By Andy Burrows
When people ask me about careers in Finance, one of the questions that comes up regularly is whether you have to be a qualified accountant to get a good Finance role.
So, I thought I’d share the advice I normally give.
Of course, these are my own personal opinions based on over 25 years in the Finance and Accounting profession, having been on both sides of the recruitment equation many times.
I’d love to hear your own perspective, so please comment wherever there is opportunity.
And I’d better start with a caveat up front.
I’m based in the UK, and therefore my experience is mainly drawn from the UK, where there are three main accounting professional bodies – the ICAEW, ACCA and CIMA. The most common route into Finance and Accounting here starts with passing exams set by one of those three bodies. When you pass them all, you are ‘qualified’ and you are allowed to use letters after your name (although, controversially, some ban people using letters after their name if they don’t pay subscriptions for the rest of their working life).
However, every country has their own professional bodies, and, importantly, their own culture around the qualifications. So, for instance, whereas in the UK you would do one qualification, in some parts of the world you may do two.
Most countries, by my reckoning, has some sort of accountancy body that gives that entry qualification. But there are a small number of countries where you can get directly into Finance without any accountancy training, because there are university degrees that teach most of what you need.
So, please educate me if my generalisations don’t ring true in your part of the world.
Ok, there are two short answers, depending where you put the emphasis!
No, you don’t have to be a qualified accountant to get a good Finance role. I mean, we will always be able to find examples of talented Finance leaders around the world who having come through the accounting exams.
BUT, generally speaking, yes you do have be qualified to get a good Finance role!
I have to put it that bluntly, because the questions normally come from people who refer to themselves as ‘qualified by experience’.
That basically means that, for a variety of reasons, they have not managed to pass all the exams, and have chosen to proceed in their Finance career without being able to (or whilst choosing not to) finish them all. As time goes on, they get a similar experience to those who did pass the exams, and they hope that that experience will make up for the deficiency in their exam track record.
But, the fact is that, in my experience, those who call themselves ‘qualified by experience’ rarely reach senior Finance roles. They may make it into junior management, or small company Finance Controller, positions, and operate fairly solidly, but they don’t progress further.
I’ll come to whether that’s fair or not in a minute.
The main point is that in any strategy, career strategy included, it’s best to “face the brutal facts” (Jim Collins, Good to Great).
And the brutal fact, if you’re stuck on that last exam, is that it really does make a difference later in your career. So, if you’re ambitious, you’ll be severely handicapping yourself if you give up on the exams and go the ‘qualified by experience’ route.
There’s a part of me that wants to stop and say, it doesn’t matter whether it’s fair or not. It’s the way it is, and the most relevant question is what to do about it to progress your career, if that’s what you want to do.
However, I think it’s helpful to say a little bit more, to encourage a different way of thinking. And this is aimed at those considering whether to complete their qualification, those who are studying for exams and finding it hard, and those who may be wondering whether it’s too late.
So, up front I’ll say, yes, I think it is fair to make an accounting qualification a requirement for mid to high level jobs within Finance. And there are a couple of reasons for that.
First of all, we have to remember the whole purpose of exams and qualifications. And the purpose of qualifications is to demonstrate that you have achieved a certain level of knowledge and proficiency in a particular area or topic.
When you have a qualification it means that employers shouldn’t have to do tests to see whether you can do, or whether you know, certain things. So, having an accounting qualification means that you’ve reached a standard that means an employer doesn’t have to ask you whether you know double-entry bookkeeping, how to pull together financial statements, understand ratios or can do investment appraisal.
Additionally, try and put yourself in the position of a hiring manager. You want to be open-minded, knowing that some ‘qualified by experience’ people may be as good as some qualified people.
But then you get 20 CVs (resumes) and have only a couple of hours to read through them all. The experience on most of them looks very similar, and most of them have qualifications. You feel yourself asking why this person hasn’t got a qualification. But there are 10 other candidates you don’t have that question about.
So, the qualified people get on the shortlist.
In short, having good qualifications is designed to help you get interviews, because it makes it more efficient for hiring managers to sift applicants at the first stage.
Secondly, though, (and this is a generalisation) the more important thing is what ‘qualified by experience’ says about your mindset.
Again, tough love here. And it’s all to do with growth mindset versus fixed mindset (as per Carol Dweck).
A lot of people give up on exams, saying “I’m just not good at exams, and my experience is good enough.” And that, to me, already displays a mindset that is not going to make it.
That’s a ‘fixed’ mindset on display. It’s the mindset that says, if I fail an exam it shows I am no good and/or can’t pass exams, or this subject is too hard for me.
The more successful people are those with a ‘growth’ mindset. That’s the mindset that says, what can I do differently to pass next time? Those are the people who will work hard, are the self-starters, continuous improvers, always seeking to better themselves, because they don’t see failures. They only see learning opportunities.
As I read somewhere the other day, “when you are pursuing a goal with intention, you either get the result that you wanted, or the lesson that you needed.” The F-word (failure) is nowhere in that quote. If you see failure in that phrase, you brought it in with your own mindset.
I’m not saying that everybody can do anything. But I do believe that everyone has the capacity and potential, given enough time, training, practice and help, to do a huge amount more than they possibly think.
So, what should you do about it?
If you’re an accounting trainee, prioritise passing your exams. Get that qualification. Don’t let your day job eat into study time. Remember what you want at the end of it, and why you want it. Make a study plan and stick to it. And don’t give up.
That’s what I told every trainee that ever worked for me. As a manager, their success in their qualification was more important to me than how many hours overtime they would work to meet a deadline.
If you’ve got stuck on your last couple of exams, it’s never too late. Believe in yourself, make a plan, and execute it. Learn the lessons along the way. And don’t give up.
And if you are finding it hard to complete the qualification, if it’s important to you, then don’t be too proud or shy or reticent to ask for help, even help that you have to pay for.
Find someone like James Perry, the Accounting Success Coach, who has successfully coached well over 100 people through accounting exams.
So, in summary, being qualified as an accountant does make a difference to your potential in your Finance career.
But with the right mindset, it’s possible to get the qualification, and through that gateway into a very successful career in Finance.
If you want to be a CFO, develop these three skills
How to get into a strategic Finance role
Interview with James Perry, Accounting Success Coach
Interview with Raymond Holt, Finance Director and Founder of Agnentis Partners
Finance Career Growth Blueprint (ebook) and Finance Career Growth Mini Course
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