Accountants aren’t the best at communicating things. Most people prefer to hunch over their desk and communicate about work issues by our internal instant messaging function. One thing that was brought up in training, in the accelerated leadership programme I attended, and in industry reports was that accountants need to communicate better.
Someone who can make complex ideas easy to grasp for clients, who can explain difficult work for staff under them, who can synthesise technical knowledge with expert project management via the alchemy of gab for higher-ups: this is the individual who will go far and make money. But of course, these guys are not in audit.They are lawyers, salesmen and managers working less hours and making more money.
I am not one of those people. I struggle with small talk. Girlfriend’s family say I’m like a passable imitation of a human being. At least money can compensate for my lack of social graces. But I’m slowly mobilising that, painful as it is. Getting comfortable with an increased range of topics. Hanging out at the edge of my comfort zone with conversation about sports. Getting better every day. Loving life, loving myself.
17% percent of my accountacy apprenticeship intake have quit since we began 5 months ago. The latest drop out ground through horrendous job after job, coming in weekends, to do the work of someone three years her senior. She wasn’t being paid overtime, she wasn’t getting “great exposure” or “learning”, she was being fucked silly while she put on a cheery face and said those magic words: “I’m grand, it’s fine”. So no one will pry. The phrase “I’m grand” in Ireland covers a multitude: you could be on top of the world, or hanging on by your fingernails. Everything would be “grand”, regardless. It’s fine.
Then the partners called the first years for a meeting to find out why almost a quarter had dropped out and what was going wrong. No one had any complaints. They were doing fine. Everything was grand. All until the next person quits. But I am a miserable cunt, I said that first years has no control over their work and were used for firefighting the problems that sprang up because of management’s lack of project management skills. We had no control over our work. We were never told what was important for the audit, and as a result, critical audit tasks were given equal parity to formatting and busy work. I said we want to be more proactive and involved.
The bosses loved to hear me parrot what I had learned in the accelerated leadership programme. So they said it was a good idea, they want staff to have a life outside of work. I asked how could we make it actionable, and then gave suggestions. . I think things will change, but it will happen on a time scale of years, and not months. I am good at that kind of big conversation. But I break out into a sweat when there is small talk involved.
It used to be that I would schedule conversations with people. I’d map the potential routes a conversation would take, and organise what I’m saying before I’d flip the mouth safety from silent, to monosyllabic, to full automatic autism. It’s like the 30 minutes I needed mobbing to hit normal positions. But I want to become a social supple leopard – ready for a conversation about the weather any time. It’s not realistic to warm up for a conversation. You have to be ready to shoot the breeze at a moment’s notice, otherwise you’ll lose out.
That’s why I try to talk to people I’m working with, walk over to their desk, be present. I don’t think it has the effect of making me seem friendly, but at least I’m trying. And effort counts, right?
Most men in the office are overweight and conservatively dressed. Maybe when they hit 30 they will get it together, and jump onto Starting Strength or Crossfit until they injure themselves. At least I have the excuse of managing chronic pain to be in shape. Recruiters and hiring partners will talk a lot about ‘fit’ with the firm. What’s important I’ve found is to be the same, regardless of your background. – everyone makes a big effort to suppress their individuality. That’s why I underdress and wear baggy cardigans that make me look 10lb overweight – to fit in. And everyone is miserable too. And I can hide how awful I feel by pretending I was out on the booze last night.
I guess to be in professional services in the big 4, international experience is a big plus, because you will be working with people from all over the world. They are in the same boat as you.
But back on topic: anyone can tick boxes and match portfolios to broker statements. That doesn’t take any skills except pain tolerance and a keyboardl. Soft skills, like being able to hold a conversation, or organise a night out for the business line will always trump that time you tied 2000 positions in an afternoon when promotions come up. If you don’t have the easy touch with people, you need to be organised and proactive in your dealings with your colleagues, superiors and HR. You have to concentrate on what you can do well to impress.
I think stupider people who are desperately insecure but nuture their talent will go further than someone who is brilliant but complacent. I know loads of smarter, more talented and better looking people than I am. They aren’t doing as well because they have so many ideas and plans, they never grind through the sticking point of failure. They just try the next thing. At the same time, concentrating on your strengths puts you up against people who are better than you at everything you are competing on. Then it’s luck of the draw.
There will be times when you are going up against people with worse grades and less talent, but they can hold a normal conversation and they will beat you. Or maybe, because they spent their teenage years happy and engaged in society, they have a connection with a network you don’t – a sports club at the heart of a community, an influential immigrant group, or a personal connection with someone in charge. So to have a chance, I had to grind social skills like a Korean free to play MMO.
You can do it too – there’s no reason a youtube history of weightlifting videos and gay porn remixed into anime theme tunes should hold you back. Do you have a career you can complain about? If not, mobilise and boost to the front lines of professional services!