From School Leaver to Managing Partner
Warren, what drew you into a career in accountancy?
“It was probably when I was doing my GCSE’s in the early 1990’s that I realised that I wasn’t going to be an actor in Star Wars! I was doing GCSE Accounts and enjoyed the way that with the numbers you could get everything to balance, I found that very satisfying. I was also studying Economics at school and found that I really loved the whole business environment“.
Tell me about your early years in the profession
“Of course. After I completed my A-levels in Accounting and Economics I was keen to get straight into a job in accounting rather than go to University. I applied to the big firms but at that time they weren’t taking a lot of non-graduates. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to interview at PEM and joined them at 19.
As a school-leaver I started with the AAT qualification which I didn’t find to be too challenging after my Accounting A-level, but when I moved onto the ICAEW qualification I kept failing the Tax paper. It became a real problem for me and stopped me progressing. I failed that paper so many times that I’d probably get sacked if I was a trainee at PEM these days.
One of the senior partners told me that I could stay on at the firm as AAT-qualified, but if I wanted real career progression I needed to persevere and get fully qualified.
In the end I converted over to the ACCA qualification which left me with six papers to finish before I got my qualification. My first daughter had been born and I knew I had to finish my final exams quickly as there was no way I could study for a long period with a little baby around.”
Did finishing your qualification allow the career progression you wanted?
“Yes, once I got my qualification things moved quickly. I was in the right place at the right time as a number of partners were retiring. I was working in audit and was getting the opportunity to work on larger clients, particularly helping with managing some of the jobs.”
At this point Warren laid out the timeline of his career with PEM since qualifying in 2002:
- 2003 – promoted to Assistant Manager
- 2005 – promoted to Manager
- 2009 – promoted to Partner
- 2016 – promoted to Managing Partner at the age of 41.
Did your rapid advancement have any downsides?
“At times. I remember going to my first conference which was organised by the Kreston Group of firms (that PEM are a member of) and feeling like I was a lot younger than the other Partners who were there. It was quite nerve-wracking.
My predecessor as Managing Partner got me involved in a rebranding project a few years ago. I had to help deliver the rebrand at a firm away-day and even though I was a Partner I was absolutely petrified!”
So it kept pushing you out of your comfort zone?
“Yes, very much so”.
How have you seen things change at the firm over your career?
“If I think back to the 1990’s when I started at PEM, the use of technology was limited to email and a few laptops. There was no accounting software, everything was manual, there was far less regulation and scrutiny. It was quite a traditional firm with core audit, accounts and tax services plus recovery and corporate finance. At that point we had around 80 staff and were something of a sleeping giant. I thought it was a good time to qualify at PEM as it felt like the firm was going somewhere.
Since then the firm has added specialist tax, outsourcing, payroll, IT and legal services and is the largest independent firm in Cambridge with 175 staff and plans to grow to 240 by 2025. We have changed the dynamic of the firm hugely into a more open, collaborative, and exciting organisation. We’ve also worked really hard to retain the culture and work life balance that makes PEM a great place to work”.
And what about changes in the nature of your own work?
“The nature of my work has changed a lot, away from compliance and towards defining and driving strategy. I have to take a much longer term, holistic view, thinking of ‘one PEM’.
I’m lucky as alongside my role as managing partner, I look after some excellent clients and hopefully my experience running PEM has benefited these relationships”.
Are there particular skills that are important in a leadership position?
“Leaders need a vision and also a plan of how to achieve it, even if the plan changes over time. You can’t be too dogmatic in a dynamic environment and I am always willing to be persuaded of different solutions. We have quite a bold plan but it is eminently achievable with the team I work with.”
A sense of calmness is important, at least in terms of what everyone else sees! Like a swan gracefully swimming by but going like crazy underneath.
A pragmatic view is a key skill and knowing how to choose your battles and knowing who you need on-side. I think it’s important to give people the time to talk.
You have to be willing to make mistakes and can’t be afraid to take risks.
In the accounting profession you have to have a handle on where tech is going. I’m lucky as I’m surrounded by a great team who can see the potential of technology changes.
Do aspiring accountants need to go to University to get into the profession?
“I didn’t! You absolutely don’t have to have gone to Uni. When we look at candidates it’s about what they can do in the future, not what they have done in the past.
We like people who are keen to grab challenging opportunities. Being able to communicate with clients is also really important, perhaps more than technical ability.
Most crucially we consider whether they will fit the PEM culture and our values of authenticity, reliability and empathy.
These days I am always glad to see some of our AAT trainees who have the potential to go onto being partner one day.”
Can you give any advice to aspiring leaders about their careers?
- Perseverance is incredibly important. You can’t give up every time you hit a hurdle.
- Find a culture that suits you, and something that you believe in. To succeed, you have to believe in what you are doing, and you have to have the confidence to preach it too.
- Surround yourself with people much better than you are. I see my role as creating the right environment to get the best people.
- Create a culture that allows people to speak their mind.
Some great advice there. Thanks a lot Warren!
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