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Careers

Becoming a partner in the firm is often the goal when accountants go into practice, but it’s not a walk in the park. Jackie Banner outlines four key steps on the road to making partner. Making partner is the end goal for many who go into practice. The status, financial compensation, and endorsement of one’s skills and expertise are all obvious draws to progressing to this level. Then there is the opportunity to effectively become a ‘business owner’ with responsibility and influence over how the firm is run. This latter piece sounds simple in theory but requires the right considerations and capabilities to execute.  We can’t gloss over the technical competency that is required to make it to partner. Possessing exceptional domain knowledge in your chosen area of expertise is fundamental to any move upwards. Eagle-eyed attention to detail and a holistic view of the business as a whole are also required to consider yourself technically sound. With a rapidly changing business landscape, the burden of knowledge is significant, and can lead a potential partner to focus too heavily on the technical side alone.  The most common missteps that senior level accountancy professionals make in the race to partner have to do with the investment in their own leadership ability,  relationship management and ability to think like someone who’s running a business or a profit-and-loss account. Here’s how to tackle these key steps to making partner. Invest in your leadership ability Over the last six decades, leadership scholars have conducted more than a thousand studies to determine the definitive characteristics and personality traits of great leaders. Out of all the research, not one unanimous, best practice leadership archetype has emerged. Prevailing opinions on the best leadership styles are replaced as quickly as the latest iPhone. However, there are some common through lines in many of them that you can draw from. Whether it’s Six Sigma, values-led leadership, contingency theory (which in itself says there is no one ideal leadership style), communication methods, humble leadership or any number of other theories and best practices, be sure to establish a combination of leadership qualities that best align with you as a person and as a leader.  Signalling that you have the right level of ambition necessary is also required. This is demonstrated by how you carry yourself, your communication style, and interactions and relationships with colleagues and clients. Combine these with that aforementioned oft-ignored investment in yourself to build your own definitive leadership style.  Vision and strategy The most common piece of feedback we hear from nomination committees or hiring partners about unsuccessful final interviews is that the candidate lacked vision in their pitch. At this level, technical competency is assumed. You will be speaking to peers who are equally, if not more skilled than you. They want a business leader to sit alongside them; someone with a new perspective that can bring energy and excitement that will contribute to business growth.  Presenting a forward-thinking, clear vision that will grow not only your business unit but add to the company is perhaps the most valuable thing you can do to be perceived as someone ready to make partner. In practical terms, that vision should translate to an actionable business plan.  When preparing, think strategically about how you’re going to generate earnings, develop a client pipeline, and hit the figures that justify your being chosen as an equity partner. A partner needs to ascertain what those expected figures are for the firm with which they are interviewing. This means crafting a realistic three-year plan to grow revenues at a level that a partner needs to be commercially viable, which is firm dependent.  Relationship management We all need a sounding board to bounce ideas off of or to go to for advice. Therefore, your network and your professional relationships should be a priority on the road to partner. Partners, no matter what age or level of seniority, should have a mentor.  As Chris Outram discusses in his book, Making Strategy Work, you need ‘co-conspirators’ on whom you rely to give their support when it comes to internal decisions and information-sharing across business units. This extends to stakeholder management both inside and outside your firm.   Putting it all together In an increasingly “what have you done for me lately?” world, contextualising the human side of the job is key. Trust your team to deliver while driving them towards a coherent vision by demonstrating effective leadership and building a sustainable pipeline of business.  Sounds easy when you put it on paper, right? There is no doubt it is a huge challenge to make the leap but having a clear idea of what is required and how it should be presented is the first step on the road to partner.    Top tips on the road to partner 1. Have a plan – Set targets and milestones for yourself to track your progress and professional development. Decide what you want out of your career and then work towards achieving it.    2. Invest in upskilling – Find opportunities to develop your technical and soft skills. Invest in as many areas as are available to you.     3. Specialise your skill set – Practice experience is broad and often provides exposure to a wide range of skills and experience, which is great. However, drill down and become a subject matter expert where possible. Be the go-to person in your network for a particular subspecialty.   4. Be flexible – In any business, targets move, circumstances in your or your clients’ business can change quickly. When unexpected events arise or a strategy or project scope moves, always think of yourself as a support for change and not a barrier.   5. Say “yes” – There will always be an element of a job or a particular client you’d rather steer clear from, but don’t. Always say “yes” when asked to take on something new or different.   6. Define your client portfolio and market opportunity – The more distinct your client portfolio is from your peers or your partners, the more likely you are to become a destination for referrals, hold client relationships, and see significant fee income potential in line with expectations for equity partner level.   7. Find a mentor – Find a peer who you admire and who has made choices you respect. Someone who is willing to be your sounding board and provide advice on how to achieve what you want in your career.  Jackie Banner leads Practice Recruitment for Azon Recruitment Group.

