If you want to be a CA(SA) you will need to complete 3 years of articles. Nothing you do is going to change that. There will be plenty of people telling you it is boring, a waste of your considerable talents, very time consuming and not worth it. You may even believe them BUT if you want to be a CA(SA) you will need to complete 3 years of articles. I openly admit that I have gone overboard on this topic. It will be mainly focused on those working at an audit firm.
SAICA say that you need at least 3600 core hours of experience. Now even if you manage to do that in 18 months, your traineeship contract will stipulate that you must see out the full 3 years. There are no shortcuts.
I do believe that there are certain helpful practices that will improve the articles experience. More necessary is the right attitude. It is far too easy to get stuck in the “this sucks” mentality – I have been there myself so I’m not judging others. All I am saying is that I don’t think that it makes for fun articles – 3 years is a long time to carry around a sense of regret and resentment!
- Pass both Board Exams (notice the respectful use of capital letters). You need to get through both Board Exams and you shouldn’t be doing work at a client when you are booked on study leave. Bottom line is that you need to prepare well for ITC and APC.
- Create the vibe you would like. Every year a huge chunk of new article clerks arrive at a firm (typically at least 30% of the total staff) – if you guys are having a ball you can change the vibe. Chat to each other about more than just work, say well done when others deserve it, don’t join in when others are gossiping about so-and-so, invite some guys over for a meal – whatever it is, create the vibe yourself rather than wait for someone else to do it for you.
- Book your leave early. Here is the dynamic I observed; I will label it BEING SO GOOD THAT IT IS ACTUALLY BAD. You arrive in 1st year and are keen to prove that you aren’t just one of the herd. You put in the hours and don’t book any leave because you haven’t earned it yet. Managers hear via the grapevine that you are good stuff and book you on their upcoming jobs. Suddenly you find yourself 6 months into articles and every week of yours has been booked up because you are doing too good a job. Because you have the experience at the client, you are automatically placed on the same heavy workload for the 2nd and 3rd year of articles as well. You’ve got to be aware of this dynamic and clear your schedule early. You will typically work enough overtime to justify the leave you book so do it as soon as possible, before your good reputation sinks you! Don’t get me wrong – you want managers liking and using you – but you have to take responsibility for booking leave and not getting burnt out.
- Be nice. Even if you have passed both Board Exams, understand Financial Instruments and are the senior on an audit – be nice. You might not have been treated well when you were a 1st year but don’t take that out on the new crop who’ve just arrived.
- Eat, sleep and exercise. If one of these is lacking, you will become emotionally vulnerable. Sleep opportunities may be rare in a hectic week just before a deadline– so be aware of that and understand why you might want to lose it with someone else! (FYI we were encouraged not to use the word deadline – “celebration date” was the preferred terminology!) Hunger will always make me grumpy and lack of exercise will invariable lead to tiredness towards the end of the day. The point is that you need to take care of yourself physically during your 3 years – no one will check up on you – fight for your right to eat, sleep and exercise!
- Pile into the social events that make sense. If you are tired and the “end-of-the-month drinks at the office type” of function comes along – give it a miss – go and get some sleep (see point 5). My preference was always for things like Sports Day or maybe an Action Cricket challenge match (my team lost both of these but they were fun!) – you get some exercise and have fun doing stuff with different people rather than standing around chatting to the same people you talk to every day at work anyway.
- Connect with non-work people. Working late, over weekends etc. can mean that you start to lose touch with your non-work friends. Make the effort to see them. Failure to get this right could have harsh consequences – you may one day marry an accountant because they are the only people you hang out with! Just a bit humour, all my past colleagues will make fantastic spouses I’m sure.
You will spend most of your 3 years outside of the office and with different clients. The sooner you get settled, the better because you will probably be back there for the next 2 years of your life. The finance department know why you are there but the majority of the staff think that you are there to intimidate them and find mistakes that they have made in the past year. For this reason, they are generally not stoked to see that the auditors are in town. I had a client that had a cartoon behind her that literally had the words, “%&*, it is the auditors” on it. The quicker you can build a relationship that transcends the unhelpful stereotype of an auditor, the better!
- Put the ball in the client’s court. You are given a budget because you get charged out at a high hourly rate. If you spend most of that time trying to find invoices, the client is going to pay a lot of money. What you need to do is place the ball in the client’s court and ask them to retrieve your sample. If the client refuses, make it clear to them that you will exceed budget and they will be expected to pay more for the audit. That usually gets you help pretty quickly. In this regard, email is excellent because it keeps track of when you requested help and can be used later to illustrate how long you have been waiting for it.
