What are the skills of a holistic accountant?
It is a confusing world and choosing the right profession and the best career path can be a difficult and perplexing process – but of course, a very important one.
One of the first questions is where to train, with large and small firms offering good, but different options. A big firm has the benefits of immediate name recognition on your CV and a long list of big-name corporate clients. A smaller firm might offer quicker career progression with direct access to partners and a less corporate atmosphere.
It really depends on your school of thought, but as someone who started out as a somewhat reluctant accountant, I can honestly say that getting my first client who appreciated my help and was happy to pay for my time was a huge milestone in my career. Suddenly the job made sense, as helping people, and being a trusted advisor is a very rewarding experience.
But what makes a good accountant? If being a trusted independent advisor for clients and helping when they are in trouble is where the real value of the job satisfaction is - how do you become the best advisor possible?
This is where holistic accounting comes into it.
Much has been talked about "holistic accounting” and the heightened benefits for clients when their financial advisers view their business issues in the round, rather than in discrete and separate boxes.
However, commentary to date has focused on the improvements to client service - and leaves big questions unanswered as to how this new fashion for holism can possibly be squared with the reality that accountancy professionals are forced to specialise so early on in their careers.
Firstly, what is a holistic accountant? The definition ‘generalist’ is helpful here, however, don’t think ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Being a generalist is far more like being the conductor of an orchestra than an odd job man. You will need support from others with specialist knowledge, but you need to know enough about every instrument to understand how and when it needs to be played.
There’s a misconception that a specialist is better, and generalists are considered dangerous, less knowledgeable perhaps. It is actually the opposite - it is dangerous if you are only considering things from one perspective. In order to give good advice, you need to see the whole picture. For instance, you need to appreciate your client’s employee’s VISA issues, the director’s divorce, and the tax issues of the foreign company.
Being exposed to extensive and broad training is therefore important, but in the large accountancy firms the business is split into departments and accountants are encouraged to specialise early on in their career, meaning it can be harder to see and understand the bigger picture with a client’s issue.
On the flipside, in very small firms you may find the experience too limited.
The ideal mix would be a medium-sized firm that has dynamic partners and a broad range of clients, is large enough to work on complex issues such as tax structuring or audits, but is small enough that it hasn’t been broken down into departments.
Another important point to consider is expanding your tax knowledge specifically. Clients often need complex tax advice, which not all accountants are able to provide. I spent 10 years practicing as an accountant before I realised I had to go back to school as clients were asking me questions I wasn’t sure about. I needed a deeper and fuller tax knowledge, so went and did my CTA, and I would recommend everyone to do the same - difficult though they are!
Being a generalist isn’t for everyone - you will have some people who don’t want to be client-facing, who want to specialise. And that’s fine. Every firm needs people like that and if you are truly gifted in that field perhaps working in a big department is for you.
Oury Clark Chartered Accountants runs on the motto - you need to know enough about everything, and a lot about some things. When recruiting we tend to avoid people who have worked in the big accounting firms as they are more specialised and it’s hard to convert them back into a generalist.
In my opinion, operating as a holistic accountant means your relationships with clients are wider-ranging, closer and therefore more rewarding, and if the profession is to survive and evolve, generalists certainly have a lot to offer for the future.
Andrew Oury is a partner at Oury Clark Chartered Accountants
Originally published in Economia, July 2018.