What makes a good accountant a good accountant? Not too long ago, there was a stereotype of “bean counters” as old men, often hunkered down in a dark room with a visor on their head, going cross-eyed from staring at numbers all day. That stereotype is so twentieth century.
While their lives do essentially revolve around numbers, modern accountants have pretty exciting lives, interacting throughout the day with a variety of clients, helping build small and large businesses, researching varied business topics, and even helping to root out financial crimes. So, what are some of the elements that can lead to someone being a natural fit for the accounting profession? Here are some starting points:
1. Basic Math
You don’t need to be Einstein. (Remember what the C in E=MC2 stands for? No? That’s all right, because you don’t need to). Most accountants deal with basic math, such as addition/subtraction, multiplication, division, percentages, and decimals. For most things harder than that, well, that’s what calculators are for — and computer programs that automate the calculations. That said, a prospective accountant can’t be overwhelmed by numbers or strings of basic math calculations. It may be necessary to calculate 20% of 80% of 43% of a number, convert that into a decimal, deal with negative numbers, and work backwards on some basic math issues.
2. Analytical Mind
As important as math, a good accountant should be naturally inquisitive, particularly when it comes to seeing trends and patterns. This is useful in business consulting in general, but especially so when analyzing financial data for anomalies, finding areas that can be improved, or even identifying potential fraud. Having a detail-oriented focus also helps ensure client financials are healthy, which can result in thriving businesses and a growing accounting practice. Accuracy is the core focus of accounting.
Although numbers-focused, successful accountants must be able to think sideways, follow tangents, and find new ways to solve both new and old problems. As technology continues to drive innovative new businesses and business models, accountants need to keep up with that innovation both technologically and in their own workflows. This requires flexibility and an agile mind.
With exceptions for organized crime, a “good” accountant should be honest, with a solid sense of integrity. Not only should he or she be averse to personally performing illegal or shady actions, be he or she should also be unwilling to participate after-the-fact by knowingly helping others hide those actions. Accounting principles and tax laws are serious, and the profession and millions of small businesses rely on their accounting professionals to maintain high ethical standards.
5. Business Savvy
An accountant is a small business owner who other business owners turn to for business advice. Notice a recurring theme? All redundancy jokes aside, an accountant must have a keen interest in business functions and models, and an understanding of how to identify trends, general economics, and business goals. Understanding an organization’s finances requires much more than looking at the bottom line, it requires understanding what the bottom line means, and every other line as well, and how the various components of a business — from AP and AR, to payroll, taxes, revenue and cost of goods sold — affects other areas of business operations.
In decades past, and especially before the internet and mobile connectivity became pervasive, accountants often looked at data for a time period that was over. Looking at the books for last month, for example, they could tell a business what it did wrong or right, and make corrections as necessary, but only to the historical data. Now, however, improved connectivity and other technologies allows much greater interaction and insight into a business’ financials and operations. This has put accountants into the drivers’ seat when it comes to proactively guiding the business in day-to-day functions, based on real-time data.
Dashboards are often a core element behind these decisions, giving business leaders and financial advisors instant access to key performance indicators such as cash flow, production, customer data and revenues, as well as the ability to dive deep into detailed transactional information.
7. People Person
Accountants are more and more likely to be meeting regularly with clients and collaborating, often on a daily basis, with staff at their client’s businesses and with other staff in the accounting firm. Greater connectivity means professionals are more engaged with operations, often with virtual CFO services or helping clients troubleshoot issues, and are participating in more business functions, such as payroll, purchasing, paying bills, and even entering sales transactions. In some niche accounting fields there is even more interaction, such as those who perform forensic accounting, and may frequently testify in court or work with legal authorities in the course of their jobs.
8. Part Psychologist
As the most trusted business advisor to clients, an accountant must be able to lend an understanding ear, but then offer real, objective advice, when it comes to the problems that small business owners face. Most often, the issues are strictly business, but particularly with smaller clients, the accountant may need to address how personal factors like divorce, children and other family issues can affect business finances and operations.
A Rewarding Career
Accounting can be both financially and personally rewarding. While not every accountant will work for one of the Big Four international firms, even professionals working at smaller practices can see good starting salaries and, during the course of their career, can achieve truly significant incomes and partnership in a firm.
On the personal side, modern technology is influencing how all professionals work, particularly information professionals like accountants. Firms are allowing and even encouraging greater flexibility with work schedules and working from remote locations, as long as the professional achieves the desired end results and clients are kept happy. As with any career, finding one that matches your natural inclinations is a key factor as to whether you will be fulfilled. Accounting offers a wonderful mix of objective analysis, personal interaction, and creativity that can be both challenging and rewarding.