- Put client staff at ease. Remember that they are predisposed to not liking you because they reckon you are there to find fault. Get to know them not just so that you can get more help from them, being nice is just a better way to live. Read widely to help them with their issues – you are not there to offer them business advice but if the US$ exchange rate really impacts their business, having a view on the matter will be helpful to them.
- Learn from your clients. Some of my best experiences were when I got to sit with the client and ask them questions about their business – people are generally keen to share insights. I learnt that there are more people in Mitchells Plain than there are in Botswana (hence he didn’t care much about operations there!), how the underground mining shafts make use of timber, the life cycle of a chicken – grab the gap and chat to your clients!
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t arrive at a new client with an adversarial mindset – an audit does not need to be a battle. If you don’t understand what the client is talking about, eat some humble pie and ask them to help clarify your understanding. You can’t be expected to know everything about a client on day one so ask questions. A word of warning though – only ask a question once and remember the answer – most clients are busy running their business and don’t like saying the same thing twice.
Your manager reviews your work and can be a great source of information. They are a key part of your audit experience – it is a relationship worth investing in. Partners are obviously included here but my experience was that most of my time was spent with management as opposed to the head honcho.
- Ask for direction when starting a new client. Find out from your manager what the key priorities are – not everything is equally important. Also ask about what the problems were last year so that you can aim not to repeat them again. Getting coaching at the start of a job can save plenty time.
- Flag early to your manager if things are going pear-shaped. Let me elaborate here on what I call “BLOWING BUDGET”. Here is the dynamic: You get told you have 6 hours to do the whole of bank. You give it a go and pretty quickly have spent 18 hours – you are way over budget. You feel guilty, you feel dumb – you decide not to tell anyone. You book your time for the week and only put down 6 hours for bank (you don’t want to look like a slow learner) – the other 12 hours don’t get booked. That means that you forgo overtime that should be credited to your name. Your manager knows you are under booking time but is cool with it because their job remember is to bring the job in under budget – your behaviour makes them look good so it takes a brave manager to tell you to stop doing it. This will happen every year until someone sticks up their hand and says, “Are you crazy? 6 hours is impossible!” More constructive than saying that would be to flag to your manager early that you are going over the budget. Explain to them why and unless they reduce your workload, coach you really well to improve performance, tell the client to help etc. they will have to live with your booking the full 18 hours. Important to note is that good managers and partners actually don’t mind you going over the budget because that represents a chance to claim more from clients (an audit firm sells time after all). Be brave, flag management when things aren’t going according to plan, the clerk who has a budget of 18 hours for bank next year will really appreciate you making a stand!
- Ask for informal feedback and advice. There will often be a 6-monthly review of your work but sometimes that is not timely enough. Ask for regular feedback from managers whilst on the job. Also watch how senior people approach situations –seeing a good partner handle a difficult client is a valuable education in tact! On a daily basis you will have audit seniors around interacting with clients – watch how they do it and learn. I someone called Colleen Kwon Hoo on two of my large audits – what a legend – I hope you can slipstream someone as good.
- Say “No” to new work if you are already busy. If you are booked on a client, say no to a different manager that wants you to complete a “quick” query on the side. Best is to say no and ask them to speak to the current manager you are working for. They should respect that because one day when you are working for them on a job and another manager approaches you, they will know that you will say no to them too. Maybe you could juggle the 2 jobs BUT you might experience burnout and/or you might do a shoddy job on both of them and expose the firm to reputational risk. Obviously if you do pull it off both managers love you and hero status is assured. It is your call.
- Do the right thing. Recently a Big 4 firm told 4 article clerks to go and check the same list of invoices. The clerks didn’t know that the others had the same list. A bigger problem was that the invoices were all made up. Two of the clerks arrived back saying that they had checked all of them and there were no problems – they were both given final warnings and their reputations are trashed. The two honest clerks came back feeling like failures because they hadn’t even been able to find them, let alone check them – they were treated like heroes for being honest. The practice of “phantom ticking” (saying things are cool without really checking) means doing less work but the consequences are huge. In a profession where reputation is everything, it is unacceptable.
As always this list is not prescriptive. Use it to stimulate your thinking and please add to it by posting your thoughts below. I am a sample of one, the more people contribute to this list, the closer we can get to what works!