Feb 10, 2020
Member Profile

Jenna Mairs ACA, Senior Investment Manager at Whiterock Finance, discusses her career highlights, productivity at work and the future of the profession. What do you most enjoy about your current role? The variety, without a doubt – no two days are ever the same. Whiterock Finance offer loans ranging from £100,000 to £2 million across two funds, so we deal with an extensive range of Northern Ireland-based SMEs from early-stage (two years plus) to well-established businesses on a growth trajectory. We have no sectoral focus, so one day you could be meeting an IT company in Ballymena and the next an engineering firm in Enniskillen. It’s interesting to meet businesses of varying degrees of complexity and to see what a difference our funding can make to their growth story. What has been your career highlight thus far? I’ve had many highlights, so it’s hard to narrow down. Over the years, I’ve worked with some great people who have taught me so much – both professionally and about myself. I’ve made lasting friendships with both past and present colleagues and had a lot of fun and laughs along the way. I’ve grown a fantastic support network and have many people I can rely on for advice and guidance. I’ve also had the privilege to meet some inspiring and passionate business leaders and to learn about their trials and triumphs along the way. If I had to choose one recent highlight, it would be winning the “Woman of Influence” award at the inaugural Northern Ireland Women’s Awards last year. How do you stay productive day in, day out? I am a morning person, so I try to start every day with exercise – either a class at the gym or a 5km run, which means that by the time I get to work, I’m wide awake and ready to go. At the start of each week, I make a list of everything I’d like to achieve that week and then allocate the tasks to each day. To keep my productivity high in the afternoon, I always try to get out at lunchtime for some fresh air and, although it’s a bit of a cliché, I drink a lot of water. I also focus on maintaining a positive work-life balance to ensure that I’m productive in the long-term. I appreciate the importance of having downtime to spend with friends and family, visiting new places and experiencing new things. What changes do you anticipate in your profession in the next five to ten years? In the short-term there will be greater digitisation with cloud-based applications becoming more prevalent, thereby leading to an increased ability to work remotely and collaborate globally. Automation will continue to rise, especially in terms of replacing repetitive and mundane tasks. In light of recent issues within the profession, there is also likely to be a requirement for increased transparency and accountability and further aligning of global accounting standards. Within business, there will likely be an increased focus on sustainability and increasing environmental awareness. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?  When I was completing my training contract, a colleague told me that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. I’m not sure I agree with that statement completely, but I am a firm believer that you should not be afraid to ask questions to further your understanding. If you want to increase your knowledge, you need to be inquisitive and you shouldn’t be scared to question everything you are told. It is advice that I have shared with others many times, and I am always more than happy to answer questions put to me.

