Number-crunching, bean counting males in gray suits, perhaps with a wacky necktie, a pair of glasses, and sensible shoes. If asked to create an avatar of the archetypal accountant, the result might contain all the stereotypes above. And the profile might read: math wizard, slightly lacking in charisma or drive, but certainly useful to have around when it comes to the end of the financial year.
But anyone who works in accountancy or who knows an accountant will likely realize that all the above are crass stereotypes. Not all accountants are tax experts. Nor are they men, or people lacking in entrepreneurial spirit.
The fact is, there are many myths surrounding accountancy that have pervaded for years and continue to cast an inaccurate light on the profession. Let’s take a look at the most persistent of those myths and see if we can disprove, debunk, even dismantle every one of them:
OK. Let’s start with that stereotypical image of the accountant. A besuited office worker who’s rarely the life and soul of the party (assuming they get invited to the party in the first place!)
Like many professions, accountancy attracts a diverse range of people. Some might be a little dull and introverted. But then again so are some police officers. Bankers. Street cleaners. Advertising executives. You name it.
Equally, there are accountants who are loud and extroverted, and/or have great sense of humor. But they all do a serious job, so they’re unlikely to display the lighter, more entertaining side of their characters when discussing important financial matters in front of clients or colleagues.
You might not realize that there are plenty of celebrities who studied accountancy. In fact, all kinds of people are attracted to accountancy as a career. Below are a few legends (apt for an article about myths) that might take exception to being referred to as boring or introverted:
Mick went to the London School of Economics where he studied accounting. Of course, he became famous for different types of numbers—the songs he wrote and performed with The Rolling Stones. And to see him perform on stage is to see someone who’s far from introverted.
The extremely talented singer studied and majored in accounting at college. She still claims if her singing career hadn’t been the success it was, she’d probably be an accountant.
Plant’s father insisted he had an accountancy tutor when he was 16. But Robert soon swapped private tutors for private jets when he made it big as lead singer of Led Zeppelin.
Become an accountant and that’s it for life. You get typecast and work until you get that golden handshake and retire to the golf course, or wherever.
This stereotype is just not true! Accountants are like most other people. They have interests outside their working life, and their skills give them plenty of career options within the world of finance. How about pottery, writing novels and hunting down mobsters?
Sure, some accountants might be content to stick at it their whole working life. And why not? If you like it, keep doing it. The skills accountants possess give them a good grounding to move into Operations roles and even up to CEO level within organizations.
We’ve already seen how Jagger, Jackson, and Plant moved from accountancy into other areas. accountancy is the ‘language of business’ and as such is an invaluable skill that will give anyone plenty of career opportunities within the world of finance and beyond! Here are some non-rock star examples who proved that accountants are up to so much more than just drawing nicely balancing T-accounts:
Wilson was the forensic accountant of the US Secret Service whose finance and accounting skills played a key role in securing the prosecution of mobster Al Capone. His own boss at the IRS claimed that Wilson “fears nothing that walks,” and despite the threat he posed to the most powerful criminal syndicate in the country, Wilson outlived nearly all his adversaries to die peacefully at age 87. He even made it into the movies as the character of Oscar Wallace in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables.
Few would argue against the fact that the accountant Itzhak Stern made an impact beyond his profession by helping Oskar Schindler rescue so many from the tyranny of the holocaust.
At Stern’s suggestion, Schindler staffed the factory with Jewish laborers. There, he argued, they could be at least somewhat protected from the threat of deportation to concentration camps. Even when Kraków’s ghetto was liquidated in 1943 and Stern was sent to the Płaszów concentration camp, he continued to correspond with Schindler.
The acclaimed author is another example. He studied accounting at Mississippi State University before launching his phenomenally successful writing career.
The nephew of the composer of ‘Jingle Bells’ and founder of what later became J.P. Morgan & Co., started out as a humble accountant with a New York banking firm.
Mr. Wedgwood made his name in pottery, but holds a place in the history of accountancy. He is an early advocate of cost analyses that transformed the prices he charged for his pottery.
The stereotype that accountants never take a break from number-crunching is statistically proved to be untrue.
In fact, US News’ Best Jobs Rankings consistently ranks accountancy among the top 20 jobs in business and top 100 best jobs overall. A work/life ranking of 8 out of 10 suggests that many in the profession can happily juggle the responsibilities of their job with their interests and commitments outside of work – family, hobbies, socializing, self care, side hustles!
Sure, most tax accountants may have their hands full at the end of the tax year. For auditors, the ‘busy season’ is not called such by mistake. But the evidence suggests most get to see as much of family and friends as they do colleagues and clients.
