership in Practice (DLIP) course. “The firm’s plan was to create a new position of director, which was between senior managers and partners. DLIP was chosen by
our HR team as a stepping stone towards that,” says Grant.
The course consisted of a training day per month, centred around four elements of leadership: finding (business development); minding (managing people); binding (practice management); and grinding (doing the work).“I’m generally a bit sceptical about this sort of thing, but it was genuinely really interesting,” says Grant. “It came at a time when I was beginning to think that I needed to make real changes in terms of how others perceived me. I was thinking ‘I need to start behaving like a leader’.
The course was a real catalyst for change.”
Following the course, Grant and his colleagues had to present their case, explaining what they would be able to do for the benefit of the company over the next 12 months. The three successfully convinced their bosses and were made directors. Four years later, Grant has just achieved his long-term goal of becoming a partner.
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