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Changing role of accountants within the banking and financial services sector

Written by: Jamie Carter
Published on: 24 Jun 2010

Today's finance teams are far more integrated into the businesses they serve. In fact in many cases, the finance function has moved from a back-office reporting role to proactively leading the business through change; finding ways to eliminate costs and to improve business effectiveness. We have seen a trend towards dividing responsibility bolstered by the growth of business partnering roles, resulting in a shift where finance works directly with other functions. These roles require greater commercial and communication skills. We are now seeing a growing demand for accountants and other finance professionals who offer more than traditional technical skills. 

Over the past few years, employers have changed their requirements when recruiting accounting and finance staff – they now ask for professionals with broader commercial competencies. It is clear that over the past five years, the role of an accountant has changed beyond recognition. Gone are the days of accountants sat in offices crunching numbers; instead, they have greater involvement in commercially-focused activities. As a result, today's accountant is out and about, influencing his or her colleagues to achieve better business performance through greater understanding of finance. The general feeling is that the changing role of an accountant is no more evident than in the banking and financial services sector. There is now greater pressure on finance teams to add value and provide commercial guidance in plain English. 

We have noticed that even though accountants are recognising their changing role and scope, they are more focussed, perhaps wrongly, on developing their technical and IT skills in order to take the next step in their career. Having said that, there are pockets where employees' thinking is more in-line with their employers', and they understand that commercial awareness is the most important area for development. 

At a time when cost control is at the heart of any organisation's agenda, it's no surprise that employers are looking for accounting staff to play a bigger role and to align themselves more closely with the business. This has led to the emergence of an increasing number of business partnering roles within banking and financial services companies. They are not alone. Over the past ten years, HR has moved to a business partnering model, looking to add greater value to strategy and decision making. Is there an opportunity for the two professions to learn from each other? 

As organisations apply pressure on their accounting and finance departments to add value, it's no wonder that employers need their accountants to develop commercial awareness, strong communication abilities and leadership skills to take the next steps in their career. It might be controversial to some and even unpalatable for the accountancy bodies, but many employers and employees believe that the training through qualification for the role of a 'modern accountant' does not provide all of the skills required. Professional bodies recognise they must keep pace with the changing demands and expectations of the profession, while employers need to focus on helping accounting and finance staff embrace the new aspects of their roles. As the demand for more 'fully-rounded' accountants grows, the issue is to what extent professional bodies should seek to fill the gap, and to what extent is this is the responsibility of the employers and employees? Equally, does accounting as a profession have a reputation that is out of sync with reality, and therefore resulting in attracting individuals with the wrong mix of personal skills? Either way, we will continue to monitor and observe the changing role accountants are playing in the banking and financial services sector.

Jamie Carter has had over seven years' recruitment experience within the London-based Banking and Financial Services sector, covering different disciplines including accounting and finance, operational risk, middle office and operations, mergers and acquisitions, and corporate finance. However, he is also a specialist accountancy and finance recruiter within the investment banking sector. Jamie joined Marks Sattin as a Senior Consultant in January 2010 and is currently part of the permanent recruitment team focusing on the banking and financial services sector.