Bean-count your way to the top
If you’re clever, an accountancy career can be a route to corporate success, says Chris Higson
Not so long ago, people were predicting the eclipse of the accountancy profession. Accountancy had always been a reliable route to the top, particularly in the UK, but perhaps this was changing. It looked as though other countries got by with fewer accountants than the UK. Furthermore, the burgeoning business education industry and proliferating MBA courses, seemed to pose a credible threat to accountancy as the foundation for a career in business.
Finally there was the problem of so many professional bodies. There was the ICAEW, producing chartered accountants, CIMA producing management accountants, ACCA producing certified accountants, as well as a number of smaller specialist bodies, all of them competing to offer accountancy qualifications. Surely this was a profession badly in need of some rationalisation?
It’s always nice to see sceptics confounded. Today you probably wouldn’t say any of this. The demand for accountants has never been stronger. Accountancy remains the most popular destination for graduates in the UK. Globally, there is a significant shortage of accountants in an industrialising world and the shortage of accountants is most acute in China.
Accountancy should be a natural invisible export for the UK. The UK had a disproportionate influence in the creation of the world’s leading public accounting firms, and also in the development of IFRS, the international accounting standards framework.
As to the competing qualifications, after a period of modernisation all three of the major accountancy bodies are thriving in their markets. The ICAEW continues to be grounded in public practice and to benefit from the extraordinary global franchise that the Big Four accounting firms have achieved. CIMA’s focus on management accounting, and its claim to produce the most “managerial” accountants, also provides a strong franchise. CIMA has proved to be very popular in industries such as banking, well outside its traditional industrial heartland. ACCA spans both public practice and industry and has been very energetic in exporting its qualification.
But being a successful accountant doesn’t finish with qualifying. As accountants progress to senior roles in their organisations, they need to become general managers with leadership skills who can talk credibly about key business disciplines and understand wider economic factors.
The leading business schools have evolved their executive education portfolios to meet these needs in ways that are highly focused and efficient. One example is London Business School’s Accelerated Development Programme, a programme of two modules, two weeks each in length, that prepares today’s managers to become tomorrow’s leaders by supporting them through the transition into general management. The programme prepares individuals to take on a broader, more strategic role within their organisation by concentrating on five key capabilities that are needed to become an effective and inspiring leader
But it’s not just about the professional skills that accountants are increasingly required to update. Their working environment also plays a part in the training and development that they receive. Accountants often have an intense and demanding workload. As such, flexible learning solutions are paramount; they allow HR teams and accountants to pick and choose the programmes best suited to match an individual’s schedule and development needs.
At London Business School programmes range in length from two days to four weeks. Topics cover General Management, Strategy, Leadership, Finance, Financial Management, Marketing and Human Resources. Such programmes provide talented individuals with the opportunity to take a step back from their day-to-day agenda and think about the bigger picture.
The roles of accountants and financial managers have changed over the past ten years. Companies recognise the valuable perspective these professionals bring to the organisation and are looking to accelerate more and more of these executives into general management and leadership roles.
Courses like London Business School’s Accelerated Development Programme aim to prepare executive for this transition by strengthening interpersonal and strategic skills while broadening their organisational and functional knowledge.
The programme and the post programme coaching and development activities equip executives with the vital leadership skills needed to excel in today’s business environment. Whatever the doom-mongers say, accountancy isn’t dead just yet.
Chris Higson is a chartered accountant and is an accounting professor at London Business School, where he was formerly Chair of the accounting group.