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The grey man at the top


In the increasingly numbers-driven nature of international business, it pays to be trained in accountancy. It often pays very well, in fact, but more interestingly it also opens up a route to the top in many companies that didn’t always exist. There are now more accountants at the helm of the UK’s top companies than ever before – over twice as many as in the 1990s.

The reason for this? In simple terms, business has changed. It is faster and more competitive than ever. Financial mistakes can make or break companies in record time. As well as a strategic vision for the company, a business leader has to have a confident grasp of details, and this usually means numbers.

A well-rounded business leader must possess an accurate and logical understanding of a company’s components. Balance sheets provide such a picture, and these are an accountant’s bread and butter. The reasoning and thought process needed to dissect a balance sheet gives a solid base of skills for understanding any business, no matter what the scale.

The pendulum has swung further in the favour of accountants in the wake of the credit crunch. When the stock markets imploded in late 2008 and early 2009 the rug was pulled out from under all but the most stable businesses. As a result, many companies’ priorities changed. Leaders found they had to manage costs rather than growth and this highlighted the need to have sound financial stewardship at the top.

Business leaders can’t dine out on mathematical prowess alone, of course, and there are plenty of managing directors and chief executives that aren’t qualified accountants. But the accountancy route to the top of the executive mountain is a path that is becoming increasingly well-trodden as accountants become more and more valued for their strategic insight rather than just their fiscal mastery.

And this effect is filtering down through business. Many career options are opening up for accountants as their training increasingly ties in ‘softer’ skills such as communications and wider commercial awareness. This improves their currency across a range of business roles, and in the boardroom. And across the board accountants are getting more opportunity to influence the commercial drivers of their businesses.

It is no surprise that interest in accountancy among young people remains strong. The profession is one of a few which gives a solid starting income – especially important for fresh graduates loaded with debt – as well as a rising number of career options. As a result we are noticing an increasingly diverse group of people choosing a career in accountancy. In our last candidate poll thirty per cent came from an ethnic minority background – and there are more women in accountancy training now than men.

The ‘grey man in the grey suit’ is doing very well for himself then. And improving diversity of people and of roles suggests that this stereotype is progressively more out of date – great news for a profession which has wrestled with the boring label for most of its life. The bean-counter now has a helicopter view, and in business today this makes for a great combination.

Dave Way, Managing Director - 24/9/10

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