5 young professionals discuss the key ingredients for unlocking potential

The Tax Journal published their ‘40 under 40’ in March 2015. This was followed in June by Accountancy Age with their ‘Top 35 under 35.’ Both showcase some of the best accounting talent in the UK. The BDLN tracked down five leading professionals who appeared on these lists this year to get their hints, tips and opinions on how to accelerate your career.

We spoke with:

  • Chris Gaze, senior accountant, RIFT Accounting
  • Heather Williams, senior manager, UHY Hacker Young
  • Jon Wedge, partner, BKL
  • Michael Leeds, director, Grant Thornton
  • Susanne Parsler, senior manager, Mazars


1) Avoiding the ‘professional services carousel’ pays dividends

Three professionals we interviewed have stayed with their current firms for most of their careers (over 10 years). They joined early, trained hard and continued to build their career at the same firm. This has had several advantages.

You can build from the ground up

Working with the same people for several years gives you the chance to shape a team and influence the direction of travel. Susanne Parsler says working with a team for several years has given her a unique position within the firm: “I am an integral part of the team, I get involved in the strategy, I lead on recruitment, manage the financials, and more importantly, my ideas are heard. As a result I am committed to the firm – there is nowhere in the market that would offer me the same level of responsibility and influence.”

Developing alongside a firm’s internal appraisal process builds trust

If conditions are right, you gain assurance that you will be promoted fairly and in line with your evolving skills. As Michael Leeds explains: “When you’ve been with a firm for a long time you buy into it. This loyalty is huge for both the firm and the individual. When you leave, you lose the sense of belonging and of being part of the journey.”

Your internal network and brand becomes more powerful

Getting known as the expert in your area gives you the power to progress. Susanne again: “My network here is so much more formidable than it would have been if I was only three years in. Or if I’d changed firms – it would take time to rebuild that. Your personal brand is strengthened by the time you’ve taken to build it and your credentials speak for themselves after that longer period of time.”

It gives you a deep understanding of the firm and the service line you work in

Ambitious people should proactively ask for exposure to other areas of the firm to gain a broader knowledge and added motivation.

Ambitious people should proactively ask for exposure to other areas of the firm

Jon Wedge says: “I looked for responsibility early on: more complex tasks, exposure to partners more quickly and a faster exposure to clients. Also it led to much better all-round training to get me where I wanted to be – an all-round business consultant and adviser. Not just ‘an auditor’.”

Heather Williams elaborates and adds that it is also critical to find your specialism: “I have sought out opportunities in private client tax that have captured my attention. Targeting areas where there is a business need that you also find interesting means you’ll relish the challenge and seek innovative solutions. It doesn’t happen by chance and most of the areas I am now specialised in are as a result of discipline, practice and hard work linked to the ability to recognise a business opportunity.”

Many people make successes of their careers by learning skills at one firm and moving on. However, the sheer strength of your internal network and your reputation at a firm you’ve stayed at for a long time are powerful tools to get you promoted.

2) Have long-term goals. Take short-term steps

This was a key theme. Aim big and aspire to great things. Set a long-term target but break it into manageable pieces.

Set a long-term target but break it into manageable pieces

Jon Wedge says that a long-term goal is key but it “has to be broken down in to a lot of shorter steps. Small targets motivate you and will build up momentum to your ultimate goal”.

Heather Williams agrees and adds that it’s also about recognising what you don’t want: “Break down your goal into manageable pieces. Break it into stages and assess how you’re going to achieve each one. It’s also important to recognise what you don’t want.”

Susanne Parsler adds: “Know what your long-term goals are, and identify the steps that will take you there. Recognise the support within the firm.”

Here are some of the key pieces of advice about goal setting from our panel:

  • Set a wide variety of goals
  • Make sure some are specific and quantitative
  • Include goals that allow you to experience different departments, sectors or service lines
  • Understand your strengths and weaknesses and build these in to your goals and targets

3) You don’t have to go to university and study finance to be successful

The classic university route for the professional is no longer the gold standard. Three of our interviewees bypassed university altogether, and one studied in a completely different field. As Heather points out, it can take time to work out the direction of your career. She says: “If someone had told me ten years ago when I graduated with a choreography and contemporary dance degree that I would be named as a one of the leading tax professionals under the age of 40, I would have laughed! However, I now recognise the discipline and confidence gained during my early training has allowed me to stand out and offer something slightly different from my peers.”

Having a clear idea of what you want to do professionally and simply going for it is as much a recipe for success as spending several years formally training.

