Finding work/life balance in accountancy

Fancy a career in accountancy? Leanne Leigh says it has been a great career for her and allows her to fit her work as a partner in a local accountancy firm around her two children.
Leanne Leigh entered a career in accountancy straight from university and hasn’t looked back! She has worked in a variety of companies both within a practice and within industry, and is now a Partner in the accountancy firm, Grunberg & Co in North London. Leanne works part time and has two young daughters.

How did you get into accountancy?
At university I managed to securea 3-year training contract to become a Chartered Accountant with PriceWaterhouseCoopers (at the time they were Coopers & Lybrand), one of the, then, “Big Six” accountancy firms. I was lucky, as I applied and secured this position 18 months before my start date, as I knew that I wanted to take a year off to travel and work abroad and, as they are so large and recruit hundreds of graduates every year, they can make this kind of commitment in advance.

Being completely honest, the reason I chose accountancy was that I knew I liked business and I was pretty numerate, as I was doing a Maths & Psychology degree, but I was just 20 and had not really thought very deeply at that time about a long-term career path. As I said, I was very lucky – I got a great job, with a great firm.

What was the training like?
The training contract was for three years and is extremely intense as there are both academic criteria and practical working criteria that need to be fulfilled prior to obtaining the ACA [Associate of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales]qualification. The academics are tested by way of a number of exams structured within each year of the contract, and all need passing. As I was working and studying at the same time, the whole process was pretty stressful, but once I had obtained the qualification and reached the end of the three years, the resulting opportunities were excellent.

Training in a large firm gave me the most brilliant training in business which I would highly recommend, but it is not the place to be if your long term goal is to be an accountant in a small firm. I would not know where to start in terms of preparing a set of accounts from a bag of receipts. It was the kind of job which prepared you more for a finance director role in a large company.

What did you do after passing all the exams?
I stayed at PwC for just less than a year after I had completed the exams as I then wanted to take advantage of some of the opportunities offered to a newly qualified accountant. Therefore, in 1997, I moved into industry and worked for the Arcadia Group Plc in quite a strategic role, working with the Regional Directors of the Group, helping them in their work to continuously improve the sales, efficiency and profitability of the stores. I then moved to a similar, but more senior role, at Dixons Stores Group Plc, where I worked with each of the Brand Directors for companies such as Curries, The Link, PC World and, of course, Dixons. I travelled more with Arcadia, going to the different regions, but at Dixons I was more based at Head Office. Both of these jobs gave me great commercial experience working in a much tougher and cut-throat environment than the very hard-working, but more genteel, professional world of accountancy.

What did you do after that?
I stayed at Dixons for around a year, but it was the boom and, through a friend of a friend, I heard about a computer games company which was planning to float on the stock exchange. It was an extremely exciting time and I thought that this would be a great project, so I left Dixons and joined the small company – which was a huge culture shock – to become their Business Development Director and project manage their flotation process. The company successfully floated in August 2000, just before the crash!

I remained there until after I had my first daughter, and then moved back into practice working with all different clients and businesses, giving them advice on improving sales, profits and efficiency.

What impact did having children have?
Prior to having my children I worked pretty long hours and often needed to travel. Since having my daughters, I have been able to work between 3.5 and 4 days a week, and having now moved back into the world of practice, my travel time to clients is generally restricted to within the M25.

Once again though, I appreciate that I am lucky, as I manage my own diary so I can be flexible, within reason. This works both ways – if there is a school show to see, I can plan for it, and, in turn, if there is a need to work late, as long as I have notice I can usually arrange childcare. I prefer to be with the children three afternoons a week after school so I spread my working time accordingly. My mum and my husband normally cover the afternoons that I can’t, and of course there is the occasional favour one asks of other parents!

What skills do you think you need to become an accountant?
It is essential that you have an interest in business and people, are a good communicator, not scared of numbers and academically able. The rest you can learn and build on with experience.

Many men I work with, and accountancy is mainly dominated by men, would say it was a tough place to be a woman, but I’m not sure that is right! I would say that for me, it has been a great career so far!

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