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Dear Nick: I just want confirmation of how massively I have messed up

Nick Elston helps a down-on-their-luck reader who feels like they have been blackballed from ever getting a more senior role in the profession. Have they really messed up?

2nd Dec 2019
Speaker and coach #TalkingAnxiety
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Why does it always rain on me?

The dilemma: I am probably a salutary tale of lack of networking nous and a fear of moving out of my comfort zone. I’m an 'older person', a graduate of languages, with 15 plus years of working in accounts assistant roles. But I finally got my stuff together and studied, sat and passed AAT (equivalent) and subsequently CPA (practice-oriented) professional exams.

Post-exam, I cold-called practices in my region and almost immediately secured what seemed a dream job but I fell at the first hurdle. In my profound ignorance of practice life, I naively expected some introductory guidance/feedback/training input. The feedback from partners upon my humiliating exit was that nobody that had worked for their 30-year old practice had ever come in and made such demands of training, that I was expecting someone to hold my hand and I was behaving like a baby.

I then got out my unwieldy CV and cover letter and cold-called another 70 practices. I received an almost instant response from a practice known well by my previous employer. After submitting my paperwork, I duly get the thanks but no thanks. Without being too paranoid, I can conclude that my previous employer was contacted and put my interviewer straight as to my shortcomings. I am effectively blacklisted by practices now since a partner at my previous employer is on the executive body of my accounting body.

I just want confirmation of how massively I have messed up. After five lonely (but intellectually rewarding) years of slog with my exams, I am being shortlisted for the same kinds of roles that I have always performed.

The response

Nick replies: I can feel the frustration and pain oozing out of every paragraph and I genuinely feel for you. You seem like you have hit a rut and despite your best efforts to bring yourself away to make yourself ‘better’, you feel that you have not left that rut and indeed moved forward. However, the realisation of that itself could be the lesson in all of this.

When I work with people 1-2-1 as a mentor one of the first questions I ask them is ‘Are you living life on your terms?’ The most common reply is ‘no’. So you are certainly not alone in wondering what the hell all of this is about.

I’m not necessarily saying this is you but sometimes we end up chasing rainbows, pursuing certain people, avenues, jobs, relationships without questioning it at all. The reason? Because we have always done it that way.

In business, we innovate, revolutionise and consistently prod and poke to ensure we are streamlined, profitable and productive. So why do we not bring those principles into our lives? We should constantly question why we do what we do. When is the last time you took a step back to see if you really want this anyway?

Even after the dedication, commitment, and intent sometimes things just don’t work out and maybe they were not meant to. Maybe your destiny lies elsewhere. 

When we start to ask ourselves questions, we will put blocks in our own way. We are our own worst enemy. Why? Because we are driven by:

  • Our conditioning (our environment)
  • Our narrative (how we talk to ourselves)
  • Our perspective (beliefs and values)

These three things combined equal to how we experience life. It’s the reason why anxious people see danger everywhere and confident people see danger nowhere; same world, same room, same people, same everything apart from how we experience the world through our eyes. A fantastic exercise is to wake up tomorrow and question everything:

  • Why do I wake up at this time? Could I do with more sleep/less sleep?
  • Why do I wake up next to THEM?! Maybe you haven’t asked that in a while!
  • Why do I have this for breakfast? Does it nourish me or deplete me?

Question absolutely everything. When you are truly honest with yourself, you will get to know what you are about again. Then you can see if you truly are living a life on your terms.

My feeling is that your conditioning, narrative and perspective have been overtaken by a long run of pain, frustration and negativity. It’s time to stop. It’s time to breathe. Take a step back and take the pressure off yourself.

If nothing was impossible what would your life look like right now? It’s a tough task. Most people struggle with this because they put their own blocks in the way, but be as creative and imaginary as possible.

Once you are in the creative mindset, ask yourself: what did I want to be as a kid?

  • A cowboy?
  • A footballer?
  • An astronaut?

It’s time to reconnect with the YOU before life got in the way. Let those emotions come back because it’s not the job it’s how it makes us feel.

For example, the job of being an astronaut is rubbish! You get shot into the sky for a week after 10 years training and shot back down again at a very high speed with a high risk of death. But think of the emotions of being an astronaut: discovery, excitement, adventure, travel. You would apply for that. Start to bring those feelings into now. A part of you is crying out for that. Then think: what can I do now which will make me happy.

