13 Jun 2016 10:41am

Answering your career accountancy questions

From getting back in the loop after being on maternity leave to securing a job within one of the Big Four audit firms, Simon Wright from CareersinAudit.com answers your accountancy career questions

1. I am keen to get a job within one of the Big Four audit firms. I know it’s competitive and I wondered what my chances are with a second class lower degree in accounting?

Despite the hype, there have always been ways to enter the Big Four outside of the mainstream routes. Even if you don’t have a degree, there are opportunities to get a job as a school leaver and it is one way to avoid tuition fee debt.

You have a 2:2 degree and that’s still a great achievement. Whilst it’s always good to be aware of the competitive marketplace, you need to focus on what you can bring and your personal differentiator(s).

At one level this may simply be sector experience. So for example if you are in the fortunate position of having an expertise in a particular area such as 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 become a professional marketer and discover your unique selling proposition (USP).

What makes you unique? What makes you better than other candidates applying for a similar position? What can you offer that no other applicant can? What is the one reason the employer should want to hire you above all other candidates? Determining your USP means finding your added value. Here are some suggestions to help you stand out from the crowd:

1. Write your own mission statement. How do you define success? What turns you on? Review it regularly. Get passionate about it. 

2.  List your strengths and natural abilities. What qualities and characteristics distinguish you from your contemporaries? Go back through your career and also think about current practical tasks and projects. What are you most proud of?

3. Ask friends, colleagues and family for feedback. What do they perceive to be your greatest strengths? What do they like most about you? What do they value most about you? What three words sum up your positives? If they needed help, what would they ask you to help with? And, crucially, ask them for supporting examples, which are essential for your CV.

4. Reflect on the feedback. Any there any surprises? How do you feel about it? Do you feel confident about these abilities? How can you become more confident? How will you use this information going forward? How are you going to maximise your strengths?

Do not 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.

Avoid limiting 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. Furthermore, 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.

2. I have recently returned back to work after a year’s maternity leave – I have a middle management role within the finance department of the company. I work five days a week, three from home (due to childcare arrangements). I do feel out of the loop now and feel I may get left out of important decisions and could be missing out on the more interesting project work that comes up. What should I do?

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; 21st 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.

Try to see your new working arrangements as 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 

Try to address these individually. For each area of concern, consider: where you are now, where do you 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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

Simon Wright is operations director at CareersinAudit.com


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