Carving out a career in accountancy

Think accountancy, and one canít help but relate the thought to a career filled with dreary numbers. In an era that is aggressively shifting to the entrepreneurship wave, solid professions such as accountancy seem to be losing the popularity vote.

To achieve a developed nation status, however, Malaysia needs to reach the mark of 60,000 chartered accountants by the year 2020. It is a tight battle for talent on a global scale, and the nation is pooling its efforts in promoting the industry and attracting Malaysian accountants abroad back to the local scene.

Here, we speak to Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand (CAANZ) CEO Lee White, who was down in Kuala Lumpur for a conference recently, to find out about his perspective of the local accounting and finance industry.

What role does a chartered accountant play in a countryís economy?

Chartered accountants play a variety of roles, but theyíre all at the centre of business. And by that, they can be practitioners delivering an accounting service, they certainly are performing a range of role within businesses as the CFO, head of treasury, and also plays around large-scale businesses to small- and medium-sized as well. There are many chartered accountants in the academic community, influencing the next generation of chartered accountants and training them as they come through as well.

There is a common misconception that accounting is a job thatís only dealing with numbers, and can be boring. What would you say to that?

Lee White, CEO of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Lee White, CEO of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand.

I understand the perception. Itís my challenge being the CEO of the chartered accountants in Australia and New Zealand to genuinely colour the story of how great a career it can be. Yes, there are numbers involved, but in reality that is just a small element among the range of the roles.

As an example, I would give myself. I was trained doing audit in a major firm, but my career has taken me from being a practitioner in the private sector, to working in the public sector, to being chief regulator of the Australian capital markets, to now being the leader of my profession. So on a day-to-day basis, I donít touch any numbers or do what you might assume any chartered accountant would do.

Having been in the industry for a while, what do you think are the traits needed to excel in the field of accountancy?

Firstly, to excel in your profession as a chartered accountant, you need to make sure you have a very strong sense of values. And at the heart of those values, is integrity. If you are able to hold your personal integrity in a manner where people can place their trust in you, irrespective of which role youíre in, youíll always deliver an experience that will be rewarding. The second is to always to challenge yourself as to how you can change and adapt.

The other element Iíd say, and this is fundamental not just in chartered accounting but also to business, is how business is being directly affected by technology. So therefore, youíll need to be someone who embraces and understands how technology is changing and engage with it. As long as you engage, youíll keep yourself ahead of the game.

How is the work-life balance in the industry?

Globally there are many more women attracted generally into our profession than men. So our gender balance has been leaning stronger to females than men as they come in. But our profession is challenged a lot on how we retain women.

Now, the secret for me, is a lot in the other elements weíve spoken about. We have to provide great facilities, particularly with technology. So the times of coming into the office at 9am and being there till 5.30pm or 6pm is changing hugely. If you can equip an individual to contribute without having to be part of the physical environment, thatís great. And youíll need to invest. And if you can do that, youíre opening up a lot of options in this work-life balance. Good employers get this right Ė employers who lose talent, donít.

Lastly, how would you pitch this profession to the younger generation?

The beauty of the profession, and I know this is at the heart of many young people, is the ability to transport their qualification from Kuala Lumpur to New York or London or Sydney. And that is attractive. So a conversation with a younger person would be: Do you wish to become part of a profession where you will seem as a trusted advisor to the business world? If you do, then you have obligations that you need to follow.

The next question would be: Do you want to travel? Would you like to experience business and to meet new people, colleagues, and potentially friends in different parts of the globe? Then this is the profession for you.