As with anything, when you first start to work on yourself you need to factor in recovery time. It’s tiring living outside of your comfort zone, but trust me, it’s worth every ounce of energy spent.

The biggest sense I felt was your lack of hope. It’s when people lose hope that they lose everything – even the hope of something better. But just remember: every storm runs out of rain. Take back control, review and rest, then come back fighting.

This is an abridged version of the dilemma taken from the Any Answers thread: Exams completed – accounts assistant experience

Replies (12)

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
02nd Dec 2019 16:52

@ the letter writer.

Id forget all the gibber jabber Nick is writing. I am surprised you can make a living blowing guff like that about and charging for it, but i guess he can.

If you are real and not a figment of the OP's imagination, I wouldn't be too paranoid. Yes you would expect someone who knows the partner in the other firm to call up and do a background check on you, however they are not going to know everyone in the industry so you are not "black listed".

What is seems to me is if you are "exam qualified" but lack in practical experience as a senior level. From a business POV they are clearly expecting you to have lots more practical knowledge "on the job" which you wont get from exams. You on the other hand are expecting a lot of training. So you are caught in the classic position of having a lot of knowledge form your studies, but a lot of gaps too. Essentially you have gone in the gym, exercised your left hand, but ignored the right, so when you come to lift some weights with both hands you cant do it. Exams and relevant level experience go hand in hand, its not an 'either or' thing.

No right answers, but you probably need a more junior role than you think you do with support to exercise the weaker hand until it matches the strong one.

Thanks (13)
Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
By memyself-eye
02nd Dec 2019 17:43

Thought it was just me that thought this was a load of utter cr.....p!


Thanks (10)
By mkowl
03rd Dec 2019 10:30

This is why we never advertised in the local paper - the applicants were generally Certified Accountants with exam passes and no practical experience. Zero use to me

Thanks (2)
By paddy55
03rd Dec 2019 11:43

I do not know if they do this in the U.K. but here in Australia, the chain tax-shops run 12 week 1 night per week training courses in tax preparation. Accountants without practical experience gain a lot from these in terms of being ready to do tax work from the word Go.

Thanks (1)
By AnnAccountant
03rd Dec 2019 11:51

I have found that you don't get "trained" as such. That's more the realm of checkout/machine operating.

Instead, you get told where you have to get to, perhaps modest direction/hints - and then you get work which is your opportunity to sit down and figure out how to turn your knowledge into work and solutions that people will pay for.

The better a job you can do of figuring the various skills out with the live examples you get, the quicker you will get on. Yes, to get anywhere will likely involve some late nights and lots of unpaid hours learning more about important subjects like tax.

You have to decide the level you want to play at and progress towards it. But good luck hoping to get anywhere on 7 hours a day and being "trained" for everything. A skill of a professional (as opposed to a bookkeeper) is to be able to figure things out.

Tbh, if I say the CV of someone who had worked as a technician for 15 years - they are a technician for life in my eyes. Perhaps a very good one, but a technician nonetheless - not a true accountant/adviser.

Thanks (1)
By Michael_R_Grant
03rd Dec 2019 12:20

Most obvious thing to say to the OP (I won't comment on the article that accompanies the dilemma, except to roll my eyes for a while): you aren't blacklisted at all.

I would suggest that cold-calling accountancy practices isn't the best way to secure a job, and that you should look online for suitable job adverts. I'm interested in the difference between the duties you performed in the accounts assistant roles that you were in for 15 years, as opposed to the responsibilities in the 'dream job' you didn't have a good experience with. Not all accounts assistant roles are created equal! Did you, for example, take accounts to trial balance and maybe beyond? Did you have a good grounding in all aspects of sales ledger, purchase ledger, bank recs, VAT etc etc etc? Was the software in the new role completely different from what you have used before? Were you used to working for small firms but then joined a massive one... or maybe the other way around! The philosophies in different sizes of practice can be completely different!

There are so many things that could explain why you didn't succeed in your dream job... but I would advise you not to give up. The practice you joined sounds like they expected you to hit the ground running on day one, and that they didn't give you enough support. If so, this isn't your fault! Dust yourself off and try again - the accounting world isn't one where one bad experience will see yourself labelled persona non grata by everyone else.