Simply going for it is as much a recipe for success as spending several years formally training.

As Chris Gaze says: “My ambition was to become a chartered accountant and a business adviser. So I didn’t go to university. After my A-levels I found a trainee position at a small firm and started the AAT. There wasn’t a lot of room for progression so I found a larger local firm. There I finished the AAT and completed the ACA and was ready for my next challenge.”

Jon Wedge adds: “I decided I wanted to be an accountant at a fairly early age – probably in sixth form. I found out about something called the AAT fast-track scheme – this really appealed to me. I liked the idea of joining a firm at an early age and knuckling down into the job to form a solid base of knowledge quickly.”

This more focused approach can then be continued in your career – by being clear about your targets and then taking the steps you need to progress. This method has been instrumental in shaping the careers of several people we spoke to. And it’s made the idea of joining a firm with no training and making partner in ten years a reality.

4) Diversity and technology are shaking up the industry

Times, they are a changing. Two main themes appeared following our conversations. First, positive steps are being taken toward more diverse and representative firms. Second, the opportunities presented by technology are distinguishing between the new and old guard as well as blurring lines between traditional and more modern business development methods.

Diversity: progress being made, but more to do

Susanne Parsler thinks that diversity in the workplace is moving in the right direction, but there is still work to do. “There’s a lot more diversity in leadership. In my peer group there’s a lot of women and more ethnic minorities. Lack of women in leadership roles continues to be an issue. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there.”

Heather agrees. She thinks the traditional pinstripe suit stereotype is breaking down. She also suggests that the temptation for women to mirror the attributes of senior male colleagues is a mistake. “Over time I’ve realised that I have different skills, more feminine skills. And I’ve embraced them. Skills like leadership, nurturing, listening, adapting, supporting and encouraging. As the business world evolves and becomes more interconnected there’s an increased need to collaborate to solve problems and bring about change. And these skills are becoming more important to facilitate that.”

Diversity also means having the right mix of people and skills on your bench. The firms who will succeed are the ones who avoid turning their people into corporate clones. As Jon puts it: “You can’t be moulded into a blank corporate face. You have to allow your personality to flourish and develop. The traditional blank-faced corporate adviser cannot get on with your clients.”

Technology: New and younger business owners are driving the appetite for change

Interestingly, several discussions formed around the idea that change is being driven by new and younger business owners. Software and technology is key to this.

A new, younger breed of entrepreneur needs a new breed of accountant

Cloud accounting, and the potential it has to provide extra valuable services is enormous. “A new, younger breed of entrepreneur needs a new breed of accountant” was the way one of our panel described it.

Communication with clients and prospects using new social media and new approaches is continuing to increase in importance. Firms that encourage their staff to take advantage of these – from the partnership right down to new starters and graduates – are stealing a march.

This puts firms in a stronger position to capture the market of new, younger, more dynamic business owners. As Chris Gaze says: “We’re all about personality – this also translates really well to social media. Our Twitter and Facebook pages have lots of fun stuff on there. Our marketing team are strong on using social media to promote the RIFT brand.”

Firms need to reflect the clients they want to serve and a key way to achieve this is through technology. Michael Leeds says: “We talk of being ‘in a category of 1’. There are lots of things we’ve done in terms of rebranding – lots of work to move away from an older image that looked like it was from the 70’s and 80’s. Plenty of other firms still look exactly the way they did 20-30 years ago. This means when delivering our pitches and proposals, we just look good. Perception means a huge amount.”

Technology continues to blur the lines between traditional and new approaches. Jon Wedge says that social media is important. Having an opinion, a point of view and injecting your message with a sense of humour is critical.

And to close, a selection of tips, driving forces, motivators and observations. And some advice…

  • “Don’t stand still. When you get to the point where you don’t go any further, things can quickly become dull, so by continuing to progress you keep your job and your role interesting.”
  • “Be curious about taking on new challenges and broadening your mind-set.”
  • “Being interested makes you more interesting…”
  • “Resilience. Because if you have an opportunity to get a piece of work and you miss out, you need to pick yourself up and go again. I’ve got another 30 years left in this career. So if you’re ready to give up now when you’ve got most energy it doesn’t bode well! Resilience will keep you going.”
  • “And, if you don’t know the answer to a client question. Don’t blag it….”

With thanks to all our contributors.

What do you think? Do you agree with our panel? What are your experiences as you progress in your career? Get involved in the debate!


This article was originally published in August 2015