Feb 10, 2020
Comment

While support for diversity and inclusion is welcome, it is now time for business leaders to instigate meaningful change, writes Rachel Hussey. In the past ten years, diversity of all kinds – but gender diversity in particular – has become an area of focus for almost all business leaders. In what can be interpreted in many ways as progress, the 30% Club, which I currently chair, has been asked more frequently if 30% is a sufficiently ambitious goal. 30% Club Ireland is a group of Chairs and CEOs of 260 Irish organisations who agree with our goal to ensure that 30% of board members and senior management in Irish businesses are women. The Club was founded in the UK in 2010 by Helena Morrissey, and the Irish chapter was established in 2015. The 30% title was adopted because 30% is the critical mass that a minority must reach in a group to have an effective voice. And 30% is very much a floor and not a ceiling in terms of our goals and ambitions. I am a lawyer, but law firms and advisory and accounting firms face the same challenges around inclusion and diversity. In this rapidly changing world, with new careers emerging all the time, professional services firms have to find ways to stay attractive to graduates (both men and women) and to retain them once they have been trained. In other words, diversity may be a moral imperative, but it is also a necessity for business. Today’s graduates expect to find diversity where they work. That wasn’t the case in the 1990s when I started in practice. There was no discussion about diversity in business back then. There was a concept of ‘equality’, which was confined mainly to pay and conditions. The feminist movement was a social one, focused on issues like contraception. The Women’s Political Association was advocating for more women in politics, but the business world was separate to all of that. And I think many of the women who were in that business world either didn’t focus on the lack of diversity or were too isolated to speak up in any meaningful way. I was, of course, aware of the social movements while I was in college, but I assumed that the world was mostly a fair place and that if you were good enough, you could do whatever you wanted to do. Women were very well represented in the top of my class in Trinity. I didn’t even notice when I was doing a master’s degree at Harvard Law School that only a quarter of my class were women. After I qualified, however, a few incidents surprised me. When I attended an event with my then-boss, and we met his sister, she asked me how long I had been my boss’ secretary. When I was pregnant with my first child and was the primary breadwinner, I realised that I was going to have to rely on social welfare payments to survive. And then I had to make – and saw other women having to make – career decisions that weren’t decisions, as there was no choice. Spurred on by all of this, my women partners and I came together in 2008 and came up with plans to empower the women in our firm. And when I saw Helena Morrissey speak in Dublin in 2013, I knew the 30% Club was a real game-changer because it had clear goals, was business-led and – most importantly of all – included men, without whom no real change will ever be possible. There has been some progress, but perhaps we in professional services firms need to take some bolder steps now – for our men and women. We need to recognise the needs of a more modern workforce and find ways to integrate family life and absences into a career path rather than separate to, or an exit from, a career path. That includes better career planning built around family absence and greater recognition and accommodation of the needs of men in their desire to play an equal part in family life.  We need to recognise the potential for 24-hour demands in a digital age and become more agile in how we work and how we rest – as individuals, as parents, as carers and as human beings – and we need to demonstrate and practise this, starting from the top. We all state our commitment to diversity and equality of opportunity. It’s now time to prove our commitment. Rachel Hussey is Chair of 30% Club Ireland and a Partner at Arthur Cox.  

