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What to expect in an Accounting or Finance Interview!

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From his experience working for a chartered accounting firm and then making the transition into HR and recruitment, Nik Sheremetov knows the key factors that will help you succeed in an Accounting or Finance interview. Here, Nik shares his insights on how to be well prepared and what areas to practice up on before your interview.

How would you recommend candidates rehearse or prepare for a commercial accounting or finance interview?

The best thing you can do before you go in for an interview for a commercial accounting or finance role is to go through the job advertisement, the job description or the job spec from a recruiter. More importantly try to focus on things that are pointed out to be essential for the role.

Go online, search the company you are interviewing with and find out about what they do and which industries they work in. Don't worry about knowing everything about them but have a general understanding about what they are all about, their overall services and/or products lines on offer as well as company values.

Finally, go through the most commonly asked questions during the interview, such as the ones focusing on your strengths, weaknesses and your future plans for the next 3-5 years and where you are heading with your career (yes, employers are still likely to ask these old-school questions during your interview). Try to answer these questions in your head, or even better talking to a mirror or family member/friend. Make sure that you feel confident answering the basic questions and have examples to prove that you can do the essential tasks of the role.

What kind of detail can you expect the interviewer to go into for a commercial accounting or finance related role?

Depending on the specifics of the role you have applied for they might ask you questions about the size of the clients that you've worked with and the industries that you have previously worked with or within (especially if you are coming over from the public practice environment). These questions are usually asked to get a general indication of your familiarity with the industry that you are going to work in. So, if you know nothing about the industry and have never worked in it before, make sure you do some research and find out what it might involve and where the accounting and finance role might come in to be useful in this industry.

For more junior commercial accounting roles an interviewer is likely to probe a little bit into your capability to do data entry, coding and monthly reconciliations/inter-company reconciliations, managing petty cash, banking, processing Accounts Receivables, Accounts Payables, invoicing and chasing debtors. Depending on structure and size of the company you might be responsible for Payroll processing as well, so expect some questions around that. These roles are generally suitable for recently graduated accounting and finance professionals, as well as somebody who has had a few years of experience within the CA practice environment and wants to move into a commercial role.

For more intermediate management accounting roles, the interview questions would be probing into your capability to analyse financial information and/or prepare regular financial reports, assess internal controls, help manage the general ledger and to create company budgets, work with forecasts, complete and review tax returns and at more senior level - your experience and ability to supervise accounting staff.

Finally, for more senior management accounting roles 

there would be additional questions probing into your experience and ability coordinating accounting operations, hiring, training and overseeing staff, maintaining budgets, performing financial analysis, building business strategy and managing relationships with investors and auditors. 

For more financially focused roles the interviewer's technical questions would target your ability to prepare the monthly profit and loss, balance sheet reports, produce regular financial account pack/reports for Managers and Directors, prepare and manage tax returns; including income tax, FBT, GST, PAYE and ACC returns, work out costing/pricing, carry out risk assessments as well as working with internal and external auditors and of course at more senior levels- your financial project management abilities.

What is commonly a tricky question or area that accounting and finance candidates tend to stumble on in an interview situation?   

Usually, competency-based questions that are related to resilience, ability to accept feedback, team work, management capability, adaptability and learning ability get a lot of candidates out of their comfort zone. Basically, other questions that would be targeting candidates' non-technical competencies. This is not related to the lack of thereof, but more related to lack of practice answering these questions in a clear and structured manner that would illustrate your past experiences and indicate certain competency levels.

More on how to answer these competency-based questions please read below.

How have your candidates handled tough interview questions in a positive way? Is there a particular example of great feedback you have had from a client?

The most positive feedback from a client about my candidates was related to their overall ability to add value to their business. The candidate’s answers went over and above the client's expectation of the candidates' capability to perform on the role and carry out "stereotypical" accounting and finance tasks. It was related to an indicated willingness to help their organisation and their team, go above and beyond to achieve a great result, their ability to communicate with others outside and inside of an organisation, as well as their ability to manage their own time and work autonomously.

What are some key skills that you think candidates should develop if they want to have a successful career in the accounting and finance fields and what are the best ways to demonstrate or show you have those key skills in a job interview?  

The most important technical skill to have if you are going for a commercial accounting or finance role, would be related to your general ability to understand financial information, what it means and where it came from. It is important to be able to trace where the information is coming from to identify potential areas for improvement as well as to identify potential mistakes or areas for misinterpretation. Whether it is a simple data entry mistake, coding mistake, journal entry or data analysis mistake, it is critically important to understand where it might be coming from to correct it. There are usually a few questions during an interview that would be related specifically to this skill. Sometimes a client would add a small capability test to get a general indication of your accounting and finance knowledge and understanding.

Second the most important technical skill or skills are related to your computer capabilities, overall familiarity with and knowledge of various software, but also your ability to adapt to and learn new software. In a commercial accounting or finance role you will be faced with a wide range of accounting, data analysis and operational software packages such as SAP, JDE, Oracle, versions of CRMs as well as various Microsoft Suite Applications not limited to Word, Excel, Access and SQL, so make sure you continuously up-skill yourself in this area.

Non-technical skills would include your communication skills, more specifically your ability to communicate financial information to related stakeholders, who might not be financially minded. Whether it is a report or just a general phone call or email, it is critical for your success in a commercial accounting or finance role to be able to explain what the information that you are presenting to others mean, what it is related to and what it means for their business, in simple words without any technical jargon.

And finally, your attention to detail and accuracy would be very important, since finance and accounting are primarily about numbers it is essential to make sure that you are getting and providing the most accurate information possible, so you and other stakeholders could make the right decision based on that information.

How should a candidate address a question related to salary expectations in a job interview?

One of the main benefits of applying for a role through a recruiter is that you can discuss the salary component and get the information related to the salary on offer from her or him prior to your interview. This would allow you to make a decision prior to an interview stage whether this role is feasible and attractive considering both the developmental and financial components on offer. In this situation, if you get the salary expectation question asked during your interview, hopefully you will be already mentally prepared to say the number that you feel you are worth or happy to accept, which should be within the range on offer or very close to it. 

If, however, you have applied for a role directly and the salary range is unknown or quite wide, you can still get in contact with a recruiter for advice on the salary component, as they would have the most up to date information on salary levels for a professional at your level in a similar role. Make sure to look for recruiters who are specialised in a particular sector as they are likely to have the most accurate and up to date information about their targeted labour market and general trends and changes in that market, as well as the most up to date salary information.

What are the most important interview skills that you advise candidates to work on and how can these be implemented? 

To be honest, the number one skill to work on to improve your interview success would be your overall ability to stay calm and collected and to control the speed of your speech. A lot of people tend to speed up when they are stressed and start to mumble or mispronounce words, often making it hard for an interviewer to track your thought pattern and get a clear understanding of the information that you are trying to convey to them. Staying calm and holding a steady pace of speech will make it easier for an interviewer to understand you, remember what you've said and make notes during your interview. It would also present you as more confident and assertive during the interview. If you are one of those people who generally talks too fast, try to take a deep breath and count to five as you breath out before you begin to answer the question, this will delay the initial “rushed” response and reduce your stress levels.

 Another very useful technique to learn is related to your ability to answer competency-based questions. This technique is called "STAR technique", which can be decoded as Situation, Task/s, Action/s and Result. If you are asked a competency-based question, try to structure your answer describing a situation that you were in at the beginning, then the tasks that were needed to be performed and the actions that you have taken and finally describe the result of those actions and whether it was a positive outcome at the end.

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