Alex Beattie argues that the traditional image of finance work being dull and stuffy should be consigned to sitcom history
A Monty Python sketch famously depicts an accountant, Mr Anchovy, in a meeting with a career advisor being told his “dull, unimaginative, timid and spineless” personality traits mean that accountancy really is all he’s good for.
The word “dull” really is the main character of the sketch.
In a plea to help him change career, Mr Anchovy says he simply “wants to live” and according to him, the “dull, tedious, stuffy and boring” world of accountancy isn’t giving him that opportunity.
With this kind of stereotype to overcome, it’s no surprise that recent research found that one of the biggest hurdles for accountants right now is finding talent, let alone talent with the right skills. Who wants to work for a dull and boring industry these days?
Last time we were looking to hire, I could count the number of CVs we received on one hand and it’s because accounting just isn’t seen as cool.
So, while there are plenty of challenges we’re currently trying to tackle as an industry – the Xero research identified the shifting regulatory landscape, the need for increased digital agility and continually demonstrating value to clients, as some of the other biggest – my priority is helping to change its stereotype. And I believe it should be high on the agenda for other accountants too.
Accountants aren’t people who just crunch numbers all day. We provide crucial advice and consultancy for our clients. For me, those clients are small businesses, and they rely on my analysis and recommendations to help keep their businesses afloat, especially during difficult times.
In fact, client consultancy and relationships are so vital to the job that for me and many other accountants, it’s overtaken maths as a key skill for being successful in the industry. Technology can help with the numbers side of things, but it certainly can’t replicate unique human qualities, like empathy.
Accountants have the opportunity to change someone’s life – we can make a real impact on their business and there’s great satisfaction in that. In fact, the first client I introduced to Xero said: “You’ve given me my Friday nights back”, because they were able to strike a better work-life balance. It can be a really rewarding job.
But despite all the fantastic work that today’s accountants are doing, the industry is still facing an image problem, which stems from people having little understanding of what our day-to-day actually looks like. If you spoke to a sixth form student and asked them to write an accounting job spec, they’d probably imagine what it used to be like – being sat in front of a computer doing tax returns. Exactly how Monty Python depicted it. But it’s not like that anymore.
This perception has to change if we want to attract new talent. And we do, because new talent will be at the heart of tackling many of our other challenges, such as preparing for changes like Making Tax Digital.
To do this, we must ensure the perception of accounting matches the reality – an industry built on brilliant people offering invaluable support to the nation’s businesses. Certainly not dull.
In the sketch, Mr Anchovy reveals he wants to become a lion tamer but is advised that’s out of reach for someone like him. But today’s accountants are proving just how wrong this is, with many taking up extraordinary hobbies
That’s why I’m calling for us to celebrate the accountants doing things a little differently and highlight how the industry is changing and what this means for new recruits.
As so many in the industry do, I discovered accountancy after finding I was good with sums at school. After an apprenticeship and meeting my business partner, KRW was formed, now employing 26 members of staff. But the emergence of the accountant-advisor, who can make a real impact on small business owners’ success, requires different skills to those dictated by the stereotype. Many of us are realising that traditional educational backgrounds and strong numerical skills aren’t as crucial as they once were.
In the sketch, Mr Anchovy reveals he wants to become a lion tamer but is advised the career path is out of reach for someone like him. But today’s accountants are proving just how wrong this is, with many taking up extraordinary hobbies outside of work.
I volunteer for the Army Reserves in my spare time, which seems unusual to many who know me as an accountant. But it has had some unexpected benefits. For example, it’s helped me to improve my interpersonal skills which are crucial in accounting.
Ultimately, more needs to be done to educate the next generations on the realities of being an accountant or bookkeeper, and the value we can bring to small businesses and the wider economy
Pre-reserves, I often struggled to have difficult conversations with people, but it’s helped me develop better interpersonal skills where I can sit and talk to people and be firmer when needed, whether with clients or employees. It has also helped me develop as a better manager and leader and made me respect the need for work/life balance.
This is only one example of how accountants can break the mould and of how the industry is evolving; the industry has many more to offer. In fact, you’ll find a heavy metal DJ, opera singer, BnB manager and axe thrower all in the mix of Xero’s partner base.
We can’t force a change in perception overnight, it will inevitably take time. That’s why I am in strong agreement with Xero that the accounting industry needs more support to attract and train the talent they need. For example, by offering tax relief on staff training in the latest technologies or writing off investments in digital tools, accountants could be empowered to make the most of the opportunities they bring.
Ultimately, more needs to be done to educate the next generations on the realities of being an accountant or bookkeeper, and the value we can bring to small businesses and the wider economy.
It’s down to all of us to work together to challenge outdated perceptions. Modern accountancy isn’t dull, and it doesn’t have to stop you from reaching for your dreams of becoming a lion tamer or otherwise!
Alex Beattie is Managing Director of KRW Accountants
The Xero research: the biggest hurdles hindering accountants