Are You A Good Accountant? It’s More Than Just A Numbers Game!

My former boss in Grant Thornton NI, Belfast, Robert Gibson, (Audit Director & Head of Property and Construction) very kindly agreed to write a piece for me concerning his views on what it takes to succeed as a trainee accountant and those traits needed to become a successful, qualified accountant.

My first day as a Trainee Chartered Accountant in 2003 – yep. I had blonde spiky hair!

I wish to thank Robert for taking the time to share his thoughts.

“One of the most pervasive concerns of the profession is attracting and retaining successful trainee accountants. The success of a firm (whether in practice or industry, private or public sector) begins with having the right employees who possess suitable attributes and skills thus electing and attracting the best talent is of utmost importance.

The profession advocates and has established that a training contract has to be such that skills being developed include strong interpersonal skills, organisational & professional knowledge, technical competence and intellectual ability. These attributes highly influence the performance of a trainee on the job and are all indicators of high achievement.

So what are these characteristics?

What makes someone stand out as a great trainee & and fully qualified accountant?

Knowledgeable about the latest accounting rules and theories

  • Successful trainee accountants must constantly stay up to date with the professions general accepted principles (National GAAP/ IFRS/ Auditing Standards etc.) thus attending refreshers, going to conferences/ seminars and in house training is a must. Technological advancements are also evolving at a furious pace, so these also have to be kept up with. Continual personal development is a must, not an option!

Organised, accurate and detail oriented

  • Staying on top of all the figures, paperwork, and data that trainee accountant’s deal with daily requires great organisational skills. Accountants should be able to organise their work to maximise productivity and allow time for undisturbed research and analysis. At the very least, they have to understand the numbers they are working with and where they come from.

Excellent time management skills

  • Today, trainee accountants are playing an increasingly important role in contributing to strategic decision-making whether that be internally in an organisation or as an advisor. This does become most prevalent during the later stages of a training contract where experience and trust has been gained. They need to take care of many tasks beyond just accounting and trainees should be able to prioritise them to make the most from their time at work. Not just work, but life and studies have to be balanced as well. For hints and tips on how to juggle your time effectively, see James’ website


  • No surprise here: both trainee and qualified accountants must be accountable. No finger-pointing allowed; they know that whatever the outcome of their work turns out to be, the buck stops there, exactly where they are. There’s no shame in making an honest mistake, that’s attributable to human error, just as long as these are not deliberate mistakes that happen too often. Concentration and dedication to this is key. It is important to make every effort to do the right thing.

Client focused and be able to see the bigger picture

  • It is not enough (but it is a help) to just have a knack for numbers. Trainee & qualified accountants must also understand their clients business or the sector/ industry that they work in – in detail. This requires the ability to quickly frame a picture of the client’s business, the organisation and key attributes within it. Good accountants will have a much shorter list of targeted questions that are developed specifically to aid their understanding which allows him or her to focus on the big picture and ask, “what does all this actually mean?” The good accountant must develop an inquiring mind, professional scepticism and strive to learn from all experiences encountered in situations throughout his or her career.

Team player

  • Accountants need to have exceptional people skills as they typically work in teams and have face to face meetings with clients and other decision makers on a regular basis. They have the opportunity to work with different types of professionals and personalities. Therefore they are required to be generous with what they know; sensitive to other’s needs, and be supportive of their team’s goals. If you are a trainee it is also imperative to help other trainee accountants, as they are all in the same boat, hard work, overtime and those dreaded exams. Support for each other is vital at this stage of their career as everyone is working toward a common goal – qualifying. We all succeed through working together.
“There is no I in Team!” Guess where I am?

Decision making, critical reasoning & analytical ability

  • Employers and clients want their accountant to be a strong and effective decision maker, however decision making can be hard. There is always a tendency to put off decisions by procrastinating and concluding that you need more information, only to later conclude that you need even more information. A great accountant is always determining what is relevant and what is not and making these decisions are, at times, not easy as so much information is accumulated and tying it all together can be a challenge.


