Not sure where to start with your professional development skills, or stuck on a particularly tricky area? Nicola White, Training and CPD Manager at ICAEW, shares her top tips on approaching the technical competence skill
1) Broaden your perspective
There can be a misconception about what ‘technical’ means, which I think is why some students find it hard. Is technical competence knowing your tax rules really well, knowing how to use audit software, or understanding the concept of big data? It could be all of those things and more.
When it comes to the six areas that students need to demonstrate within the technical competence goal, some are more difficult than others. ‘Use technology appropriately’ is probably an easy one: we’ve all done something with an Excel spreadsheet to manipulate the data to produce the graph we need. But ‘Identify a technical issue’ is quite a different thing. Is that looking at somebody’s accounts and finding something inconsistent with the VAT? Or is it being in practice and finding a system that isn’t working?
So although the questions sound specific, they’re actually quite broad spectrum. The technology side of the profession is constantly changing – we’ve probably all learned how to use new software and systems in the past year – so I genuinely think anybody in almost any environment could think of some examples.
2) Take the ladders a step at a time
Something I often see with students is that they look at the 52 areas within the professional development framework as a single thing, and they don’t know where to start. You need to try and narrow it down – look at just the technical ones, for example, or focus on the first question in each ladder – otherwise it gets overwhelming.
With the lower half of the skills, questions one to three or four, you’re going to be doing those things every day, so if you haven’t got something in there it’s probably just about identifying it or finding the time to write it down.
I think the planning really starts when you get to five, six and seven – the higher ones are likely to be areas where it’s not something that occurs every day, or even every week or every month. So you always need to keep in the back of your mind which couple of skills you’re trying to nail next.
3) Be proactive and dynamic
Every week or so, run down the next couple of questions on each tab so that you’ve always got an idea in mind of what you’re looking for. That way you can be proactive when you’re in the workplace and spot opportunities to gain the experience you need – especially for those areas that don’t come up very often.
Don’t just pick a question and think, “I’ve got to answer that today” or you’ll back yourself into a corner. And don’t leave it to the six-month review before you document anything – try to get into the habit of doing it every couple of weeks. That way you’ll have more examples to choose from, and those examples will almost certainly be better.
4) Use the support around you
If you’re struggling to think of examples, go to your manager or supervisor for help. Half the time they’ll probably say, “We have done this, do you not remember x, y, z?” The more senior people are also likely to know what type of work is coming in, and will be able to help you plan – but they’re only going to be able to do that if you’re having a dialogue with them. It’s that constant dialogue that will enable you to seize opportunities as they come up.
Use your student cohort, too – why not sit down together once a month and see what each other has done? It’s not about copying someone else, but if you’re all in the same work environment, you’re likely to be exposed to the same things. You might find that someone in another team does something you need experience of and you can have a word with their manager. Keeping an open mind and keeping those conversations going is going to help you hugely.
5) Create opportunities to learn
If you’re in a work stream where you – and, crucially, your manager – can’t identify something that is going to come up, then you need to think of the bigger picture: what other opportunities might there be in other areas of the business? In a larger entity, it might be a case of spending a month in another department, or working for a different manager.
Think about who you can learn from, too: it isn’t always the older, more experienced senior – it’s just somebody with a different experience to you.
6) Remember the student can become the teacher
Students are often the youngest people in a business, and they might actually be able to teach more senior people about technology rather than the other way around. They might be quite junior, but they’ve got knowledge and skill sets that the senior people don’t have.
If they have the confidence to share those, and actually go to people and say, “As a business, have we thought about this?” then that can be really useful – and really lovely. The student gets a buzz because they have done something new for the business, and it shows the senior manager that these fresh-faced juniors have got lots of things they can bring to the firm.
7) Get some headspace
If you’ve got a bit of a mental block with a particular question, I often advise students to go away for half an hour or 45 minutes – go for a run, walk the dog, whatever it is you do to clear your head – and let it just sort of filter through. Think about it in a more relaxed way. The thoughts sometimes start to trickle in, and you come back and find you’ve got a couple of ideas.
There’s also nothing to stop you putting two or three ideas that aren’t fully formed on your training file ready to talk about at your next review. You can discuss with your supervisor which they think is the most useful or relevant, and hone it together.
The student’s view
Sam Backhouse is halfway through a four-year training agreement with Kirk Newsholme in Leeds, and hopes to sit his final ACA exam later this year. The technical competence area of his training file has particularly impressed the ICAEW reviewers – so we asked him how he approached it.
Q: Is technical competence an area you are particularly interested in or feel more confident in?
A: I like dealing with clients and the interpersonal relationships of being in accountancy, but I think keeping on top of your technical competence is important. I think of it as the base knowledge of my training, and being able to process and help clients more effectively then aids the softer skills.
Q: How did you go about demonstrating the seven different skills areas within technical competence?
A: Partly it’s been about creating opportunities to fill the gaps. But I think for a lot of students their downfall is in the organisation: when they sit down to complete the training file, they think they haven’t done something – but they might have actually demonstrated it a couple of weeks earlier and just forgotten. I have weekly reminders in my calendar to keep track of things I’ve done. I don’t necessarily have in my mind all the relevant tasks I need to complete, but I just make notes – if someone praises a piece of work, for example – and then I can look back and see if something I’ve done fits the bill.
Q: Did you find that all the opportunities you needed were available within your role?
A: Yes, the opportunities are definitely there. The great thing about the firm I work for is that if you show you’ve got the ability and the willingness to do something, they’ll give you the opportunities, irrespective of how qualified you are. It’s a really good environment to learn in. Although it’s quite a small firm, we take on apprentices every year, so there are always a lot of people in training, and plenty of support available if you’re struggling for ideas in a particular area.
Q: So you have had good support around you?
A: There are people who are at the same level, those who have recently qualified and then people below, so everyone can bounce ideas off each other. We sort of will each other through it! I think we’ve all done really well to keep on top of things over the past year. Other than the fact that our six-monthly reviews are now remote rather than in person, I don’t think much has changed.
Q: When you’re living, working and studying in the same place, how do you get some headspace?
A: Netflix has come in handy! To be honest it has been difficult to escape it in the past year, especially when you’re coming up to exams and you’re living and breathing it. You can get in your head very easily I think, especially when you’re in the same place all day and you’re studying and it’s on your mind all the time. It’s important to take a step back, take a few deep breaths and try to relax.
Visit Careers+ for more career development advice. It’s an ideal place to help you start your career in accountancy, or if you’ve already started your journey as an ICAEW CFAB or ACA independent student and are looking for the next step.