When Rob Johnson graduated from Bristol Business School in 2006, he moved into a senior marketing manager’s role at his then employer Orange, the former British telecoms giant. But after the financial crisis, like many MBAs he sought a new opportunity in financial management.
Instead of turning back to business school, Rob opted for the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), the world's largest professional body of management accountants. After a year of training he was hired by EE, a mobile and broadband network formed from the rump of Orange and T-Mobile.
“The CIMA qualification was an obvious choice due to the importance it places on financial skills,” says Rob, who joined EE as a senior finance manager.
He is a big advocate of the CIMA management accountancy qualification. He believes it offers a more structured approach to finance than an MBA degree. This structure helped him to gain promotion at EE to a strategic planning manager.
“The CIMA qualification has huge credibility amongst peer groups and superiors,” says Rob.
Far from conflicting with his MBA, the qualification enhanced it. “The CIMA qualification places emphasis on strategy and has a strong commercial focus, which complimented by MBA studies,” he says.
Rob illustrates the way business school graduates are able to move up in their careers by gaining additional financial qualifications.
But Peter Stewart, CIMA’s director of learning, says CIMA qualifications extend beyond the scope of traditional accountancy programs to incorporate managerial training in areas such as corporate assets and risk management.
“[The] qualifications provide professionals with competencies that meet a wide range of employer perspectives,” he says.
While once accountants were known as “bean counters”, today many of them are enjoying a wide range of management careers. About 50% of CEOs leading FTSE100 companies have an accountancy or financial management background, according to Robert Half, the recruitment firm.
Phil Sheridan, UK managing director, says: “The old guard of finance still holds sway, with executives with a background in accountancy and finance holding the reins of the UK’s top companies.”
CIMA has evolved its 2015 syllabus to meet the needs of businesses. Today, courses cover modern topics such as big data, sustainability and integrated reporting. “The changes have been driven entirely from the demand of businesses,” says Peter.
These changes have allowed CIMA to expand its reach. The organization is attracting students from business school programs as well as from the public sector, adding to its roster of 218, 000 global members.
“I was interested in pursuing a financial qualification that was relevant to both the public and private sector,” says Louise Thomas, an MPA graduate of Warwick Business School.
By gaining a management accountancy qualification, she was able to move into a leadership position in the Africa Directorate at the Department for International Development, a UK government organization that seeks to end extreme poverty.
Louise leads a team of 10 people who provide financial and project management support to policy teams. “My CIMA qualification continues to help me perform well in general management and leadership roles,” she says, adding that it built on many aspects of the MPA, or masters of public administration.
MBA graduates are able to join the CIMA syllabus through the Master’s Gateway route, an accelerated entry program which involves sitting five exams.
Managers are increasingly demanding more control over their mode of study, and CIMA’s flexible learning options will be attractive to those with a harried schedule.
Participants need not take a lengthy period off work, as is usually required to gain an MBA.
Louise says: “It’s an excellent opportunity to build on your skills and gain a well-recognised professional qualification, without necessarily having to study for four years.”
While business schools are renowned for their networking opportunities, even after graduation, CIMA offers “lifelong learning opportunities” to keep management accounting professionals up to date, according to Samuel Li, CIMA study support and learning manager.
Even for career switchers, accountancy training is recognised in a wide array of industries. “If I ever decide to move outside the public sector, CIMA will be something I can point to to help people understand what skills I can offer,” says Louise.
Then there is the cost. Accountancy exams are comparatively cheap to business school degrees, which can cost upwards of $100,000. CIMA says the qualification can be completed for around £1,700 – if taken over three years, and if a participant passes every exam on their first attempt.
For Rob at EE, the company has a five-year growth plan and part of his role is to ensure that they stick to the business strategy. He envisages himself as a strategic consultant in the long term.
“Many roles, once you start your journey within one set industry, you’re then pigeonholed to stay in that industry – but having CIMA status removes this barrier to entry,” he says.
“Being CIMA qualified gives me the flexibility to work across different industry sectors.”