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Roll over Beethoven - Here comes the Generalist…

Posted on: 04 Jul, 18

Oury and Clark discuss what is important in being a good advisor, and what sort of training you should look for when starting out on your path to professionalism.

So, Oury, tell me something.

Clark says...
Oury says...

Clark… I would like nothing more.

So listen, you and your family have been in the “professional” game for oh, what is it?…

Clark says...
Oury says...

80 years

Crumbs… 80 years of accountancy… Your poor family.

Clark says...
Oury says...

Cheeky - No one understands quite how much stick you get when you decide to train to be an accountant, and how from that moment on - when people ask you what you do - you tell them, and their eyes glaze over.

Oh calm down, life isn’t so bad for you! Where is my mini violin… ?

Clark says...
Oury says...

I’m sure it will become illegal in a few years to go “ha ha ha… you’re an accountant”. Going to start a hashtag #me2SQUARED. Because we’re square, and we like numbers… get it?

It doesn’t really work…

Clark says...
Oury says...

Oh Shhhh… you’ve upset me now… So cheer me up, what were you going to tell me?

To be honest, as often happens when I start a conversation with you. I have completely forgotten. Utterly bamboozled by your banter.

Clark says...
Oury says...

I’ll take that as a compliment…

However, The good news is that you also gave me another - perhaps better- question. I realised I have never thought what it was like to be a trainee accountant. And a key question, what should those potential trainees look for in training?

Clark says...
Oury says...

Ooooo… Good question. Controversial. But good question.

Why’s it controversial?

Clark says...
Oury says...

Because, hand on heart, I have to say that the best training comes from firms like ours. And this is breaking a code of ethics we established for these blogs. Which is not to go on about our (boring) business. Saying we do it well, buy it from us… 'cos frankly it’s really irritating and may not actually be the right advice…

Well, we aren’t telling anyone to buy anything from us and it’s too late now. So you’re going to have to do your best to get on your soapbox, and just hope you have a point.

Clark says...
Oury says...

Okay, so here it is. It really depends on your school of thought, but speaking from experience as someone who was not a willing accountant, after years of doing bank reconciliations and audits and slowly losing my mind - getting my first decent client, who appreciated my help and was happy to pay for my time was a huge lightbulb moment in my career. Suddenly the job made sense, as helping people, and being a trusted advisor to someone - is a very rewarding experience, and far from boring on any level.

Same for me too. When you train as a lawyer you have client interaction from the word go and to suddenly be able to help someone in a meaningful way from an independent position is such a pleasure and a privilege.

Clark says...
Oury says...

Now we all have different motivations. Maybe money is the principal concern, or maybe it’s the prestige associated with having a big name on your CV. A name that when you say it to your friends is instantly recognisable and it gives you status and belonging and, stops you having to explain about this small firm you work in. Also having a big name on your CV impresses people and they say… “oh well they used to be at KPMG they must be good”.

Both these things are true to some degree, and to many getting the big name on the CV is an important and crucial step in your career.

Clark says...
Oury says...

Yes - but there is another side to they coin however, which is the simple question of what makes a good accountant? What makes someone good at giving advice and help people with really complicated situations? Because IF helping people with their problems - being their trusted independent advisor when they’re in trouble, is where the REAL job satisfaction lies, how do you get into a position to give good advice? This is when you really need to appreciate the concept of a “generalist”.

A generalist? Jack of all trades, master of none? Here he comes with his number 8 wire, and a desire to fix your flat tire, and play it dumb?

Clark says...
Oury says...

No. Here he comes with his briefcase. And in his briefcase is a calculator and… importantly a stick (a baton actually)… . and behind him… somewhere… is an orchestra.

An orchestra?

Clark says...
Oury says...

Yes - Because being a generalist is far more like being the conductor of the 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 it is played and when it needs to be played.

Oh I see… Oh I quite like that… Oh yes… “Clark… the Conductor!” I’m going to get a beautiful baton, and a luxurious (faux) leather (non-plastic) case.

Clark says...
Oury says...

Historically, the professions have favoured specialism, but somewhere someone needs to understand how all the specialists need to work together. Some feel that if you’re not a specialist you don’t know enough and therefore as a generalist you must be dangerous!

Yes - well you know Oury it’s good to have someone who really knows their subject…

Clark says...
Oury says...

Absolutely Clark. But once you know what you are actually talking about, and have asked all the right questions to see the whole picture, it’s actually even more dangerous if you are only considering things from one perspective. You will give bad advice.

In order to give good advice you need to see the whole picture, you need to be able to appreciate the visa issue of that employee or the divorce issue of that director or the tax issue of the foreign company… ..

We have a family motto that is - “you need to know enough about everything, and a lot about something”.

Christmas must be such a hoot in your family...

Clark says...
Oury says...

You’re still doing it ! Anyway - So here is my logic: In order to know a little about everything - you need to be exposed to as many different situations as possible and be as close to the decision as possible.

So go to a big firm… .

Clark says...
Oury says...

WRONG - by their nature, in a big firm things are departmentalised. You can join one of the Big 4 and be put in an audit department of 200 people and that’s it, all you do is audit. You may spend 4 years in one department doing nothing other than that discipline.

Also when a client comes to the firm for advice - departments tend to go into their corners and answer questions from their respective corner.

If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail..

Clark says...
Oury says...

