Hudson: Successful Accounting Career Q&A

We recently chatted to Hudson’s Associate Director Craig Malcolm and Co-CE of AccountingPod, Judith Cambridge about Building a Successful Accounting Career in Australia and New Zealand. This insightful conversation is must read if you are in the market for an accounting role. Below is a summary of our webinar discussion and Q&A. Take a read!

AccountingPod: To start with, let’s get a bit of an update or market insight from both Craig and Judith. In general,  what’s happening in the accounting industry in terms of talent, skills, employment and job placement? So, Craig, would you like to start by giving us an overview on what’s happening, based on your experience, in the accounting job and talent market?

Craig: Sure, Thank you. Like you mentioned, at the start I’m the Associate Director for Hudson.  Hudson recruits in many areas, my team specifically recruits in the accounting and finance area. I’ve been in the business for 11 years. Prior to that I’ve recruited in accounting and finance in London for 4 years. So, I’ve had a pretty good bird’s eye view of what’s been happening in the industry in terms of how some of the role types have changed over time. Over those 15 years. We have definitely seen some interesting trends. To qualify things, the majority of the roles we recruit would be into the commercial sector. We do recruit for  public practice firms, but they are mainly second tier and smaller firms. We do recruit for Deloitte and KPMG but probably to the audience that this webinar is directed to today, as you all know, they like to run their own graduate intakes every year. We tend to come in at the senior end of the space. Of all the roles we place probably about 15% in that CA environment, the rest would be into that commercial area across all sectors: banking, finance, government, SMEs and multinationals. We have a team of 10 consultants.

One of my broad brush observations in terms of what’s happened with skill sets for the industry is in the traditional financial accounting role – the financial accountant. When I started here at Hudson there was very clear distinction of the technical skills between financial accounting and management accounting. But these days when we get a job order from a client to recruit for financial accountants, the top 3 bullet points of skills would be around the soft skills; communication, the ability to bring [business] insights to life and make recommendations. Whereas compared to when I started here at Hudson, it was probably more a processing role, financial accountants would do their bits, put out the numbers, pass it to somebody else and then it was up to them to make sense of the insights and make recommendations. These days you need the communication skills and business partnering skills to really be successful. I might be generalising here, but I can almost guarantee that if we had a number of candidates up it doesn’t matter what kind of role it is, the winning or losing of the interview, when candidates that have very similar skills and experience, will be that ability to be a business partner and build relationships across the business. That’ll be what will get you the job at the end of the day, having those soft skills.

AccountingPod: Thank you very much for that. Let me just reiterate to our attendees: Experience is important but the soft skills, communication skills and the ability to articulate and communicate insights and to come up with recommendations, work with and bring people together, business partnering skills would determine a job outcome for a candidate. It’s very interesting to note the shift from let’s say 10 or 20 years ago, the heavy focus on the technical abilities and processing abilities now to these soft skills.  Judith, would you like to make some comments in that regard?

Judith: Yeah, my thinking is pretty much aligned with that of Craig’s. And what we’ve seen I guess I’ve got a couple of insights from this side. First of all, as a Chartered Accountant in public practice, having worked in provincial chartered accounting firms and moving into public practice on my own account before bringing partners onboard. I’ve been on a journey of seeing that technology of our industry evolving and it absolutely changing the way we work. And therefore I can see that the [soft] skill sets that Craig is talking about becomes so much more important following the impact of automation, offshoring and outsourcing. Those three key components have largely dealt with the transactional component of the industry. And very much that entry level accountant now needs to be able to understand the landscape,  be able to learn very quickly and move into those advisory areas [which require] communication, problem-solving and the ability to network and really build relationships. All those things are required to assist the businesses either in the enterprise that you are working for or the client that they are interacting with to really help them find the right opportunity for their business. Now, that’s a challenge for graduates, I acknowledge that.

Q: From an employer’s perspective, what are the most important skills (1-3) that new grads must have?

Craig: When I started here at Hudson there were very clear divisions of the technical skills, still is in terms of financial accounting and management accounting.

But these days the top 3 bullet points are around soft skills, communication skills and the ability to bring insights to life and make recommendations.

Compared to when I started (at Hudson), it was probably more like a processing role: financial accountants would do their bits, put out the numbers, pass it to somebody else and then it was up to them to make sense of the insights and make recommendations. These days you need those communication and business partnering skills to really be successful. That’ll be what will get you the job at the end of the day.

Q: In many online job advertisements (e.g. Seek) for graduate accounting roles, a lot of them require some work experience or some other requirement that is tied to having work experience (i.e. experience with using Xero or MYOB in a work environment). For new graduates, how could they get the work experience needed for most job postings if they could not get into the companies due to these requirements in the first place? How do new graduates get around this catch-22? Where could new graduates start?

Craig:Assistant accounting and assistant roles have been a good area for graduates to move into the industry and pick up their first role. What we recommend for graduates here is approaching the big organisations directly in the hope that you could get on one of their graduate intake programs. Doing lots of things in the background will also increase your chances to get that job interview like attending interest group events.

It’s all about building your network and people know people. If you’re coming across as keen and enthusiastic, those connections can help you.

Practical experience training programs – it might be an extra expense but at least you can put it on your CV and, perhaps, distinguish yourself from other applicants that have the similar level of experience as yourself.

