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How to excel as an accountant

23 July 2021

Introduction

Every accountant who excels has a career plan. The Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants (HKICPA) Qualification Programme (QP) is a key part of a career plan towards becoming a professional accountant.

When I thought about my career plan upon graduation, I knew I had to acquire new skills, learn to use valuable tools, review my career progression and manage various work-life stages. Although each person’s career plan differs and evolves over time, for any graduate who wishes to pursue an accounting career should consider the following elements when determining their career plan.

Soft skills for a career in accounting

Although emphasising technical skills and knowledge may be the norm, a well demonstrated set of soft skills often gives a budding candidate an edge on landing his/her first job and smooths the path to the next level. It may be challenging for fresh graduates to identify soft skills that are beneficial for their career because there is neither a soft skills curriculum, nor a commonly adopted procedural handbook to follow. Below are a few well sought-after skills that can help your career potential:

Soft skill How to demonstrate?
Attention to  detail                     

Attention to detail is one of the most straightforward soft skills that anyone can acquire. It can be as simple as putting “sign here” stickers next to signature boxes for clients or supervisors. It can also be reading an article in depth and spotting any oversight. In a highly demanding work environment, it is not uncommon to overlook a checkbox or miss a typographical mistake. Attention to detail is listed as the first soft skill to have because this can be applied at any stage of a project by any person regardless of their position. It is a quality-defining skill that is equally important for an intern as it is for a c-suite executive.

Time management and organization of work

Time management is important because we are constantly multitasking in this digital age. It is becoming more difficult to focus on one single task when everyone is constantly bombarded by instant messages and emails from various sources. Managers no longer have the privilege like in the old days to stay in a conference room with a team to crank out reports without disruption, so learning to better manage workflow and prioritize deliverables would be a more sensible solution.

 

Although accountants are not a “slashies” taking on multiple careers, they often juggle between various tasks, or even multiple projects concurrently. Therefore, managing time wisely will enhance efficiency and reduce delays from time conflicts. In addition, good organization skills are also beneficial for teamwork since one has to be organized in order to collaborate and delegate.

Sense of the overall task/engagement

 

Having a holistic view of a work task is an integral part of performing accounting duties. It is not uncommon that junior professionals are assigned to drill down into details of one business segment or a single business account. However, do not let that situation lead to becoming pigeonholed.

 

Having a holistic view is important because everything in the business world is interrelated. Take auditing cash accounts for example, if there is a significant increase in cash, it is important for the auditor to find out the source of the cash. The cash could increase due to an increase in cash sales, but it could also increase due to a business loan draw down. Auditing can be more efficient if auditors have a thorough understanding of their client’s business context and mode of operation. Remember that knowledge about an engagement can come through newspaper and other public media as well as directions from seniors.

Leverage technology

Proficiency in software usage, like Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Teams, can enhance work efficiency. Since consistency is one of the virtues of accounting systems, professionals can take advantage of this and streamline the annual reporting process. The use of spreadsheets for calculations and procedures will allow professionals to perform annual work more efficiently and consistently. A spreadsheet template and a virtual teamwork environment form a good framework if there is a need to share work among team members.

 

For more advanced users, building macros and using other computer programs to perform routine tasks are also common industry trends. Robotic process automation and artificial intelligence will reduce repetitive non-value-added work so professionals can spend more time working on advanced topics or tasks that require professional judgements.

 

With the current pandemic and work-from-home arrangement, many managers value people who can host Zoom meetings or webinars seamlessly with attendees tracking report, breakout room discussions, polling questions and post-meeting follow-ups.

Communication

Good writing and presenting skills are essential to communicate results and analysis accurately to different parties such as executives, investors, and board members. Although most documentations and working papers in the accounting field are numeric by nature, standards and regulations are printed in words. Therefore, there is a need to understand, interpret and communicate these regulations with professional peers and clients.

 

Being multilingual is a plus in Asia-Pacific markets because there are cross-border transactions that professionals can better communicate with their business counterparts using their native languages. Clear and precise communication skills can be seen through webinars, newsletter emails, and industry update pamphlets when a new accounting guidance is released. It is also important to note the importance of thinking in the others’ shoes when communicating. For example, what would be the best approach to get executives’ attention? Executives may have limited time, they will appreciate an executive summary as opposed to a full proposal rundown.

