Date posted: 28/11/2019

Small firms, big benefits: What it’s like to work for a small- to medium-sized practice (SMP)

Working at small- to medium-sized practice (SMP) can provide valuable growth opportunities and exposure to a wide variety of technical areas early in your career.

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Michael Lauder CA first joined the workforce at a large financial services firm while studying a Bachelor of Business in Professional Accountancy at RMIT University.

Having taken some time to develop his skills and grow his network at a large organisation, a former partner of the firm reached out to Lauder with an exciting opportunity to join his small accounting practice Oxygen Private Clients as an accountant. Today, Michael is a Senior Accountant and has been with Oxygen for more than two years.

Michael Dusting on the other hand, joined a small practice soon after graduating from university. Dusting developed a passion for insolvency accounting during his studies and sought employment in a specialist firm to develop his skills in this area. Today, Dusting is an accountant at another small-size practice, PCI Partners.

While their early career journeys have been quite distinct, both Lauder and Dusting agree that working at an SMP has afforded them opportunities to fast-track their professional development that they may not have had at larger organisations. Reflecting on their careers to date, we asked both to share their insights into what it's like to work at an SMP and the benefits they've enjoyed.

Trusted with responsibility

"These soft skills are absolutely essential, and I don't think I would have appreciated this as early as I have, unless I was working at a smaller practice."
Michael Lauder CA, Senior Accountant, Oxygen Private Clients.

Lauder and Dusting were pleasantly surprised to be given significant responsibilities, even as new starters at an SMP. Lauder notes this can be a common occurrence in the SMP environment as smaller practices simply don't have the resource pool of larger organisations, and therefore require their junior staff to help wherever they can.

"You get more opportunities to step up and assume responsibility quickly, and more is expected of you. There's often no-one between you and the director, which means you have to own a task or project up to a senior manager level before handing it off. I've really enjoyed this, it's great motivation to learn," Lauder says.

Lauder and Dusting believe this trusting environment in which they're encouraged to learn new skills through practical experience has allowed them to greatly extend their technical knowledge, which in turn has its own benefits.

"At larger firms you can be siloed into a specific area, but silos don't exist in SMPs, everyone does everything. You get exposed to a wide variety of technical areas and you just have to learn as you go. I've found this really enjoyable, and having wider technical expertise definitely makes you more valuable to the firm, and certainly more valuable to future employers," Dusting says.

Access to mentorship

An effective way to learn the ins and outs of a profession is to observe how an experienced leader operates. Junior accounting professionals can benefit greatly from mentorship by senior leaders. Since joining smaller practices, Lauder and Dusting have enjoyed direct access to their respective firm's directors and executives, something both have valued highly.

"I've been working one-on-one with the owner of the practice, and I've learned so much by sitting in meetings with him. Picking up on the vocab, how he talks to different clients in different ways, his tone and body language and the way he manoeuvres a conversation to get an outcome. These soft skills are absolutely essential, and I don't think I would have appreciated this as early as I have, unless I was working at a smaller practice," Lauder explains.

"I think the greatest benefit of working at an SMP is the direct access you have to the senior leadership. I'm mentored not only by my manager but by the directors too, and through that direct contact I've been able to really appreciate the things they consider and look for. I've noticed significant growth in myself and progression in my work because of this," Dusting adds.

Advice for students

Reflecting on their current roles and career paths to date, both Lauder and Dusting strongly encourage accounting and finance graduates to consider applying for roles at SMPs.

"I know a lot of students have their heart set on working for a big firm, and to be honest I did too for a while. Sure, there's the allure of career progression at large firms, but in reality, there's no reason you won't also be progressed at smaller practices, it could even happen faster. I'd encourage graduates to keep an open mind and consider smaller practices," Dusting says.

Now assisting in the recruitment of new graduates, Lauder is equally encouraging but shares some words of advice for those writing job applications as a former applicant.

"Definitely consider smaller practices, but it's really important to do your research before applying to a smaller practice and understand what they do and who their clients are. If you can arrive to the interview demonstrating this, and with some good questions and enthusiasm, you're well on your way to a rewarding career in an SMP."

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