Six things I’ve learnt from six employers

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Six things I've learnt from six employers
Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

I’ve worked as an accountant for 16 years for 6 different employers, and next week I’ll be leaving my corporate job to take my side hustle full-time. I started a bookkeeping practice which helps start-ups with their finances while I was on maternity leave, and 18 months on I feel like I’ve put in enough ground work to make my business a full time reality. Working for myself is going to be completely different to having the framework of a large employer and I’ve been reflecting on six of the most valuable lessons I’ve learnt from my six employers which I’ll take into my business as I take the leap next week.

1. Document document document

The best handover I ever had was when I started my first accounting job. I was a trainee accountant, pretty much just out of school and there's no question that partly the great handover was because I was completely new. This was my first full time job, and although I’d worked many Saturday jobs before that (I’d done everything from working in a bakery, to working in a large chemists chain), this was my first real office job - I hadn’t even used excel before! As you’d expect, I had a lot of support from my manager and I was allocated a mentor, but the person who handed over to me (she’ll know who she is) had written the most thorough process notes I’ve ever seen. She explained exactly what I needed to do, how to do it and when to do it, and so began my love of documenting processes well.

Over the years I’ve worked for employers who do this well, and others who do it appallingly. If things aren’t documented well, steps are missed, work isn’t up to scratch, and so much knowledge is lost when somebody leaves the organisation. It can also lead to people working entirely alone, feeling like they’re the only person who knows how to do their job, with no cover because nobody else knows how to pick that work up.

I’ll be looking to take on staff soon in my own business and if I’m going to be able to delegate tasks effectively, I’m going to need to be absolutely sure that my processes are well documented so that my staff know what they need to deliver and what’s expected of them.

2. It’s all about who you know

In my second job I was given my own office. I wasn’t particularly important, but the building was set up so that the finance team was set up across a number of little offices down the side of a warehouse. I’m a people person so I found this incredibly lonely and wandered off to speak to my colleagues in the rooms down the hallway to fill the silence, not great for productivity. I also used to have a good old chat with the cleaner every time she came in to clean my office, which was more often than you might expect.

Later in my career I started working for Pension Funds where part of my role was about getting to know different contacts and suppliers. Networking has become one of my biggest strengths and has certainly served me well in my business. The truth is that I love working with people, and whether it’s just being able to get things done more easily because you’ve met the person on the other end of the phone, or being able to make connections because you’ve been recommended by somebody who knows and trusts you, networking pays off and much of business these days whether it’s in small business circles or in great big organisations is driven by who you know.

What I didn’t mention is that the cleaner, who I could have easily ignored every day but instead built quite a friendship with, happened to be the mother-in-law of a boss at a later job, and was able to put in a good word for me without me even asking her to. See, it’s all about who you know.

3. Be truly flexible

I’ve spent several years working in local government and as a 20-something I didn’t quite realise how great a benefit flexitime was. I no longer work in local government, but when I returned to work from maternity leave I was very fortunate that my employer gave me everything I asked for in terms of changes to my working hours. I say fortunate but I believe that this is how it should be for every parent returning from parental leave.

Although flexitime isn’t on offer where I work now, we do have what we call Agile Working and I’ve worked for a few employers who embrace this approach. It means I can work from the office, I can take my laptop home, I can make up the hours whenever I want to if I have to leave early or if my child is sick. It’s not quite flexitime (the difference being that with flexitime you can bank hours worked as overtime to take if you suddenly need a day off) but it acknowledges the tricky juggling act of being a parent and having a career.

The thing is, although agile working sounds great, the idea that I can make my hours up some other time isn’t a reality. If my child is sick and can’t go to nursery, I can’t work at home because I have a sick child. I can’t make the hours up another day because on the days I’m not working, I’m looking after my child. The reality of being a parent in 2018 is that you parent very much as a nuclear family unit, you don’t have family down the road who can drop everything to help out so you can make your hours up at work, and the underlying point is that although my employer is flexible, I am not.

Flexibility isn’t the reason I’m leaving my job, but being able to schedule my own workload has played an important role in my decision, and when I start to take on staff, I want to be able to offer them real flexibility to get their jobs done whilst being able to do what they need to do at home. 

