Future proof your accounting career

What is the future of the accounting profession?

5 important skills finance professionals need.

Updated 19 August 2016

Depending on who you talk to, the future is either very bright for accounting professionals or extremely dim.

"We are in a disruption right now," says John Symons CPA, CEO of one of Australia and New Zealand's largest independent retail groups, Associated Retailers.

According to Symons, who previously spent nearly four years with The Finance Leaders Alliance: "In order to become lower cost and more efficient, [the financial services sector is] forcing flatter structures in leadership and enabling that through shared services. That means our finance teams are shrinking."

"A lot of the transactional type roles are heading offshore, at least for the bigger [companies]," adds Peter Antonius CPA, CEO of Moore Stephens Australia.

"There is certainly a shift in the opportunities that exist."

Hard hit through factors that include flatter structures, offshoring and globalisation, supply far outstrips demand when it comes to many professional finance jobs.

These shifts call for a new set of skills for those seeking a career in financial services. While technical expertise is still important, current trends point away from transactional functions towards a need for greater business support: providing financial acumen, business analysis, commercial advice and strategic leadership. In short, instead of bringing just numbers to the table, finance is expected to bring value.

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“The trouble with the finance function [today] is that we produce so much information that people don’t need and businesses don’t require. Our purpose should be business focused,” says Symons.

“Finance thinks it’s serving the business by providing information because it’s got access to it. But actually what it needs to do is be relevant – then you can create influence and start to drive performance outcomes.”

“[We look] at skills that play to client and market needs,” Luke Sayers, CEO of bigFour accounting firm PwC, said in an address to a Melbourne CPA Congress panel on the future of the accounting profession.

Among those skills are “diversity [in] culture, skills, genders and mindsets. We are looking for agility and mobility. Mobility may mean moving around physically but most importantly we’re looking at ‘Are we able to change our mindsets to a new way of doing things, whatever that new way might be?’”

Where there is disruption, so too is there opportunity. Even though there might be fewer "financial accountants" and "management accountants" being hired, "there’s great opportunity for finance and accounting expertise within organisations," says Antonius.

"We’re seeing a real shift as far as the roles accountants are being asked to fulfill within business."

What skills do you need?

The release in May 2016 of the latest Department of Employment "Australian Jobs" study shows that most new jobs will be in industries and occupations for which post-school study is essential, once again hightailing the importance of education. There is a certainly a clear trend toward highly skilled jobs, especially in professional services. Here is just a broad snapshot of the attributes aspiring finance professionals need going forward:
 
Portablility: Portability refers to a career or skill set that you can take with you wherever opportunities lie. "Portability is key," says Antonius. "It's certainly going to position people a lot better in their careers than those who are only willing to look at their own locations."

Portability is not just physical; it means, according to Sayers, being “able to change our mindsets.” Fluency in a second language obviously opens up more opportunities.

Agility: Agility is important in a flat employment market, where there may not be as many linear opportunities. Being agile means considering lateral moves in your current company or moving across industry sectors. Symons, who started at BP as a trainee accountant, spent several years in HR, a move he found invaluable for the different skills he learned as well as exposure to a different facet of the organisation.

Don't let yourself be pigeonholed in one career category lest you find yourself displaced when that function no longer exists.

Breadth: Breadth is in some ways a byproduct of agility and portability: having a broad base of knowledge and skills that allow you to take on different roles in a variety of industries. Harvard Business Review is bullish on breadth, arguing that it's more important to be able to see the forest for the trees than it is to be a specialist in varieties of bark type.

If you aspire to start your own company, being a generalist who is across multiple facets of the business will stand you in better stead than specialising. And yet ... .

Specialisation: Specialisation has its proponents too, and whether you decide to go for breadth or depth is ultimately a very personal decision. Focusing on a sector of finance – such as a particular area of tax or complex legislation like IFRS – can position you as the expert in that field within your organisation.

If you are a specialist in an area that few others do, your skills will be valued. The danger of course is if you specialise in a field that becomes obsolete.

Soft skills: Employers are taking a closer look at "soft skills", that cluster of qualities that makes someone valuable in a service economy. Candidates should be ready to demonstrate good communication skills, time management, problem-solving and other analytical skills, the ability to work well within a team and flexibility, among others.

“Great technical expertise is important,” Giam Swiegers, now CEO of Aurecon, said at CPA Congress 2013, “but it's a lot more available now [with technology]. Leadership takes different skills,” because he asserted, managing a project often involves managing people around the world who need to be mobilised quickly into a team.

Read next: 9 workplace trends of the future


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