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The big interview: Bruce Cartwright, Chief Executive of ICAS

The big interview: Bruce Cartwright, Chief Executive of ICAS

We spoke to Bruce Cartwright CA, Chief Executive of the ICAS (Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland) about the many finance career options available to those who qualify as a Chartered Accountant (CA).

“The ICAS qualification is in effect the privilege of putting the CA (Chartered Accountant) initials after your name. It is often described as a passport to a career in business, principally in business. You may take your career somewhere else but it opens many doors – it’s an opportunity to gain a deep, deep understanding of the way finance works and operates, the levers that drive our business. Once you've got a firm grasp of those handles, where you take your career is really down to you,” says Bruce.

Bruce leans on his extensive experience as a CA, FD and CEO to offer his thoughts on many key topics:

Advice for students embarking on their ICAS journeys

I wouldn’t be too prescriptive about looking ahead. I know some people have mapped out their futures as they’re coming in at the start of their careers, because the majority of our students joining the profession are in their 20s. But that said, we've got people in their 30s and their 40s too. I think the most important thing is to accept that if you have come from school or straight from university, it's a step up in terms of the work you have to cover. It is effectively a master’s level qualification, there's a lot to learn in a relatively short space of time while holding down quite a serious job. So what I’d say to students is you have to make that adjustment from full time study and be aware that you're going to have to work hard at your day job. Even though you’ll get block release, you’ll be working into the evenings, so you've got to be able to balance many things but that’s part of the training.

The career options for ICAS qualified CAs

We have around 23,000 members at the moment and I think all of them would say that the world’s your oyster in terms of how you want to develop your career. It gives you a badge to demonstrate that you've achieved something in terms of the knowledge and understanding of how finance works. It's not actually about doing the numbers, it's about living and using the numbers. And when you've got that, there are many ways your career can go. Traditionally, a lot of people will have trained and stay in public practice, be it in the audit profession or the world of restructuring like I did, or into corporate finance or digital consultancy. Equally many will say that there's a natural platform to go off into industry, which could be as soon as you qualify or five years down the line. Everyone will have different reasons but generally your career options are so open at the moment you qualify.

Moving from Public Practice to Industry & Commerce

I think it's entirely down to the individual. We will see more people moving between public practice and the commercial industry world and coming back again. But traditionally, most people have qualified in practice. It's a while since I qualified in in the late 1980s and I envisaged that I would move into industry but I never did because I found it so interesting. I went off to the world of restructuring and that was an area I didn't know existed when I first started my qualification. So I think opportunities come along and it entirely depends on the individual and where you see your career. I spent secondments in industry and loved it, but I just wanted to get back to restructuring. You need to know yourself at a point in time, some people will start in practice, will never move from it and have a very fulfilling career. Others will want to be on the inside of that company, running it, probably starting as a financial controller, ideally moving up to be the CFO, but everybody will have their own view of it. I would say follow your own nose and instinct. If you're doing something you enjoy, you'll do it better.

The key skills that CAs need to succeed

There is an assumption that the technical skills are a given if you’re a qualified CA. Doing the numbers is fine but the value is not in in adding up the numbers and producing the results, the real skill of the numerical side is understanding the levers that if we do this, for example if we extend our cashflow and invest here, then this will be the outcome. It is by understanding the levers and then translating them into numbers that you're able to predict the future – if you can forecast the future, then that's part of the business strategy. A good CA will have that ability to do this. So I would say doing the numbers to record the result is one thing, but being able to forecast what will happen is fundamental. There should be no surprises around the figures. It does happen though – we didn't predict a pandemic in March 2020!

But on the whole a good CA will have the numbers at his fingertips and be able to articulate them, which is the most important part. You've got to be able to communicate and understand what and why you're communicating and who your audience is. Emotional intelligence is fundamental to the role of a CA plus common sense. What are the numbers saying, does that make sense and if we do this, is that where we want to be? So take the numbers, look at them, speak with authority about where it takes you, but also be able to look back and say, ‘So what?’ What does it mean to you guys who are sitting around the table listening to me? Soft skills are absolutely critical especially once you've done the training.

