Over the years I have spoken to, and met, countless recently qualified accountants looking for that first move into industry and more often than not the first words I hear are, “I want a commercial role” or “ I would consider management accounting or financial accounting as a second choice…. but I don’t want audit”
Equally, organisations looking to recruit commercial finance roles will have to invest a significant amount of time with a chartered accountant making their first move from practice. This is especially true when compared to applicants with experience in a similar sector or role. Those without relevant skills or industry experience can therefore be at a disadvantage when up against those from industry.
Managing the expectations of both parties is often a problem as both are taking a gamble! The organisation is gambling that with several months of time invested in training and development, they can ensure the talented but inexperienced ACA is of the same level as someone who has already had three years’ experience in a commercial environment. The ACA is taking a risk too. If they are not able to get up to speed, or the commercial role wasn’t the dream job they thought it was, they can be left looking for another role or worse still, not making it through their probation period.
Most finance directors and leaders I speak to (many of whom are chartered accountants) suggest that chartered accountants looking for that first move should “cut their teeth in industry” by securing an audit, controls or reporting type role as their first move.
Three reasons why a controls role is a great first move from practice
1. Career progression is about impact!
By staying within your comfort zone on your first move to industry, you can make a larger impact than moving into the unknown. Impress using your existing experience and be seen as a high potential candidate for an internal move, most likely a more commercial role in 12-18 months’ time.
2. Build your knowledge, reputation and networks internally
Control and risk roles touch most points of the business so you will have the ability to engage with and learn about the business from a wide range of stakeholders both within finance and operations. This will allow you to learn as you showcase your existing skillset and build strong relationships that will serve you well once in a more commercial setting.
3. Take the risk out of your move
As discussed earlier, you are taking on a new role, a new company, and will have a new set of work colleagues, by at least keeping one of these consistent you will be able to make a smooth transition. You will also generally get a much healthier work life balance than in an external audit role.
A company getting it right!
An example of an organisation who are demonstrating how internal control opportunities can be great for your career is Whitbread Plc, a FTSE 100 based in Bedfordshire and the owners of Costa Coffee and Premier Inn.
Meet Hannah Priest
Hannah has been with Whitbread for 6 months having joined from PwC and is now working as a controller within risk, control and process improvement. Hannah is one of a number of ACAs who have joined Whitbread in the controls and risk environment in the last 5 years as the business helps develop its future leaders.
I discussed the following with Hannah:
RM: Why did you join Whitbread in the controls area?
HP: “Having trained at PwC with 8 years of experience working with a large client base ranging from SMEs to FTSE 100 companies, I wanted to move into industry into a role where I could use my understanding of finance concepts, controls and operational improvement to work closely with stakeholders across the business. This role has allowed me to work with these stakeholders to identify appropriate solutions to ensure a strong control environment whist improving operational processes. “
“Moving into new markets such as Germany also presents opportunities to design new processes and to be involved in embedding a strong control environment at the outset of change projects.”
RM: What are your long term career ambitions?
HP: “To lead the financial control agenda and create a best in practice control environment whilst optimising business performance. Once this has been achieved, I will look for the next challenge at that point in time to gain experience and broaden my skill set to set me up for a future leadership role at Whitbread.”
RM: How is the business helping you to reach your goals?
HP: “Whitbread is providing me with the support network and tools with which to progress and opportunities to demonstrate a value added contribution whilst working across all areas of the business.”
RM: Do you feel confident you will have the opportunity to progress into other parts of finance?
HP: “Definitely, I interact with other parts of finance on a daily basis getting a really good insight into the processes which has allowed me to develop a strong knowledge base from which I can progress.”
RM: What do you think is more important when moving from practice, the company or the role?
HP: “The Company was important for me as I was looking for a larger company where there would be scope for movement and growth once I had achieved what I needed to in my role. However, the role was the most important as it should allow you to utilise some of your current skillset whilst also being the foundation for your career at the new company.”
If you are considering a move from practice and wish to express and interest in working for Whitbread in a controls role, you can apply here for an initial conversation with their recruitment team.
Rory McDermott, Head of Talent Acquisition Solutions, ICAEW
The author, Rory McDermott, is Head of the Talent Acquisition Solutions Team at ICAEW and writes regularly on topics related to recruitment and employer branding. The views within this article are his own and not necessarily those of ICAEW.