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How three chartered accountants approach lifelong learning

27 August: As the pace of change in accountancy accelerates, three ICAEW members share their views on the importance of lifelong learning.

The non-executive director: ‘every day is a school day’

Carl Reader considers every day a ‘school day’ – learning and development are central to everything that he does. Roles as a non-executive director to an accounting firm and another SME, in addition to his work as an accounting author, means he spends a lot of time looking for both personal teachings and lessons that can be applied in his businesses. “I think it adds a lot of value to what I do and helps support the content I create. But primarily, I focus on non-traditional learning and development.”

Reader mostly shies away from traditional CPD or online courses. He looks at what he can learn from external sources. “We look at what we can extract from other industries and also from things that aren't necessarily about learning and development: for example, we've learned marketing techniques from fast food brands speaking at conferences to other fast food owners. I'm a big fan of reading and trying to find both motivation and education from books – not necessarily ‘how-to’ books.”

He believes this kind of learning has never been more important, due to the amount of change occurring in the accounting sector. Technology is driving a shift across all industries and accountants need to make a conscious choice to push themselves outside of their comfort zones to keep up. 

“Business owners nowadays don't have trusted advisers within their circle. The local bank manager no longer exists. They rarely need to speak to lawyers. The accountant is one of the only paid-for advisers they would have. There's an expectation that accountants will support them outside of the numbers. Learning and development is an opportunity for accountants to share some of that knowledge and to be a counterbalance to the emotions that entrepreneurs go through.”

Reader’s approach to lifelong learning is very informal and unstructured. He always tries to find out what he can learn in any situation and to maintain a general level of curiosity. “For example, when I'm at an airport, I will actively seek out a book that I believe I can learn from. I think about how I can implement that learning at the back of my mind, suddenly, it actually becomes actionable.”

The rising star: ‘it’s about self-awareness’

Jackie Crane is an ICAEW One Young World ambassador and an accountant and auditor at Mitten Clarke Limited. She is focused on continuously expanding her knowledge and skills. This started at 18; she found herself lacking key soft skills and basic office skills when entering the world of work. This instilled in her a dedication to constant development, a lot of which has come through her connection to ICAEW. “That's where I started to really build my ability to talk to people and develop relationships, which in turn helped me to nurture my self-belief and confidence, truly believing that I had valuable perspectives to add. Having the ability to develop relationships and learn from others is a skill that I think wasn't emphasised enough at the beginning.”

Crane has taken a more reflective approach to learning over the past three years, a technique that she developed through engaging with her mental health. “I had counselling for over two years, and I started to really understand myself as an individual. I then had career coaching through CABA, and I've been able to kind of reassess things as I've gone along to work out what I enjoy.”

That filters into her career decisions. She recently joined Mitten Clarke and switched from a tax role to audit. “It had been over three years since I last audited so I knew that I needed to go back to the basic principles and build it all back up again. I think if you are less experienced, it might be harder to understand what knowledge/skills you need to develop but it's about self-awareness.”

One of the biggest sources of learning in her new role has been her line director, who after two months has already taught her a lot. The firm has enabled employees to work in the office, socially distanced, on a part-time basis. For Crane, this has been valuable learning time. “I get on really well with my line director and find that she explains things in a way that I understand. No question is too small and I find our conversations are collaborative so they help me to grow. I like that approach to learning, rather than it being a tick box or something without an aim. She's been a really good mentor and I think once you find that connection with someone who you can bounce ideas off of, you can really flourish.”

The practice owner: ‘learning doesn’t end with your last ACA exam’

CPD is a fundamentally important thing for Chris Conway, director and co-founder of Multiply Accountancy. However, his approach to learning has shifted with the pace of change in the industry. “In addition to traditional CPD topics, I spend a significant amount of my time looking at digital tools and innovations that can improve either our compliance efficiency or develop insight for our clients,” he says. “The technology on offer now to support the work we do means our knowledge needs to go beyond tax and accounting. There is a growing requirement from SMEs for accounting systems advice and while you don’t need to be an accountant to deliver this, accountants are best placed to do so if they can develop the skills.”

This kind of learning is initially very ad hoc. Typically, it is based around the needs of a particular client. For example, Conway identified that continually re-forecasting in Excel was time-consuming, risked version control issues and difficult to collaborate on, which caused issues for certain clients. Conway and his team conducted a widespread test of the available cashflow forecasting tools. Once the right solution was identified, learning became more formal, with Multiply running a programme to ensure the team knew the tools inside out, and how to train clients on how to use them.

“While there is nothing wrong with forecasting in Excel and in many cases, it remains the best solution, committing to learning and improving meant we have been able to enhance a key service for clients, by making cashflow forecasting user-friendly, collaborative in the cloud and virtually real-time.”

Conway believes that the onus lies on individuals to pursue their ongoing development, particularly if they are looking to take their career further. As the profession moves away from spending a lot of time on compliance-related work such as bookkeeping and VAT returns, the big point of difference for accountants is learning how they can take what they know and apply it to a client situation to generate insight and thereby add value.

“Anyone under the illusion that the learning ends when you pass your last ACA exam is likely to find themselves left behind by their peers. We work in a dynamic sector, going through a revolution; it represents both an opportunity and a risk to those in it.”

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