Careers advice

What do employers look for in accounting candidates? Expert tips from Trade Me’s Financial Controller

A glance behind the scenes at what employers want to see.

Given that every business needs a finance whiz (or a whole accounts team), it’s no wonder that this diverse, and often well paid, sector is so attractive to Kiwis.

However, this means competition is stiff, and you’ll need to nail your job application from start to finish to land your dream role. To help you hone your accounting CV, cover letter and interview prep, we spoke to Jacqui Gane, our Financial Controller here at Trade Me.

Jacqui is a people-centric finance leader with 14 years’ experience spanning the Big 4 and corporate environments. Having graduated from the University of Otago in 2007, Jacqui started her career in the EY Audit & Assurance division in Wellington, before moving into the corporate sector with various individual contributor and leadership roles across New Zealand Post and FMG. Most recently, Jacqui joined Trade Me as the Financial Controller, and plays a very active role in recruiting accounting and finance professionals.

1. What employment experience do you look for?

“It really depends on the role. A senior technical accounting position, such as financial accounting or tax, clearly calls for specific qualifications and prior experience. For other finance roles, transferable soft skills become more important.

Experience in a Big 4 environment remains valued as it indicates exposure to top training alongside working with a variety of clients across multiple industries. Commercial experience in the corporate sector is also attractive as it generally brings with it a deeper knowledge of business strategy and key performance drivers.

In a competitive situation with multiple strong candidates, it’s the soft skills that make you stand out. At the end of the day, technical skills can be taught to someone that’s keen and hungry to grow, while soft skills can take longer to learn and develop.”

"In a competitive situation with multiple strong candidates, it’s the soft skills that make you stand out."

2. What personal soft skills do you look for in someone applying to be part of your team? And how can a candidate demonstrate these?

“These would be my top three:

1. Resilience.

The pace of technology change is accelerating and, on top of this, 2020 threw us a real curveball, testing our resilience like never before. We don’t know what’s on the horizon, so the ability to deal with unexpected challenges and bounce back when things don’t go as planned, will continue to be the most valuable skill for some time yet.

2. Interpersonal Skills.

"Automation of repetitive, rule-based accounting tasks is here and this is reshaping finance. Opportunities are ripe for more creative thinking and for all finance personnel to be trusted partners out in the business, not just those with the title of ‘Finance Business Partner’. Having your CA or equivalent designation is all well and good, but if you don’t get out in the business and connect with others, you won’t be able to influence business decision making. The ability to build strong and successful relationships is, therefore, fundamental.

3. Enthusiasm

Not to be confused with passion. I’ve seen some amazing contributions from people whose passion lies outside of the finance realm, and they’ve still brought enthusiasm to their work. This positive energy has a flow-on impact, lifting those around them.

A candidate can demonstrate these soft skills through sharing personal stories and experience. When sharing a challenging experience, focus on the growth opportunity and what you learnt from this. Story-telling is powerful and a great way to connect with the interview panel.”

It's important to have strong soft skills when applying for accounting jobs in NZ.

3. Is there anything a candidate absolutely should OR shouldn’t include on an accounting cover letter/CV?

“Be authentic and bring your personality to your cover letter. This is your first chance to make an impression and stand out from the crowd. Customising your cover letter by adding a couple of sentences that are specific to the business and team you’re looking to join, will show you’ve done your research and give you the edge over others.

As for your CV, if you’ve got five years of hands-on accounting experience behind you, don’t include your first job as a bartender (well, unless you’re applying for a finance role with a brewery!) Consider what work experience is actually relevant for the role you’re applying for.”

4. Do you have any questions you particularly like asking at an interview?

  • “If you were to reflect back on your past six months of work, what memory jumps out as a moment where you were in the zone and fizzing with energy. Tell us about this, and what was it in particular that sparked your interest?”

This one is great because it cuts to the core of what type of work they get the most enjoyment from, helping to draw out that all important enthusiasm.

  • “How would you explain an accrual to someone outside of Finance?”

This is another one I like to pull out occasionally. It’s a simple way to gauge communication skills as it’s all about putting finance jargon to the side and connecting with the person using simple, day-to-day language.”

It's important to get your personality across in your accounting cover letter.

5. How important is the team fit to you when you hire, and what can a candidate do to demonstrate they’d be a good team player?

“Very important. We want every hire to impact on our team for the better. We all bring unique experiences and it’s important to take stock of any gaps in the current team and find someone that will think differently and bring strength to areas we’re lacking. We also want this person to be comfortable with the existing team culture and working environment.

My advice to candidates on this is to share examples of different team environments you’ve been part of and what you did to adapt and connect with others.”

6. Do you ever set tasks as part of your interview process? If so, what might they involve?

“Yes, we often set a task as part of the interview process. Depending on the role, this could range from completing a mock bank reconciliation, through to presenting on macro trends impacting our business.”

7. What might raise a red flag to you about a candidate in an interview?

“Not asking questions. An interview is a two-way process. If someone does not ask any questions, then this is a red flag to me that a) they are disinterested and don’t really want the role and b) they are going to ‘follow the pack’ rather than think independently.

Be inquisitive! Ask questions about the culture and values. Make sure the team and organisation you’re looking to join is the type of environment where you’ll be set up to perform at your best.”

8. Other than more senior accounting roles, what can finance roles lead to?

“I’ve seen so many success stories of people starting in finance and then moving to other roles across a business, such as business improvement, strategy, sales leadership, and ultimately CEO!

Finance roles are an excellent way to build your understanding of the drivers of business growth, profitability and cash flow. Having sound financial acumen sets you up to drive better decision making and is valuable and transferable to many areas of an organisation.”