Feb 10, 2020
Comment

The ability to judge the mood music of society could be our greatest asset in shaping how the profession is perceived, writes Dr Brian Keegan. If you happen to be an auditor and are of a sensitive disposition, look away now. Apparently, you are not a member of a profession. This is just one of the suggestions of the Brydon review into the quality and effectiveness of audit, which was published at the end of last year. Brydon’s work was prompted by public disquiet over high-profile business collapses in the UK, where it was believed that the auditors should have done better. The standard response of politicians everywhere to topics that make them uncomfortable is to commission a review. In that way, action is seen to have been taken and the discomfort is spread around. There are many reasons, of course, why Brydon is wrong about auditing not being a profession. An audit is, after all, about the exercise of intellectual skill and knowledge. It is an unfortunately flippant conclusion in a study that otherwise has a lot going for it. Worse, in the court of public opinion, many people won’t necessarily make a distinction between what an auditor is and does, and what an accountant is and does. It is therefore inevitable that the profession often finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to explain itself. It doesn’t matter that our most immediate stakeholders – board members and investors – know perfectly well the contribution of the audit and the role of the auditor. Government policy in any area is not exclusively formed by listening to, and then following, the views of knowledgeable stakeholders. The perception of the accountancy profession can be contradictory. Surveys conducted by Edelman (admittedly commissioned by this Institute) report that the level of confidence in accountants among financial decision-makers is high relative to the level of confidence in other professions. Yet public opinion is all too willing to jump on the bandwagon when they think we get it wrong. For instance, the response to the exclusion of the former Chair of Anglo Irish Bank, Mr Sean Fitzpatrick, from Chartered Accountants Ireland was heavily skewed. Much of it focused on the length of time our proceedings appeared to take. No one seemed interested that the Director of Public Prosecutions wanted the State’s actions in the matter to conclude first, hence a seven-year delay. Understanding this lack of interest is important because the effective communication of what the profession is and does relies heavily on the receptiveness of the public audience. There are lessons here from politics. Prime Minister “Get Brexit Done” Johnson and President “Make America Great Again” Trump are widely lauded for their communication skills, but that misses the point. The genius of the messaging of Prime Minister Johnson and President Trump is not in their capacity for articulation – it is in their capacity to read the mood of the public. During the recent hustings in the Republic of Ireland, the major political parties would have fared better using slogans like “give people homes” or “hospital beds, not trolleys” instead of plaintive murmurings about futures we can look forward to, or an island for all. Like the more successful politicians, the accountancy profession has to get better at reading public opinion and responding to that mood. If we fail to get across the ethical value and the competency involved in the work that accountants do, and the wider contribution made to society by virtue of that, future government policy towards accountants and auditors will be shaped by the negativity that is already out there. Much is made of the challenge to the profession from things like artificial intelligence and robotic process automation. You can add to that list the suspicion with which the profession is viewed. We now know that some don’t even consider that auditing is a profession at all. Dr Brian Keegan is Director, Advocacy & Voice, at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Feb 10, 2020
Comment

Against a backdrop of underinvestment, housing will remain a key economic concern for the new Government, writes Annette Hughes. With 2020 well under way, some of us have already broken our New Year’s resolutions and had our focus shifted to the plethora of election resolutions and promises which emerged over the past four weeks. With the election now behind us, political leaders will need to focus on delivering on those election promises.  Governments generally have a five-year term to fulfil their promises, but experience tells us that some of the policy commitments promised in party manifestos may never be implemented. The new Government faces both challenges and opportunities in steering a sustainable economic path as it embarks on a new term. One of its key functions is to administer public policy and deliver high-quality public services and infrastructure across a range of areas including housing, health, education and transport. Notably, housing was the topic that received the most attention during the election campaign and it remains the Government’s number one priority. There continues to be underinvestment in both private and social housing, and the demand for housing significantly exceeds the current supply. Much has been made of the doubling of housing stock from 2016 to 2019 with 21,000 new homes, however the national annual housing supply requirement is closer to 35,000. We were informed during the election campaign that 6,000 new social housing units were built in 2019. Yet, data from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government shows that there were 2,003 new social housing units built in the first nine months of 2019, or 2,229 units when local authority vacant units brought back into the stock are included. Adding acquisitions (1,533), units leased from the private sector (630), households supported under the Housing Assistance Payment (12,853) and the Rental Accommodation Scheme (717), implies that a total of 17,962 social housing households were accommodated in the first nine months of 2019. This may be in the region of 24,000 for the full year. This total is in a year in which the latest assessment of housing need reported that there were 68,693 households across the State (43.2% in Dublin) on the social housing waiting list.  In the meantime, the shortage of affordable accommodation to rent and buy continues to create challenges for Irish policy makers, notably, the escalating homelessness problem, and rising rents and property prices, although the rate of growth has moderated in recent months.  Some of the solutions proposed included building more social and affordable homes, preferably on State-owned lands, which has implications for the level of capital investment on housing (€2.03 billion in 2020), the second largest allocation after transport (€2.5 billion). Other measures included rent regulations, which have proved to have a range of unintended consequences for tenants, including a negative impact on new and existing supply, as well as the potential for lower quality stock. The issue of the decade will undoubtedly be climate change and this too will impact on housing stock. With an estimated two million residential properties across the country, the potential cost of retrofitting to improve energy efficiency could be in the region of €10,000 to €30,000 per home, depending on its age and quality.   The one consensus during the election campaign by all parties was that there needs to be a substantial and fundamental change in housing policy, given the failure by all to address a number of issues over the past decade. The new Government clearly has its work cut out. Annette Hughes is a Director at EY-DKM Economic Advisory.