4. Get out of the office

I haven’t worked anywhere where people don’t eat at their desks, I’m guilty of it too. When you work for a large employer with a canteen, it can be difficult to even leave the premises all day. In my current 1 day per week working on my business (truth be told I’m working every evening and weekend as well, much of the reason I feel it’s time to take the business full time) I have to cram so much into that day as possible that I’m struggling to find time to take any type of break then either.

But I know experts will say that it’s so important to get outside to take that break to restore myself ready for the afternoon, just stretching my legs and getting some fresh air really makes a difference to my productivity and helps me avoid that mid afternoon slump . When I was based in Cardiff, there was a lovely church just a few minutes walk from the office, and on a very rare occasion I’d walk there, sit on a bench in the garden for half an hour and call a friend or just eat my lunch. I have the Harbourside right outside my window where I work now yet it’s so tempting to ignore it and work through especially when there’s a deadline.

I know that getting outside, even just for a few minutes means I can clear my head an re-focus on what I need to do for the rest of the day and I’ll be blocking out my lunch hours to make sure I can do something for myself, even if it’s just sitting in the garden.  

5. Hire the right people

In one role I worked in a completely new team where we’d all been brought in to work on a specific project. A lot of thought had been put in to how we, the new hires would work together and that worked fantastically. You could absolutely see the Tuckman’s stages of group development (let me remind you: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) in action. I’ve made some brilliant hires over the years, but I’ve also seen it work the other way. I’ve worked in teams where colleagues shout at each other and storm out, I’ve been in teams where we’ve been stretched and under pressure and senior managers have brought in contractors just to get bums on seats, sometimes with disastrous effects.

I won’t be hiring permanent staff just yet but I’m certainly going to start thinking about hiring at least some freelancers in the coming weeks and months and I’ve seen how having a great team around you is crucial for success.

I honestly think it’s better to be understaffed than to hire people who aren’t the right fit so I’m going to be very careful about who I take on as my business grows.

6. Whats and Hows

Performance where I work now is measured not just on what you deliver but also on how you deliver it. The competitive aspect of performance measurement isn’t everybody’s favourite part of working for a large employer, but it is important to have goals no matter what you’re doing.

A few years ago I read Brian Moran’s The 12 Week Year. It got me thinking about what I wanted from my career and what I needed to do if I wanted to get there. I suppose it made me a pretty good goal-setter. The hows are harder to set as goals, saying “I want to be this kind of person” is hard to do if that isn’t part of your personality, but at least if you know what you need to focus on to be better or to achieve what you want to achieve then you’ve got something to work on.

I take so much pride in how I do what I do because personally I’d so much rather work with somebody who does the job and is a pleasure to work with than somebody who just knows how to do the job. In my business, the way I make my clients feel about their finances is just as important as the quality of work I do for them every month. I’m sure there’s a lot of goodwill for my business because I’m approachable and because I try to put my clients at ease about something they might be finding particularly difficult or daunting and I’ll be continuing to focus on the hows as an important part of what I do.

Bonus tip: Buy the big milk and simplify

One man in my huge open plan office decided one day that there were too many small cartons of milk in fridge so started a “big milk fund”. Given the fact that accountants need tea to function, this one simple act has probably made this man the most important person in the office yet I don't know who he is. 

Finance is fraught with opportunities to be over-complicated and I’ll be looking for opportunities to simplify at every step of the way.

About Zoe Whitman

But the Books

Zoe runs But the Books, a bookkeeping practice in Bristol helping small businesses owners who know how to do everything for their business... but the books to stay on top of their bookkeeping and to understand the story their numbers are trying to tell them. 

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By RHounsome
02nd Aug 2018 14:19

Hi Zoe - enjoyed the article.

On your point of flexible/agile working - how do you see this working in a traditional employer/employee scenario where both parties can get what they want?

By your admission, although we can catch up hours at home this doesn't always happen, which gives the employer a raw deal when the employment relationship is structured around set hours per week and an expected level of work performed. This is stressful for the employee too as they are being pulled in all directions without control.

The opposite end of this might be the work being divided piece meal - remuneration is linked to tasks completed/actual hours worked and would have to be recorded by timesheet; the employee therefore has the power to choose what work they perform. This might work well for individual projects (such as an accounting practice dividing up the tax returns or stats to be prepared) but this wouldn't work for a reporting role... I don't think my company would be very happy if I chose not to do month end!

So to come back to your closing remark on the point, I'd be interested to know how you would approach offering "real flexibility to get their jobs done whilst being able to do what they need to do at home"?

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