The path to qualifying as a Chartered Accountant (CA) is challenging, to say the least. Looking back at my time during articles* I often think back to things I would have liked to have done differently or maybe even the things that I did do that have greatly benefited my career. So here are 5 things I wish I had known during life in the trenches.
*” Articles” refers to a 3 year bout in the trench in order to qualify as a CA in South Africa. Similar to the in service work required for CPAs as well as legal articles.
1. There is a season for everything
As with life, there is a time for everything. There is a time to laugh and a time to cry; a time to hustle and a time to slow down. For the young professional, it might feel like all you do is hustle. As was the famous quote that often passed through the walls of my article firm:
Looking back, I often fell into the trap of feeling I somehow deserved more control over my time, more balance, or to be treated as more of an “adult”. These thoughts translated themselves into feelings of resentment for the time in my life I had long dreamed of. Now, I’m not saying don’t fight the good fight and simply accept unfair treatment, nor should you compromise on your mental or physical health; I’m saying appreciate the season you find yourself in and adapt to the best of your ability. In retrospect, these years of articles are your hustle years for building a strong career. Your years in the trenches are a necessary evil to allow you to enjoy the fruits of your labour later.
Embrace the trench, it is only for a season.
2. Being average is okay
During articles the pressure to perform is brutal. Your manager’s mood may change as quickly as the tides. You’re often pitted against your peers in a way that, in my opinion, does more harm than good. I often found myself wracked with nervous anxiety over the next round table discussion and losing sleep about what my performance rating would be whether I was performing or underperforming, or whether I would measure up to my peers who seemed to be killing this articles thing.
If I could go back and give myself a pep talk, I would tell myself to just roll with the punches, try my best, put in the effort, embrace the development points, try better next time and let those pieces fall where they will. You are so much more than a number on a rating scale.
[Ed: One thing we often forget is that we’re working in high-performance organisations, where expectations are crazy. If you’re average, it means you’re doing a great job!]
3. Audit isn’t for everyone and that’s okay
Yep, I said it! (Let’s be honest, we all have days where we dream of the content of our resignation letters) Auditing isn’t for everyone. I did not particularly enjoy audit, nor do I think I was exceptionally good at it. Alas, it is the most popular route to that CA (SA) designation and, as a result, we find ourselves rolling up our sleeves for 3 years of auditing. Often, I associated being good at auditing with being a good CA(SA), and that being a highly rated article clerk was an absolute measure of my ability as a finance professional.
My first job outside of audit taught me otherwise. Coming off the bat of a not-so-great final rating, I had SEVERE imposter syndrome. I felt like I had failed at articles. Was I going to fail at this too? I second-guessed every decision I made and would panic every time I was asked for my professional opinion (me? I have a professional opinion? WOW). Fast forward a bit and, after having some of the best managers a newly qualified CA could ask for, it turns out I’m pretty good at this finance professional thing. Audit just wasn’t for me, corporate finance is.
If you’re not winning in audit and it isn’t giving you butterflies, it’s okay. Let’s see this audit season through and have hope for the future.
4. Humble yourself
Yes yes, I know. You probably have not just 1 but 2 degrees. You feel like the bee’s knees and your parents tell everybody at family functions that you’re almost a CA(SA). Put that all aside and do the dirty work. Do the December 31 stock count nobody wants to do, the annoying little jobs that crop up out of the blue, and to be the coffee guy! If you humble yourself, you will find that you will learn so much more and the world will reward you for it. Often – especially later in my articles career – I found myself thinking “I’m too good for this,” and this resulted in missed opportunities. Remember to check your pride at the door.
To reflect on my own journey, I once volunteered to do a New Year’s Eve piggery stock count because everyone else was conveniently unavailable. It was my first year of articles; I had no agriculture clients and so I had no idea what I was in for. Turns out it meant having to take a shower on site (hair washing included shampoo from a dispenser labeled “shampoo” and a communal bar of soap). I emerged on the other side of the shower with sopping wet hair, clad in clothes I definitely didn’t arrive in, and I spent New Year’s Eve chasing pigs. Fast forward a few years, I sat down for my interview with that same company and they recalled how impressed they were with the way I handled that count. It landed me my first job out of articles.
Moral of the story, do the dirty work – you’ll be better off for it.
5. NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK!
You’re literally sitting in the room or – these days – maybe a Zoom call with the very people (yourself included) who are going to be CFOs, CEOs, business owners, professors, partners, and perhaps even some of Forbes Most Influential people. Use this time to start building meaningful connections. The next time you’re thinking about ducking out early from the company social or being seen but not heard at the annual team building, think again. As an introvert myself, these social situations, and the mere thought of starting and sustaining a conversation are almost paralyzing. Trust me, it gets better with time, and building your network is so worth it.
The firm I had done my articles with would often send us off to their bigger Durban office for training and, lo and behold, the clerks from our office would all huddle at our own little table and have lunch at the same table with the same people. Oh, how I wish I had just taken the plunge and gotten to know the other associates a bit better.
What you know matters but so does who you know. Feeling like confidence is not your strength? Check out this article: Fake it ‘til You Make it.
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