QWhat would you recommend in terms of extracurricular activities that I should be involved in as an accounting student?

Judith: Get out of your comfort zone and get to know and understand the community around you. Talk to people and start understanding the culture of the business environment of the country as early as possible.

Have a look at the charity sector and see what you can bring to the table for some of these registered charities. Their financials are searchable online so you could approach a charity with quite a lot of knowledge just by searching the [online charities] register. Working through how you could add value and they could sustainably grow. Volunteer for a charity before you graduate.

Q: How could we take advantage of the new wave of technologies coming into the accounting industry to stand out in the job market of the future?

Judith: You’ve got to be ready to make the change. It’s very difficult to introduce all of these cloud-based technologies to 200 students at once. So, it’ll come back to the student themselves doing their own research. Joining some of the newsletters that come out from some of the technology and business magazines. Actually being aware of what’s happening in the business’ news – both domestically and internationally. Ask questions, observe what people are doing and don’t be afraid to try.

Craig: Some of the in-demand technologies that are being used and skill sets that our clients are looking for in accountants are Power BI, SQL, VBA and even Python is weaving its way into the accounting world.

Q: Looking to try to get me an intern or grad role at one of the big accounting/banking firms. Obviously, grades aren’t everything as interpersonal skills and extracurricular activities are also important but in relation to grades what would be a solid benchmark to make myself employable? I have heard a B+ average is a good aim?

Craig: Grades are important but they’re not everything.

There’s a whole raft of areas that might be assessed on graduate intake programs. So grades might get you on their radar, but more importantly is how you perform on those assessments on the day.

Judith: Try your very best in everything you choose to put your time and energy into.

Q: Are there really more barriers for international students with regard to the accounting job market in New Zealand, or is this just a myth (based on your opinion)?

Craig: I think it’s a myth. International graduates and students probably face the same challenges that people who studied here in New Zealand or New Zealanders coming through universities.  As long as they got the work rights to work here, placing international students comes down to the same things: how you present your communication skills, all sorts of bits and pieces and if you’ve got those things you’ve got the same chances as local students.

Judith: International students do need to keep in mind that yes, there’ll be country-specific knowledge that others might have but there’s nothing to stop them doing some additional reading to make sure they have a better understanding of the country’s culture and business culture if that proves to be a barrier.

AccountingPod: In our opinion, international students in particular bilingual or multilingual students in this age of intensified internationalisation almost have the advantage in the job market. It’s a myth 🙂

Q: I am interested in pursuing a career in internal auditing. How do I break into this industry and what is a career in internal auditing like?

Craig: There’s a perception that it’s better to start as an external auditor in one of the big 4 or CA firms  it’ll then improve your chances of an internal audit role. However, I would recommend that approach big organisations – the financial services organisations and banks – that have junior roles for internal auditors to get started as an option.

Q: Should a grad start thinking about specialisations straight away or should they be flexible and really just look at what’s needed in the job market?

Craig: My opinion would be to focus on a role that gives you the experience you need to grow in your career.  I wouldn’t be too flexible depending on the market, but if you had a choice my advice would be move into one that gets you a bit more foundation experience and skills into a few different areas and you can make up your mind where you want to go next. But at least you have that experience.

Judith:When you really gain that mixed experience it means you can sit in front of a client and actually – in any business – provide them with comprehensive advice across a whole range of information that a business has to deal with.

Q:In general, what would be the most challenging aspects of work for those in the senior level/ position in their organisations (executives)? What skills should those at the start of their careers be honing in order to make sure they would be able to handle the challenges that they would experience if they ever get into senior roles?

Craig: The more senior you become within an organisation, the less it is about your technical accounting skills and more about your leadership skills, your people skills, your ability to influence and having that critical thinking.

I placed a large multinational CFO role recently. I can’t recall anything in the requirements around accounting. There’s a team of people that help them get that knowledge to be able to provide good financial advice to the board and to the company and direct them through that. But the key criteria for the role was the ability to inspire, lead, build relationships across functions: IT, marketing, strategy, the CEO and the MD. A lot of that comes with experience. If we’re thinking about learning opportunities for students, they could be putting themselves in a situation that they get to speak in front of groups. Because that is one of the things that the more you do the better you get at it.

AccountingPod: Don’t overlook the Customer Service type of jobs when you are at University. These are great opportunities to be people facing, communicating and helping people/customers to solve problems. In terms of public speaking, you could look at joining events like Startup Weekends or your Student societies or clubs or ToastMasters.

Q: How is the accounting industry in Australia and New Zealand today different from that of the past (10-15 years)? Has it become more competitive?

Craig: Depends on the role that you’re applying for. Right now if you’re a candidate in Auckland, and you want to be a financial accountant or financial analyst. and you’re good at what you do we’ll be able to present you with multiple opportunities. So that’s a candidate-led market.

CFO roles often need somebody to be moving out of that company to present an opportunity to somebody else, so it’s often a highly competitive role.

So, at the graduate and the very senior levels, the competition will be very high. But right now in the mid-level roles, it’s good to be a candidate. In there right now you probably have your pick of where you would work next.

Q: Which accounting service line or field has, in general, more work-life balance? (e.g. Audit vs. Business Advisory, Management Accounting vs. Internal Auditing)

All:If you love what you do, then go for it! Make sure you keep well both mentally and physically.

Interview edited for readability.