Bean counters, number crunchers; call us what you will, there is a popular image of accountants as grey-suited individuals, with serious faces, who lack a fundamental sense of humour and who have an unhealthy obsession with adding up columns of numbers.
Well fair enough I do own a grey suit, but attest that I’m not a boring, unsmiling or impersonal human-being either in public dealing with clients and colleagues or in private with my own friends and family.
Now this might lose me some street cred (and also seem like an oxymoron to my whole argument) but I was listening to Radio 4 yesterday. There was a segment about how young people don’t have people skills anymore, that they’ve become unable to function normally in teams or with other people. The reason apparently is the Internet and the reliance on digital communications such as emails and text messages. Whilst I’m not going to argue against the point raised in the show, it got me thinking about the common misconceptions about the skills that accountants need. Yes numeracy is pretty important, there’s lots of mathematics, a lot of logic is needed and the ability to visualise how changes to balances or transactions can have a myriad of effects on a business or public bodies set of accounts. But really our job is about people.
If I couldn’t relate to people and gain their trust and assistance in performing my work I simply couldn’t do my job. One of the most important skills I use everyday is using my background and previous experience to relate to people and put them at ease. Being audited can’t be much fun, someone comes into your place of work checking what you’ve done, investigating, asking questions, challenging your professional judgement, suggesting changes. To be able to do this constructively, you certainly need to be able to build a rapport with clients.
I’m currently working with a Council that is based in the sort of rural area I grew up in and has some interesting projects and challenges facing the local population, similar to those from my hometown. So knowing what these might be from personal experience really helps as it allows me to show that I understand the reasoning behind the financial decisions made by the client. In turn it also means they trust my judgement and are happy to listen when I make recommendations, ask challenging questions or when I disagree with how something has been accounted for.
The thing I enjoy the most about my job is that I get to meet lots of different people, who are doing lots of different things and who are passionate about what they do. However, the role of an auditor isn’t about making friends with clients, it’s about building business relationships and there is a line that can’t be crossed, that of maintaining professional independence. But it doesn’t mean that you have to present the serious, humourless face that springs to mind when someone says the ‘A’ word.