Absolutely Clark! For example, a client may come and see you about a transfer pricing question, which the transfer pricing team can answer, but actually, the bigger question might be whether they should even be trading in a certain way in the first place, or really, there is a shareholder dispute and transfer pricing issues are secondary and pointless resolving until the shareholder dispute is resolved.

I see, if you work in a silo as a specialist, you effectively work in a void and miss the big picture which is why you are advocating training in a medium sized firm like ours…

Clark says...
Oury says...

Correct. In very small firms you may find the experience too limited. But once you get to a medium sized firm they tend to have bigger and more interesting clients with complex and dynamic problems and a complete range of services … and that’s what you want when you train. As long as you can work alongside a partner you can trust and build a relationship with, then you should be able to get great exposure to clients and their complex problems.

As a trainee, isn’t that a bit like being thrown to the wolves?

Clark says...
Oury says...

Yes you maybe out of your comfort zone - but that is how you learn your craft - that is when you progress and starting seeing enough of the whole picture to give good advice.

Ok, interesting point. What else matters?

Clark says...
Oury says...

Well the other thing is – if the firm is too big you get nowhere near the client, often nowhere even near the Partner – and this massively reduces your ability to learn and appreciate the real issues.

Yes, nothing like Chinese whispers to leave you confused.

Clark says...
Oury says...

Exactly – also it’s helpful to understand what different qualifications equip you to do. Now we don’t want to get into whose qualification is best, but we like ACA, and ACCA… for accountants.

You accountants have so many acronyms and abbreviations… .

Clark says...
Oury says...

We’re numbers geeks at heart! Now for accountants - it turns out that both of these qualifications equip you to primarily do audit, financial reporting (how accounts are laid out and what notes go in them) and only a little bit of tax. Really, though the thing most clients value from an accountant is help with their tax. So the other thing you need to think about is if you want to give really great advice, you need to do your tax exams as well !

Okay but now look - what about the risk of trying to wear all these hats and keep updated from a technical perspective… doesn’t it make you more prone to making mistakes?

Clark says...
Oury says...

Well clients want help, and they want good advice. They want you to put your mouth (literally) where their money is - and tell them, ideally on the spot, what you think. The basic premise of being a professional is you charge a lot an hour to give someone answers to complex problems. You’re not paying for options and books to read yourself. You don’t go to your GP, and they say “oh it could be 5 different diseases, here are some books to read on the subject let me know what you think?’. They use their professional judgement and take a risk – MUCH greater than ours and give their opinion. If they get their advice wrong they risk a) killing someone b) losing their job c) going to prison. But still they have to tell us in ten mins what they think it is, and what they think you should do. And here we whimper as a profession, scared of risk… ?

Maybe you should do the Carillion Audit?

Clark says...
Oury says...

Well that’s a different question actually. But look, sometimes you will get it wrong, but, in my experience, when you do make a mistake, acknowledge it, apologise for it and correct the problem as best you can. That is what a client appreciates. Rather than running away from it and denying you did anything wrong.

Sage words Oury as so often I’ve seen disputes that escalate because no one’s prepared to take responsibility, say sorry, and the client gets frustrated and sues.

Clark says...
Oury says...

You shouldn’t take uncalculated risks, and you do need to know where the limit of your knowledge is and when you need to call in the specialists. One of the best thing about this job, is you can help people, and become a close trusted advisor, and in time perhaps even very close friends. And what they want is that you can listen to them, and understand their business, and the problem professionally. Be able to identify what really matters, and then conduct the orchestra of people around and below you to support you to solve the problem. So - we need generalists, and if you want to be client facing giving advice you need to be a generalist.

But being a generalist might not be for everyone, you will have some people who don’t want to be that involved with clients and who just want to specialise.

Clark says...
Oury says...

Yes absolutely - and that’s fine every firm needs people like that and if you are truly gifted in that field perhaps working in the big department of a big 4 firm in London is for you. But if the professions are to survive, we must value the generalist, and to be a great generalist, you need to have the broadest training possible.

So get a job at medium sized firm?

Clark says...
Oury says...

Yes, go somewhere big enough and broad enough to deal with complex clients in the entirety, but not so big that you have no access to the client or partner and get stuck in a department doing the same thing every day. Having a big name on your CV is not the be all and end all, and it can even be a negative. It's telling as a firm, we actually avoid people who have worked in the big accounting firms.

Really?

Clark says...
Oury says...

Yes - The culture is so different, they are so departmentalised, that we can’t convert them back…

So the Big 4 is like the dark side to you?

Clark says...
Oury says...

Well… No of course not. It’s horses for courses. And as I say – this is my opinion - Maybe I am completely brain washed and wrong and you should just go to a big firm and live happily ever after… but that is my opinion.

So the best thing about the job is to be client facing, and to be good at being client facing, you need the broadest possible knowledge.

Clark says...
Oury says...

Bingo. Thanks Clark you always understand me so well.

My pleasure Oury. Now, where can I buy one of these “batons”?

Clark says...

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We are but two fictitious characters throwing out ideas and comment to stimulate debate and collect information. As professional service firms, we are open minded people and think independent thought and debate is essential to help understand, as well as navigate, complex problems. By joves – doing business across Europe (and the world) is set to become a whole lot more complex in light of recent seismic political events. As businesses - we provide information and hopefully some wisdom - and we see this blog and its caricatures merely as a much more fun, perhaps slightly controversial way, of stimulating debate and collecting ideas. We’re searching for some true pearls of wisdom, and as we find them, we’ll share them with you.

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