Accountants are exceptional in mathematics. If you have difficulties reading a P&L or balance sheet, could it be because of a lack of calculus and advanced arithmetic skills? Sorry for busting this myth, for breaking off a chunk of my fellow accountants’ aura of genius. But thank me later for curing your potential for impostor syndrome.
The reality is accounting only tends to require knowledge of the basics of math—mainly addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division for when it comes to financial statements.
Expecting an accountant to be gifted with similar natural talents as Alan Turing et al. is a bit like saying all pilots need to know how to maintain the airplane’s engine before attempting to fly it.
Having said the above, most accountants I know understand the astonishing power of PV = FV / (1+r)^t. Incorporating the concept of discounting into your professional and personal decision-making processes is a sure win.
Aside from that, much of an accountant’s responsibilities call for in-depth analytical skills and the ability to communicate well via written and spoken word. This somewhat deflates the nerdy image of members of our trade.
Many accountants have stopped counting the times that a friend, knowing they are a CPA, came up to them to ask for help with their tax return … and had to disappoint them.
Of course, all accountants are taught the basics of taxation during their training. But only those who choose to specialize in tax will possess specialist knowledge, most likely enjoy their job and be very good at it. And even then: A celebrated transfer pricing expert may still be a mediocre choice for preparation of your personal income tax return.
Be it structuring or calculating, I personally spend a lot of time working on corporate tax matters. But never without a dedicated expert to second me. Luckily, I have had the honor to work with some outstanding tax specialists.
What most accountants (be it tax savvy or not) do have in common, is a methodical and analytical approach to problem solving, and the ability to communicate their solution to their clients.
So, if you happen to be reading this on your way over to chat to an accountant friend about your capital gains conundrum, turn around immediately and make an appointment with the appropriate tax expert.
If you start your career in accounting, there is no escape from corporate life. “You will never make it with your own business.” Have you heard this kind of advice before? It is based on one of the most persistent stereotypes about accountants.
In reality, accountants are important strategic business partners in many companies these days. They are able to interpret financial data and advise stakeholders on opportunities for growth and profit. This makes them perfect entrepreneurs.
We’ve already mentioned Josiah Wedgwood, a leading entrepreneur of the industrial revolution who was an accountant. But there are plenty of accountants with entrepreneurial streaks a mile wide. Here are two of the most outstanding examples.
The accountant that became the richest man in US history. But he started out as an assistant bookkeeper with a shipping firm before making his fortune in the oil business.
Tony is the founder of AirAsia and once owner of his own Formula One team. He studied for a degree in accounting at the London School of Economics.
This accountancy myth is slowly fading out. It’s a perception that is simply not true anymore and yet remains popular.
In fact, if it matters at all: In most developed countries, more than 55% of accountants and auditors (and some of the best I have learned from and worked with) are women. Hence, you should already be used to hearing the appropriate personal pronouns. As in, “She will be presenting your year-end financial report.”
Although stats reveal that more partners in accountancy firms are men, the future is bright. The number of students currently completing financial qualifications shows a 50:50 split.
All of this adds up to disprove this warped perception of the profession. So, check yourself before assuming the anonymous accountant (much like the doctor or pilot) is a man, because in all probability … she’s not.
Spreadsheet software has come a long way since the first release of VisiCalc on Apple II in 1979, and continues to be an accountant’s Swiss Army Knife. Admittedly, if you sneak up behind one of your finance colleagues at work, the probability of seeing Excel open on their screen is rather high. Personally, I use it all the time.
Yes, spreadsheets are incredibly flexible. Easy to get started, yet offering seemingly unlimited possibilities if you’re an expert. The flipside of the coin is spreadsheet risk 😱
Last year, nearly 16,000 coronavirus cases went unreported in the UK because of badly thought-out use of Excel. In 2003, Fannie Mae misstated their shareholder equity by a staggering $1.2 billion due to “honest mistakes made in a spreadsheet”.
Consolidation, budgeting, cap tables, expense management, project management, … There so many areas where you can but shouldn’t use spreadsheets.
The accounting profession has seen amazing transformation in technology alone in the last decade. With so many state-of-the-art dedicated SaaS tools such as Volve out there, why would accountants love spreadsheets – and spreadsheets alone?
That’s the main myths associated with accountants dealt with. If you still buy in to all stereotypes and clichés about accountancy, that’s fine. Most of the profession can see the funny side because they know that the facts are a world away from the fiction.
And, hey, what’s wrong with glasses and a wacky necktie anyway?
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