Know thyself

Mar 06, 2018
Marcus Kelly FCA recounts his most memorable lessons from 20 years as an executive recruiter and trusted advisor to some of the country’s leading businesses and sharpest minds.

Self-awareness and an acute understanding of one’s own strengths, weaknesses, capabilities and limitations. These are the cornerstones of career success according to Marcus Kelly, Founder and Managing Director of FK International. And he should know; his own career – which took him from growing up on a farm in Co. Westmeath, through a brief career in Chartered Accountancy, and on to founding his own highly successful recruitment consultancy – is firmly based on them.

Farming was never a career option for both emotional and practical reasons. “I never had much of a grá for farming and when you’re the third son in a family with five siblings, there’s not going to be a lot of land left anyway! My mother arranged a chat with a senior business person who was a friend of the family about career options. The next thing I knew, I was joining Arthur Andersen.”

That was the beginning of his career in Chartered Accountancy. He spent four very enjoyable years at Arthur Andersen, getting a rigorous professional training and working with some outstanding people. He also, without knowing it, built a network within the accountancy fraternity which would later serve him well.

“I quickly realised, however, that while I had good numeracy skills, most of my friends at Arthur Andersen were far better accountants than I. Competing against them in the accountancy field made little sense to me. I spent a lot of time thinking about where my skills lay – I knew that I possessed certain softer skills in terms of dealing with people, which I felt could be lost if I took the accountancy route.”

The eureka moment

The lure of travel and the opportunity to broaden horizons took him out of Arthur Andersen and onto a plane to Australia, where he took a job as financial controller in a company that manufactured wire and nails.

He describes the job as a grind. If anything, it confirmed the need for him to explore other career options. The eureka moment came as he was in the middle of the financial year-end process. “The invoice from the recruitment company who placed me came across my desk. Straight away I felt that I could do as good or a better job than the consultant who placed me. In that moment, I knew that I was onto something.”
He returned to Ireland and immediately joined a small boutique financial recruitment company learning from “two excellent guys” before striking out on his own to found FK International at just 28.

Twenty years on, the firm is one of Ireland’s leading financial recruitment consultancies numbering major multinationals, Plcs, banks, financial services and professional services firms among its clients.

“People tend to do well when they play to their strengths,” Kelly advises. “I’ve seen far too many talented people working in roles where they never get a chance to allow their natural talents to shine. My advice to my own children (not that they listen!) is to understand what they have an aptitude for and make sure that their careers are bent towards whatever that is – whether it’s art, construction, accountancy, law or whatever. 
Professional sport is a perfect meritocracy – you are either good enough or you are not. In other professions it is possible to lose oneself in the mix, ultimately making career progression a challenge. The bottom line is that if you are not particularly numerate, then really consider whether a career in finance or accountancy is for you – the chances are that you will get found out at some stage.  I thank my lucky stars every day that I got out before I was found out!”

Build a career strategy

Twenty years as an executive recruiter have given him some particular insights into the ingredients of success. “I’ve been privileged to have had a helicopter view. The most successful people that I have come across have been consciously self-aware. They constantly benchmark themselves against others, they identify areas for improvement and they have sought to promote themselves whenever possible. They make sure they build and develop relationships with people like me.” 

His advice to executives at all stages of their careers is to take regular time-outs to assess their current situation. “A lot of people go for health check-ups, they get their car serviced, they do a financial plan every couple of years, but they don’t take the time to think about a career strategy for themselves. People should take time to understand their options, their value, and where they are vis-à-vis their peers. A combination of curiosity, healthy ambition and self-preservation should drive this interest. Just few hours or so once a year can help give people the clarity and self-awareness they need.”
Marcus Kelly is the Managing Director at FK International.

This article was originally published in Vision, the e-zine for members in business. Download your copy now.