Personal branding

Personal branding is a valuable investment for long term growth in the accounting industry. Personal branding is like the goodwill of a company which takes a long time to establish. While it is common for accountants to be stereotyped, it is up to the individual to build his or her own image. There are a lot of charismatic individuals who are hardworking, analytical, sociable, smart and approachable in the profession.

 

To build a personal brand, one should be consistent in presenting oneself in person and online. It feels inauthentic when a person appears mature on a LinkedIn profile but goofy when face-to-face. To maintain the image and technical skills as a professional, one should continuously get industry updates and trainings to keep up with the industry trends.

Professional life after the QP

Completing the QP opens the door to many career opportunities. For those who are exploring options, here are four different paths that are common among accountants:

Professionals in ... Professional life 
Big Four firms                                                     

The Big Four accounting firms provide comprehensive training grounds for graduates. The peer learning environment is an advantage as many graduates are hired by the Big Four firms as opposed to only a few accountants typically hired into any single company each year. The Big Four firms are suitable for those who enjoy having batchmates to go through the first few years of their careers together with.

 

In this era of global mobility, the Big Four firms provide opportunities in major cities around the globe. Although each firm is owned by partners of that country, the broad affiliated network and cross-country engagements allow outstanding professionals to build connections and create opportunities to work in a foreign office.

Commercial sector

The commercial sector is a great choice for those who are interested in specific business segments or companies. As a management trainee or an accountant, professionals get to be involved in many aspects of an industry. For example, accountants in the movie industry will get to see project accounting at work along a film’s lifecycle; accountants in the real estate industry will get to see long-term contracts and leasing activities; accountants in the financial industry will be familiar with securities and derivatives transactions. Accounting knowledge can be used beyond financial reporting since it provides insights to business operations.

Government organizations and regulators                                                                                                          

The government and regulators need graduates with accounting knowledge. It is a good choice for those who possess accounting knowledge with a keen sense of strong governance and structured process. Many organizations such as the Securities and Futures Commission, the Mandatory Provident Fund Schemes Authority, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, and the Internal Revenue Department will have vacancies requiring HKICPA qualifications or equivalent from time to time.

 Other areas There is a broad range of careers available for accountants. The need for accounting knowledge is present across a wide range of careers such as entrepreneurship, non-profit organizations, academia, etc. The HKICPA Mentorship Programme provides a well-diversified network of certified public accountants in different fields for new members to connect and develop formal and informal connections with. Having a mentor-mentee relationship is a great way to enrich your career experience early in your career.

 

There are often various reasons to seek for advice or feedback from a third party not involved in your work duties as discussion topic could involve a change in working department or even a change in employer.  

Specialist path vs generalist path

No matter which career opportunity is pursued, there is a slight distinction in senior roles up the leadership ranks. Roles are generally classified into two categories - a specialist or a generalist. There are pros and cons in each path.

The pros of being a specialist include the ease in building a name as the go-to person in the industry, the efficiency in work due to the knowledge accumulated, and the high compensation for personnel with specific technical skills. However, the associated cons include fewer options available for advancement, the repetitive nature of work in the same domain, and the risk of the specialty being obsolete. The opposite holds true for generalists.

There is no correct choice, so it is best to evaluate in conjunction with individual characteristics and personal preferences.

Finding an edge in the profession

It is important to find a personal edge no matter which path is chosen. An edge could be expert knowledge in a particular topic, strong connection to an industry or trade group, a well-developed network of clients, an extensive network of business partners for collaborations, etc.

Taking myself as an example, I specialised in US tax services for investment funds during my career in a Big Four accounting firm. Due to the flow of US persons and US investments globally, I had the opportunity to take secondments to work in Buenos Aires, London, Los Angeles & New York with the same firm. The experience broadened my horizon for which I am forever grateful. It would not be possible had I not decided to specialise in the area.


About the author

Jessica Lee Yim,
AICPA, CPA (California, USA), MPhil Candidate, Teaching and Research Assistant, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

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