Never before have organisations needed a more forward-looking management approach to accounting and finance. This, according to CIMA (the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants), is why management accountants have never been in such demand. "Conventional accountants look backwards, auditing past business. But increasingly, organisations need to assess what they are capable of in the future. This is where management accountants fit in," explains Robert Jelly, director of education at CIMA.
Anyone who goes along with the popular perception of accountancy being dull and involving little more than "bean counting" should look no further than management accountancy to see just how dynamic it can be, says Steve Harvey, a qualified management accountant at Microsoft. "My role is as much about people as it is about profit," he says.
It's also an important role because you can shape the future of organisations, he says. Ultimately, management accountants help develop a company's strategy. They use their expertise to help managers make decisions, often crucial ones.
Angela Harris, CIMA training manager at Marks & Spencer, says: "Our management accountants help us make decisions about everyday things like how much stock we should and shouldn't have and how we can best negotiate with suppliers on cost. Then, if we're introducing a new line like Per Una, management accountants evaluate how much money we need to do that and where it should be spent."
Other rewards of the job include the sheer variety of the work, the fact that it is constantly challenging and that it involves so much teamwork. "My training has allowed me to experience working in different areas of the company, to get to know the company and be a part of it. There is lots of interaction with other departments," says Sally Walker, a management accountant in the retail industry.
There is the potential to earn a high salary and opportunities to step into positions such as management consultant or business analyst, moving on to finance director or chief executive. Recent research from CIMA found its qualified management accountants to be in 190 different roles ranging from directors of IT through to CEOs. And as with conventional accounting, you can work in almost any field you choose: commerce, financial services, consultancy, government, the public sector or manufacturing.
You can even take some time out to use your professionalism more altruistically, points out Alex Jacobs, director of Mango (Management Accounting for Non Governmental Organisations). "We are a registered charity that exists to help aid organisations improve their management, more particularly their financial management. One of the ways we do this is by placing management accountants with aid agencies all over the world. We have just placed several in Sudan."
Most people work in the aid agency for about a year and most assignments are outside the UK, he says. "People come from all stages of their career - from newly qualified to retired - and every one of them comes back having found it enormously rewarding. Some move into the sector permanently."
Graduates interested in becoming management accountants can have a background in any degree discipline. In fact, of the current graduate trainees studying for the examinations of CIMA, only half have a relevant degree in business or finance. That said, having an accountancy or business degree is definitely a bonus when it comes to training because CIMA offers exemptions from some of the professional qualifications.
"We have engineering graduates right through to arts graduates," says Kevin Hayes, international CFO at Lehman Brothers, which currently employs almost 100 management accountants who are either in training or already qualified. "More important for us than their degree subject is their academic ability and that they have a passion for working in this area. …