Why accounting is never boring
‘Isn’t accountancy boring?’ I’ve felt the burden of this unasked question every time a stranger asks me what I do for a living.
I have a degree in accountancy. Never mind that accountancy must be the least theoretical subject it is possible to study (it doesn’t matter, the degree is filled with economics, law, finance and other subjects to give it academic rigour), it means I’ve been fielding the ‘What are you studying/do for a living?’ question since my teens. I’ve never yet found an answer I’m happy with. I have however noticed the character of my answers has changed as I’ve got older. First, it was trying to persuade girls that, despite my choice of subject, I was an interesting person to know. Now it’s more likely to reassure mums that their daughter doesn’t need to be especially good at maths if she wants to be an accountant.
What I’d like to say is that, in 24 years since qualifying, barring a couple of months in early 1998, I don’t think I’ve ever been bored at my work. I don’t think I’ve ever had a job where I didn’t feel like I was learning something new, and being challenged intellectually almost all the time.
I find it doubly frustrating that I can’t answer the question well because, surprisingly often, I meet professional people who, although they wouldn’t admit it, are bored by their work. These are people who find themselves, in their forties, so bored at their work that they have, in effect, gone part-time and fill their free time with all sorts of stimulating activity to make up for the routine of their day job. Although I envy their free time, in truth, I’d suffer some kind of moral panic if I thought I had learned most of what there is to learn of my profession. These are bright people.
Why is an accountant’s job interesting? Because it involves working with people. There are only handfuls of occasions in my career in finance when I’ve had to use my ‘debits and credits’ accountancy training. Most of the time I’ve been managing people, either directly or in IT or organisational change projects that have involved leading or influencing other people. People are constantly changing and are never the same. Even in a team you’ve been managing for some time and think you understand, a new person can join or a new situation arises that causes the dynamics of that team to change in ways you don’t, at first, understand and must learn anew how to manage.
While I was training, there were, I admit, a couple of occasions when I was asked to do something not unlike adding up a phone book. But most of the time it was like a privileged business education. One minute I would be standing on top of a pile of steel with a guy from the shop floor during the stock take, the next I would be chatting to the managing director during the final audit. There are very few opportunities that give you that level of insight into business at the age of twenty.
Training as a chartered accountant gives you all sorts of great experiences like that. I recall standing with a colleague in a remote corner of a large engineering factory waiting for someone to come and do a stock take with us. Into the office comes this chap off the shop floor obviously shocked to see strangers dressed in suits standing there. ‘Who are you?’ he says. ‘Auditors’ we reply. ‘What the f**k’s an auditor?’ he asks in a perfectly pleasant, enquiring sort of way. We both looked at each other, lost for words. Before we could think of a reply he helped us out of our confusion by saying ‘Do you write reports?’ Thankful of a way out of our embarrassing silence, we both said yes, that was it. We write reports. I still can hardly think of a more succinct description of the work of an auditor.
So there it is. A profession with perhaps the most boring public image happens to be among the most interesting, varied and challenging careers you can have. And that’s because it’s a general business career. If it involved sitting in a desk adding up figures…now that really would be boring.