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Is the ACA world still your oyster?

Remember when you chose the ACA training contract?

How many of us were attracted by recruitment messages extoling the versatility of the qualification? ‘A broad business qualification’: the stand-out option for flexibility to work in practice, industry or the third sector. Maybe you suffered three years of auditing to get that breadth and depth of exposure to organisations, industries, systems and cultures?  If you were anything like me it was this pure business experience, (ok, as well of as the kudos of the blue chip brand) that was the appeal. Go anywhere, do anything, the ACA’s the passport to a very bright future.

Yet, it never ceases to amaze me, how so many of us have forgotten this through the wiles of time. In my consultancy, theaccountantscoach.com I have worked with countless young, mid-career and more mature ACAs who feel trapped in the role or the specialism they have somehow ‘ended up’ in. 

What happened to that youthful vigour and thirst for new experiences and innovation?

“All I know is corporation tax now”

“I’ve had too many years in practice to make that move into industry”

“I’m a technical trainer and I feel typecast”

These are just some of the sad laments I regularly hear.

Where did it all go wrong? Or did it?

My personal story is a little different. I was a Big Four auditor for 13 years, right through from training contract to senior manager (and a happy auditor at that!). Then one day, out of the blue, I was asked to manage an internal change programme and suddenly I had to dust off the more rusty parts of my business skillset, as well as sharpen my leadership and associated soft skills.

Overnight, I was auditor no more; my identity morphed rapidly into project manager, change specialist, leader of people. I loved it, so I took a deep breath and jumped, setting up my own consultancy business, working as executive coach and business consultant. Funnily enough that was also 13 years ago and over that period I’ve managed my life around my young family and matched my Big Four earnings. I’ve gone right back to the basics of crafting a consultancy or portfolio business with an eclectic mix of projects and roles, encompassing management accounting, CFO, training delivery, writing, lecturing, systems analysis, process mapping, as well as a tiny bit of book-keeping and tax compliance (shush! not enough for a practising certificate).

Take a moment to think back to that broad based set of exams: law, business management, financial analysis, accounting, financial management, management accounting…Over the last decade or so, I’ve revived all of those dusty skills and experiences and provided a very rounded business support package that fulfils both me, and my diverse range of clients.

What’s so different about me?

Nothing really, except that I have pushed the boundaries of my chartered accountancy career! I know many other ACAs, of all ages and persuasions, who have done something similar: taken their qualification and practical experiences and crafted an innovative career pathway, tailored to meet their own needs, strengths, interests and preferences.

Although, for every disruptor I know, I have to admit to knowing a multitude of traditionalists who see themselves as ‘typecast’; stuck in a specialist role from now ‘til eternity.

Of course, for a fulfilling, satisfying career, there is certainly nothing wrong with the traditionalist: the FD, tax specialist, insolvency practitioner or academic who loves their work. But sadly, the ACAs who come through my door are often not satisfied, they are stressed, unfulfilled, possibly feeling redundant and sometimes unemployed.

The dawn of the boundaryless career

While I’ve been helping many ACAs out of their rut over the years, I’ve been asking myself what is it about the disruptors and unhappy traditionalists that separate them? Is it lack of confidence, a fixed mindset, or something about their skillset that is more adaptable? This is a highly topical area for discussion, both pragmatically and theoretically.

Against a backdrop of professional evolution through deep digitalisation and AI, an expanding gig economy, and ever longer working lives, futurists are predicting the need for career adaptability, flexible skillsets and life-long learning. As a passionate disrupter myself, I’ve just embarked on a PhD study, researching how elastic our boundaries as ACAs really are, how do we invoke boundaries and what separates the boundaryless orienteer from the traditionalist?

Carol McLaughlan

How can you be part of the discussion?

Join Carol at our event to learn about the variety of roles available to you.