Feb 10, 2020
Comment

Cormac Lucey argues that accountants need to discuss one of the most unjust outcomes of Government profligacy – the over-taxing of the State’s high earners. The UK electorate recently faced a general election where, under the leadership of an Islington Marxist, the British Labour Party was offering its most left-wing proposals for a generation. It proposed raising the rate of income tax on earnings above £125,000 (equivalent to €146,000) to 50%. With the 4% UK rate of PRSI, that would have required Britain’s top earners to pay a marginal rate of deduction of 54%. In the Republic, those of us of a right-of-centre political disposition are lucky not to have to face the prospect of barely diluted Marxism as a real policy prospect. Here, government control switches pretty seamlessly between right-of-centre Fine Gael and right-of-centre Fianna Fáil-led administrations. That’s the theory. The reality is something very different. Down south, top earners must already face a 52% (income tax 40%, universal social charge 8% plus 4% PRSI) rate of deduction on income above €70,000. Indeed, if a person is self-employed, they face a marginal rate of 55% on income above €100,000. In terms of top tax rates, high earners in Ireland already face marginal rates of deduction in excess of 50% at incomes of around twice the national average that the UK Loony Left was only contemplating applying on incomes of about four times that average. Largely unnoticed, the contours of the Irish tax system have changed very substantially since 2007. Income tax receipts are up €9.3 billion, or 68%, from 2007 levels. They have risen from 29% of total tax receipts to an expected 40% this year. Thirteen years ago, income tax proceeds were slightly lower than VAT receipts. Last year, they exceeded VAT receipts by 52%. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has concluded that Ireland has the second most progressive income tax system among its 36 member countries and the most progressive among its EU members. In other words, high earners pay disproportionately more in income tax here than in nearly every other developed country in the world. Revenue’s Budget 2020 Ready Reckoner document reveals that the top 1% of income earners (those earning more than around €250,000) contribute more than a fifth of all income tax receipts, while the top 5% of income earners (those earning more than about €125,000) contribute more than 40% of total receipts. By contrast, the bottom 75% of income earners (those earning around €55,000 or less) contribute a mere 18% of total income tax proceeds. The top 1% lose an average of 42% of their income in State deductions while the bottom 75% lose an average of 9%. One might accept this dramatic soaking of high earners if it was required to save the State from imminent insolvency, but the Troika left town in 2013. Large rises in tax revenues since then have been used to fund dramatic increases in State spending rather than to reduce the national debt. When the Government first officially forecast total 2018 Government spending, it expected a total spend of €60.3 billion (according to the 2014 Stability Programme Update). In reality, the Government ended up spending €76.8 billion in 2018, 27% more than its original forecast. High earners are being soaked, not to save the State from bankruptcy or to secure minimum levels of State spending but, rather, to indulge a fiscally incontinent and gruesomely inefficient Government apparatus. It strikes me that we (as a profession) and Chartered Accountants Ireland (as a representative body) should speak more loudly about the clear errors and short-sightedness of this approach.  Cormac Lucey FCA is an economic commentator and lecturer at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Feb 10, 2020