  • The information that accountants work with is highly confidential in nature. This is why trust and professionalism are important traits that they must always abide by. Not only is this the right and ethical way to go about their business, but having a reputation for trustworthiness will win plaudits in the long run. I firmly believe that we trade on our knowledge and ability but we only get these opportunities through demonstrating our commitment to client confidentiality.


  • Great leaders have the desire to help others succeed. Henry Ford said, “Don’t find fault, find a remedy.” Leadership characteristics can be taught but leadership must be exhibited day in and day out. For trainees, leadership skills become more important as they progress through the years as they become responsible for working with and training new recruits. It’s also important as an experienced trainee may be looked upon as a leader by other trainees, or a client or colleague may see them as a trusted confidant.

Fantastic communication skills

  • Good communication skills allow accountants to have connection and rapport with others such as staff, managers, directors, partners, and clients etc. The technological world in which we live today can negatively impact people’s ability to become an effective communicator, especially when e-mail becomes a substitute for face-to-face communication. It is essential that all successful trainees work to make verbal, as well as succinct, understandable, written, communication a priority rather than a last resort! Effective communication occurs when someone understands exactly what you are saying and does not feel as if you are “talking down” to them. Having the ability to interpret jargon, complicated accounting concepts, be able to interact easily and get your ideas across clearly to anyone is a major asset.


  • A strong sense of integrity and honesty are traits that inspire confidence in trainee accountant’s work – this trait must show in how they do prepare the accounts as well: one that is within generally acceptable accounting principles, and one that is compliant with all relevant laws, such as Companies Act. Strong ethics should extend into their personal lives as well, because the profession expects that all members must live as upstanding citizens. Your overall reputation is important in shaping your career path.


  • To achieve the qualification, trainees have to enter into a 3 or 3.5 year training contract which is full of hard work, overtime, lectures, study and exams! Trainee accountants have to be committed and demonstrate the appropriate staying power. This is what makes qualified accountants such attractive hires – companies are looking for motivated, dedicated individuals for long-term employment.


  • There is an old saying, anything worth doing, is worth doing well. In the workplace, your work speaks for who you are, what value you bring to your company and to your team which in turn impacts others perceptions of you. If you are a proud person you will always turn in your best work, as you don’t want to let yourself, or others, down. Pride in your professional appearance is also important – first impressions matter and the way you look and carry yourself create impact on people you work with and clients in the work setting. It can further be enhanced by reporting to work early, wearing the best smile often and displaying positive attitude. It doesn’t mean you have to be the best; you just have to deliver YOUR personal best!

Exam success

  • As a trainee accountant you have to work and study at the same time so it can be a bit like fighting a two-front war – both areas are important and require constant attention, and ignoring either is something you do at your own peril – and meanwhile, you can never forget your obligations of “life” either. However exam failure is the major cause of trainees cancelling their training contract with firms, so it’s vitally important that you can maintain the right balance in order to thrive at work and pass those exams! For example, what about studying at least a little bit every day to most thoroughly prepare for the exam. What about waking up an hour earlier each day to review material and churn through practice questions and past papers (which I believe is one of the most effective methods to prepare for these exams). Then on Saturdays study longer and more in-depth. Take Sundays off from studying to allow things to settle in your mind while relaxing.

Ability to have fun

  • This last one might appear strange to you but I firmly believe that we all need to enjoy what we are doing. Work takes up so much of our time and it is my opinion that mere monetary rewards will not keep someone in a career they do not enjoy. Whilst no one should expect to be smiling all day, every day it is important we have some fun along the way. Get involved in social committees and events in your office, we all need to get our head cleared every now and then. Believe it or not, it is possible to strive for a strong work ethic in a fun environment.
Dressed up as ABBA at Chartered Accountants Ireland Student Christmas Party

To conclude

The characteristics of a good trainee accountant start with the basics of sound technical ability and solid ethical foundation. These are considered as a baseline and a trainee needs to work to grow beyond the “rules and regulations” mind-set of our profession. Attaining and maintaining the characteristics mentioned above require a personal commitment but are crucial to the trainee accountant’s long term success, especially once qualified. Have you got what is takes to be a good accountant?

Again I would like to thank Robert for his very insightful comments!

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