What skills set does it take to be successful as an accountant or tax adviser?

Jun 13, 2013 | Key Business skills, STANDING OUT

Some years ago I routinely highlighted the need to build and develop personal and business skills in addition to technical skills. It’s all very well to understand accounting and tax rules and how to produce a set of accounts and tax returns, but ambitious accountants need a wider skills set if they want to be successful. Today I return to the topic – for reasons that will become apparent.

It has long been my experience, and that of other training providers, that accountants and tax advisers are far more willing to invest in keeping up to date technically, than they are to invest in their personal development.

The number of attendees at technical courses will often be more than double the number who seek out non-technical CPD. This seems to be seen as simply a nice-to-have, rather than a crucial element of becoming and remaining a successful accountant or tax adviser. I find this odd as my own career success in practice owed far more to my non-technical skills than it did to my technical ones. And I know I’m not alone. It’s actually very common. Some of those skills may have come naturally to me but most benefitted from the numerous training courses I attended, books I read and tapes(!) I listened to over the years.

What prompted this blog post was the impassioned plea contained in a full page letter published in the June 2013 issue of Tax Adviser magazine. The letter  was written by Margaret Connolly, Partner and Head of Taxation at Reeves, a major firm of Accountants with over 40 partners in south-east England.

Margaret doesn’t mention non-technical skills as such but does note, inter alia, that:

Too many bright and talented tax staff only have experience of compliance work; They have had very little opportunity or experience in the advisory field even if they have secured an ATT or CIOT qualification.

“What makes a good tax adviser is the possession of the ability to interpret tax legislation and to apply it to each and every situation offerred by clients; indeed this is what clients expect.”

Those coming into the profession today are not afforded the time or encouraged to undertake detailed technical research, to think for themselves and offer their understanding of the legislation.

Most experienced tax partners today are under too much pressure to meet billing targets such that they cannot devote time to training up less experienced colleagues.

Although candidates’ CVs imply they have relevant experience, when probed during interviews they seem unable to demonstrate that they can give advice that considers all relevant tax issues.

If the profession doesn’t provide return to the days of adequate on the job training we will end up with a dearth of good quality tax advisers.

I have long believed that a period of varied and relevant practical experience is crucial over and above the achievement of professional qualifications. For this reason I entirely agree with Margaret Connolly’s concerns. But I would go further.

To be a successful accountant or tax adviser I believe  that you also need a range of personal and business skills and to have practiced these in real life client and office scenarios. Yes, you can learn some ‘on the job’ but why not accelerate your personal development in the same way as you do your technical skills? We think so much of this is common sense. Some is of course – with the benefit of hindsight. But we need to make it common practice and that’s quite different. We also need to learn about best practice and new techniques.

A few years ago I created a personal skills audit for ambitious accountants and tax advisers. It’s a one page note that highlights a dozen key skill areas. At the time I planned to act as a mentor, but I no longer have time for this. Still, I have dug it out and you can now access the note with my compliments through this link>> [edited: for a few weeks I was sending this by email but it’s become so popular….]. You can then see for yourself which areas seem to be important to you in your current role. You can also then grade yourself, honestly, for each of those skills on a scale of 1-10. What you do with the results is upto you.

And if you have any views on this topic, do please let me know direct or add your comments below this blog post

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