The impact of the new hybrid, remote world of work

It's been a journey we've all been on and I'm obviously talking as the ICAS CEO, having adopted a hybrid, working from home model. I'm guessing around 80% of finance professionals are probably doing the same on a daily basis if not more than half of their time. I think we've demonstrated that it can work and it has helped in a positive way, for example less time at airports and train stations has to be good for everybody. Every organisation will have its own views around the split between home and office. At ICAS we’ll set parameters but then will dilute it down into the teams and say that broadly this is our expectation but ultimately it’s your decision. Some teams would naturally want to be in the office more, particularly when you need to collaborate and brainstorm around digital or creative strategy, whereas if you're writing a piece of policy work, then the office or home will equally give you that peace and quiet. So it drills down to the individual units and how they operate – those who are ultimately doing the work in that particular area should decide. But it requires leadership to give the guidance of those parameters. Our position is that each individual has their personal concerns, some might be shielding, some might want to come in for mental health reasons or perhaps working from home is not feasible – there is no one size fits all working pattern. We have a responsibility to support the individual.

Learning from behaviours in the office

But we've got to be very clear that this is a two way street. I think there are efficiencies to be had with this way of working but on the other hand you are missing – and this is fundamental – the conversations around the table, the body language. I think it's really important, especially for those in the early parts of their career to be in the office environment to see how their peers are behaving. One of my favorite things is always when I'm sitting in a boardroom and I've got a question in my mind, I'm just about to put my hand up and somebody else asks that question but they asked it so much better than I did. I'm going to remember that because the way you ask a question or the way you phrase it, perhaps even the way you sit, angle yourself and talk about it provokes a certain response. And I've often thought, the other person did it an awful lot better. Watching and seeing how your peers and seniors behave is priceless, as you learn good and bad practice.

And why you need to be self-aware

How you see yourself is one thing, but how others see you is more important. So become aware of how you come across. As a CA you've got a lot of knowledge at your fingertips that you're providing and it come across sometimes as quite scary to someone who's just being hit with this information. Be aware of that. Sit back and be human. Always, always look at the people you're speaking to. The biggest skill of a Chartered Accountant is how they deal with other people. You've still got to be approachable because if people don't ask you questions, your knowledge isn't being used.

Taking the step from FD to CEO

A lot of CFOs move up to CEO, so it's not unusual at all – we’ve got a lot of CAs who now have the CEO title and yet they started in finance. I was a partner at PwC in my previous role, during that time I had FD roles when I would go on secondment to clients so I have been in the role directly and have advised many FDs. When you're sitting in your boardroom, you really understand when people talk numbers to you because you've been there and that’s vitally important. But the bigger thing for me is that when you switch across to CEO, it becomes a much more holistic leadership role. I find that probably 90% of my time, and I do think it is about that, is probably people related because behind everything I do as CEO there's a people agenda. The CEO role starts and ends with people. Everything is about people.

The role of non-financial reporting…

We're only at the beginning of this journey. There is a massive role for CAs in the whole non-financial reporting sphere. It seems quite weird when you say that because all this is non-financial so why are the CAs doing it? This is because clearly it requires the same skill set, you are still reporting, measuring, looking at KPIs and for a degree of it you're also giving it authenticity that these numbers stack up. Where is it going to drive our CO2 emissions? What does this mean? And the reporting isn’t embryonic anymore, it’s quite advanced, but it still has a journey to go. There's a massive space for career opportunities going forward and non-financial will be just as big as financial reporting.

Why there is no such thing as bad feedback

The other thing I want to say is that you will have certain mentors with you on your journey and people giving you feedback. A phrase I've heard quite often is there is ‘no such thing as bad feedback’. Be very self-aware of yourself and do take feedback on board, both the good and bad. I used to work with a great team and often we'd be in a client meeting and be coming back in the car and the guy I worked with most would often say “Do you want some feedback on that meeting?” And your brain says I don't know but actually yes please because it always really constructive and fascinating, for example “When you're asking that question did you see the reaction you got?” I always take feedback positively for its intention is good – if someone is giving you feedback, they're doing it for a reason but you have to be a robust and recognise that it's given as a gift.

And the one thing to focus on to help your career

Build your personal networks, your relationships and friendships over your lifetime – people that you can rely on and ask questions of. People think about their CVs, but your network is just as important because you learn from other people and networks are more transparent now because of social media. It’s those one-to-one conversations and remembering that if you say you'll do something for somebody, do it because that person will remember; if you don't, that will be remembered too. But build your networks in a positive fashion. And if you say you're going to do something, do it. As I’ve said, be yourself and follow your nose so that when opportunities come along, you’ll take them and never look back. Experience is always a good experience. Finally, life is a journey and we never stop learning.

Listen to the full podcast interview with Bruce here:

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