The many facets of leadership

Employers want candidates with ‘leadership potential’, but what if you feel this isn’t you? Can you have a career in finance if you don’t aspire to lead?

Iwona Tokc-Wilde, journalist

Leadership skills are among those most sought after by accountancy and finance employers, even for entry-level positions.

EY, for example, wants ‘people with the courage to lead, people who inspire and motivate others, and provide clear direction and encouragement in times of both prosperity and challenge’.

Deloitte, too, seeks people who want to develop leadership abilities early in their career, while PwC expects all of its people – people at all grades and in all areas of their business – to be leaders.

Redefining success

Some students, however, don’t feel they are ‘leadership material’. Many don’t want to become a partner, CFO or CEO either. Does this mean they should abandon their studies and rethink accountancy as a career?

Matthew Knight, principal at strategy and innovation practice Foxlark, doesn’t think so: ‘Just having leaders does not get a business anywhere; it’s the doers – or the followers – who bring the leaders’ ideas to life. No employer in the world would turn their nose up at someone who is committed to doing brilliant work that helps move the business forward.’

You needn’t succumb to the pressure to climb the ladder either.

‘Society seems to think you can only be successful if you reach the top of the tree, but success is something intensely personal, so it should be defined on an individual level,’ says business and executive coach Heather Townsend. ‘Do you feel happy and fulfilled? Then that should be the true measure of your success, not your bank balance or material possessions.’

Redefining leadership

However, leadership isn’t always about being at the very top of an organisation.

Leo Lee, ACCA's immediate past president, has defined leadership as ‘taking people with you as you strive to do the right thing and make a positive impact on the world around you’.

Knight agrees: ‘Clearly articulating an idea, getting others excited about it, bringing them along on a journey and supporting them along the way – this is the hallmark of a true leader, not the fact that they have a number of people reporting to them.’

In a modern business, such leaders are needed at every level, so trainees and newly qualified accountants must be prepared to step up into that role too.

‘For a trainee doing an audit, an act of leadership could be flagging up a problem, for a manager or a partner to then have a potentially difficult conversation with the client,’ says Townsend. This means you are doing the right thing and making a positive impact.

‘Of course your technical skills need to be spot on, but they are taken as a given and are not the sole differentiator of your overall contribution to an organisation. You need to be able to deal with and make sense of the unexpected, seek out evidence to support decision-making, interpret and utilise financial information to optimise business performance, and evaluate risk and reward in a constructive manner’

Learning to lead

Indeed, you should develop your leadership skills even if you think you are not ‘leadership material’. You will need empathy, courage, emotional intelligence, accountability, integrity, communication and presentation skills throughout your professional life.

‘Of course your technical skills need to be spot on, but they are taken as a given and are not the sole differentiator of your overall contribution to an organisation,’ says David Cartwright, personal development and business coach at OBD Academy.

He adds: ’You need to be able to deal with and make sense of the unexpected, seek out evidence to support decision-making, interpret and utilise financial information to optimise business performance, and evaluate risk and reward in a constructive manner.’

Cartwright says that the capacity to communicate and engage with others comes at the top of the list of leadership qualities. ‘I’m not talking about someone with wonderful oratory skills or the “gift of the gab”, I’m referring to being able to confidently build rapport with colleagues and clients in a manner that promotes good practice and that creates an inclusive working environment. If you cannot demonstrate these qualities, then the value of what you can offer to any organisation is severely compromised.’

The recent changes to ACCA's professional qualification – in particular, the new Strategic Business Leader exam and Ethics and Professional Skills module – are designed to help you develop the leadership skills increasingly needed by effective finance professionals.

Self-leadership

There is another aspect of leadership that you simply must master for a successful professional career, regardless of your rank.

Think about the following:

  • Can you control your emotions and behaviour regardless of the circumstances?
  • Do you make your own decisions and choices, or do you always wait until you are told what to do?
  • Do you modify your thoughts and actions to do what is most important right now? For example, do you sometimes decide to work late, without having been asked – not to put in some face-time, but to finish a report you know a client is keen to get as soon as possible?

In other words, are you focused, proactive, disciplined and dedicated in striving to achieve your personal goals and the objectives of your organisation? If so, you are a self-led person.

This is very important because leadership begins on the inside, it begins with you. Until you learn to lead or direct yourself, you will never be able to lead others.

Townsend says self-leadership requires high levels of self-awareness and, often, the courage to swim against the tide.

She adds: ‘The accountancy world – particularly in practice – is a high-pressure world. But if you have cracked self-leadership, if you work at your best every day, you won’t just survive, you will thrive.’

Keep an open mind

Still not convinced you have what it takes to lead others one day?

Gill Cashell, course leader for accountancy and finance at Solent University, says: ‘Even if you wouldn’t put yourself forward as a natural leader and are more happy to follow, this doesn’t mean you don’t have leadership potential. Often, leadership is a natural progression that evolves out of a role and with experience. With experience comes confidence to guide others. Guiding others is a leadership role.’

Stepping up to leadership – of people, departments or whole organisations – is a future career choice, and so not something you need to worry about now.

‘Once you’ve been led yourself and therefore have been exposed to the challenges that come with leading others, and assessed your own capacity to deal with such challenges, you’ll be in a better position to decide,’ says Cartwright. ‘Until that moment of choice beckons, embrace leadership development as eagerly as your professional qualifications. These skills will serve you well whatever career choices you make.’