Thanks (4)
By Mr J Andrews
03rd Dec 2019 13:00

Agreed . Total load of crap. Can't say much else but suspect the massively messed up down-on-their-luck reader will have a greater inferiority complex after shelling out good money for any such wellbeing advice .
Better off saying a few prayers to Saint Matthew.

Thanks (3)
By Ian McTernan CTA
03rd Dec 2019 13:57

Cold calling generally doesn't work, unless you are 'god's gift' at what you do, or are very well known and respected in the profession. Get on an agency's books and looks for adverts about jobs you think you might be able to do.

Blindly cold calling 70 practices will net you zero jobs unless they just happen to have an opening..and then their first thought will be 'why is this person not in work at the moment'.

Have you thought of starting your own practice, sub contracting your services, getting your own clients, etc? Just getting another qualification (off your own bat) doesn't really help. Perhaps if you had an employer that had encouraged you to do it and had provided opportunities for you then you wouldn't find yourself in this pickle.

Or look at it from your previous employer's perspective: you go off and get another qualification (without their support) and as soon as you finish it you leave them...

Thanks (0)
By flightdeck
03rd Dec 2019 21:05

I am am perplexed by the mentors response which bears no relation to the problem presented but maybe we are seeing a (badly) abridged version of the letter and in that context the response makes sense ?

Anyhoo, there are some good replies here already.

We are not told what training you asked them for so it's impossible to judge if you were over needy or not in this regards.

If your CV was honest then it may be their mistake - shouldn't they have worked out what you did and did not know (practically) and if this was ever going to work out in their environment? Takes two to tango. And this could explain why the other firm went cold, nothing to do with being blackballed.

On the surface it sounds like a simple case of being a bit overly ambitious. Yes you have some exams but your practical experience sounds narrow. It may be better to look for roles that can give you a bit more experience but not be a giant leap. Maybe you could draw up a plan that says something like: I will spend 2 years of this kind of work so I can learn more about x and y and then 2 years of this kind of work and then I will have a broader practical base. You may have to move a step back or sideways for a bit in order to move forwards.

Whatever you do, don't give up. Even if you did mess up, so what? People do. We've ALL messed up something at some point (and personally I think I've still got plenty of miles left in me in this regards). Doesn't sound like you messed up to me though, sounds to me like life happened to you. Learn from it, draw up a new plan and crack on.

Thanks (1)
By Alf
04th Dec 2019 09:16

I don't think you should take the view of just one practice as being "the truth". Don't look down on yourself just because a very small group of people has a particular view of how things should work. I'm sure there are many other views and that you have a lot of good experience and knowledge. Other firms may be more supportive (having worked in a number of firms over the years, some bosses are great and some are abusive psychopaths!!).
From my own experience - having been made redundant as a tax specialist in a large firm, i moved into a general accounting role in industry (which was very tough at the beginning) and through a combination of initially taking lower roles, teaching myself and getting advice from friends with relevant accounting experience, I was able to move up through the ranks.

Thanks (1)
07th Dec 2019 10:13

Nick Elston could have cut and paste that response to almost anything. It is useless waffle. The actual problem is that the accountant needs to show more initiative and understanding of what is expected of him at a more senior level. There is no blacklist: that is just the silly excuse of someone who does not want to face up to the real problem.

Thanks (1)
By Cardigan
10th Feb 2020 16:27

You could be reading something into the situation that is not there. I am always reading people's minds and guessing what they are thinking. And I am wrong almost 100% of the time. Anxiety and stress can make this kind of thinking even worse.

I was in the opposite side of things to you. I was the one who had a trainee who didn't work out. Several times. When the potential new employer called, I didn't tell any lies but I didn't run down the trainee either. I said things like it wasn't a good fit or we needed someone with more experience but they were great with clients and had a good attitude etc.

Learning on the job can be difficult. I was a trainee and also helped to train others. It was a good six months before I had a significant understanding of what was going on. And most of the people I trained were the same. There were a good few months when I followed last year, worked through procedures without 100% understanding them and then miraculously there was a day when I went aha, I get it! Work hard but be patient with yourself.

There is some good advice above about joining agencies and searching for adverts rather than cold-calling.

Best of luck!

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