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Acing an Accountancy Interview

  • December 09, 2015

The head of Alexander Lloyd's Accountancy Interim division Dan Jones discussed the importance of preparation and the techniques for Accountants to shine in an interview situation.

Being an accountancy job seeker is challenging in today’s highly competitive marketplace. One of the most consistent areas of concern for those seeking new job roles is performing successfully at the all-important interview. It is not surprising considering the time and effort that has gone into getting this far.

Accountancy interview preparation

The very first thing to do is thoroughly quiz your accountancy recruitment consultant on the interviewer and the company.

  • How many people and who will be conducting the interview and what are their roles within the company. 
  • How do these relate to the role that you are interviewing for? 

Any good consultant will have all these details to hand and be able to fully brief you.  The other important question to ask them is what format the interview will take, will you be asked to take tests?  Many accountancy and finance job roles will require you to pass psychometric tests including numerical and verbal reasoning and possibly personality assessments. 

Whilst you now know who is interviewing you, you also need to find out more about the company.  Your consultant should have given you a brief before submitting your CV but it is vital that you research the company and it’s financials in preparation.  You are applying for a financial position; this information will aid you in compiling questions to ask in the interview.  For example:

“I understand the company turned over £100 million in the last financial year, what are your projections for growth in the coming year?”  is much more powerful than, “What did the company turnover last year? “  “Oh, ok, so what are your growth projections for this year?” 

Preparation and a little foreknowledge demonstrates pro-activity and a keenness that employers are looking for – they want to know that you have a genuine interest and want this job, not just any job.

The other part of your preparation should be to practice your answers to competency questions.  This is now a very standard format for interviewing, having moved away from the traditional question and answer sessions.  One of the key pieces of feedback that I receive from our clients is a tendency of candidates to fail in actually answering the question at hand.  This is true of many different professions, not just accountancy and is an easy trap to fall into with competency questions.   You obviously won’t know exactly what questions you are going to be asked, but what you can do to prepare is practice the technique to answering them successfully and succinctly.  To do so, I recommend the SOAR technique.

‘S’  - Scenario. 
Choose a scenario that most appropriately fits the question. It could be an enquiry about your experience in handling certain situations such as , or when you have implemented new strategies or processes, keep it relevant.

‘O’ – Ownership. 
Establish that you took ownership of the scenario.

‘A’ –Actions
What action did you take to resolve the situation and bring about a satisfactory conclusion?

‘R’ –Result? 
How did the outcome have an effect on the company and other departments?

This technique will help you to formulate an answer that is succinct, lasts about two minutes, is contextualised and most importantly, actually answers the question!

The questions themselves will depend upon the type and level of role for which you are applying, the employers recommended recruitment policy and the interviewer’s personal preference.  What the interview will be trying to determine is not only your technical abilities but also your reaction to situations and what soft skills you can bring to the role.

Good sample questions to practice are;

  • - “Can you give me an example of a complex audit that you have undertaken?”
  • - “How do you balance the technical requirements of the role with the more commercial aspects?”
  • - “How do you manage relationships with key stakeholders outside the finance function?”
  • - “Describe a time when your budgets have overspent and how you managed this”
  • - “Can you provide an example of a time when you had to provide a report of a numerical/analytical nature. How did you ensure that the information provided would be relevant?”

The day of the interview

With preparation done, the day of the interview arrives.  Ensure that you know exactly where the location is and the journey times.  If you are driving, check with your consultant whether there is parking on site and whether you need to reserve a space; they will be able to arrange this for you.  Arriving late creates a bad impression but if you are running late for any reason, let your consultant know so that they can advise the interviewer. Arriving early can cause as many problems for the interviewer as arriving late, so whilst you may want to arrive at your location in plenty of time, do not present yourself for the interview any earlier than five to ten minutes beforehand.

Body language is talked about so much in this context it has almost become a bit of a cliché, but it is important and worth noting that closed body language with crossed arms and legs presents an unreceptive image to the interviewer. Open body language, sitting up straight in the chair, maintaining eye contact and smiling will project a much more positive persona.

The challenge is to maintain this throughout the interview, particularly when the interviewer poses a tricky question designed to make you uncomfortable.  Some interviewers favour these more than others but even a simple “What is/was your motivation for leaving your current/previous role?” can be a delicate topic. It is filled with potential pitfalls for the unwary but you must take care and remember that you cannot lie about your reasons. There are some answers that will reflect on you poorly, such as citing money or office politics as your justification whilst you are trying to create a favourable impression and should be avoided if at all possible.  

These sorts of questions do nothing for the nerves that are inevitable in such situations, and many find it challenging to control them.  If you are faced with a question that throws you slightly, pause and take a breath whilst you formulate your answer. Don’t blurt out the first thing that comes to mind under the pressure of needing to answer; you can set the pace. Confidence is contagious and even if you don’t really feel it, it is what you need to show to help sell your skills and your personality. It will also help to dissipate those nerves.

In most cases, the end of the interview will give you the opportunity to ask those pre-prepared questions based on your research. Do not ask about the hours of the job role or the salary; this information can be obtained from your consultant. Your questions here should be solely focused on the role and company. At the end of the interview, ensure you thank the interviewer for their time but do not ask how you have done, they will provide feedback direct to your consultant.

Following up

You consultant will also want feedback from you as to how you think the interview went, what you did or didn’t like. This process is not simply about whether the interviewer liked you but whether you liked what you saw and heard. It is important that you are honest and if you didn’t like the company to be forthright about your views to your consultant so that they do not pursue the opportunity on your behalf if it is not right for you.

Unfortunately there is no magic formula that will guarantee interview success, and I would say the one really key piece of advice is to utilise your consultant’s knowledge and expertise to the full whilst navigating the process.