May 21, 2024

Empower Service Hub

Timely Service

Demystifying a career in professional services

5 min read

Professional services firms are like the agony aunts of big business. We asked workers from the sector to explain what they do and how they do it.

Most of us have heard of firms like Deloitte, Grant Thornton, PwC and Accenture. They provide professional services to clients and make lots of money doing so. But what does professional services mean? It’s so vague a term it could refer to anything, and that does no favours to anyone – whether they work in the sector or not. Working in professional services should not be a mystery, so we asked workers at some of these firms to tell us what their employer does.

In their own words

“I think in most simple terms it is the services provided to organisations to help them transform or manage their business in its entirety or a specific area,” says Ita Langton, who works as a partner with Deloitte.

Eoghan O’Sullivan, who heads Grant Thornton Ireland’s talent, insights and people and culture divisions, gives us an in-depth explanation of where the term comes from.

“The term professional services covers any business or department whose main output is a service or an expertise rather than products or goods,” explains Eoghan O’Sullivan. He works for Grant Thornton, which he says operates as a consultant for businesses as they grow. Its workers advise on tax, audit and tech “to a wide range of clients across a variety of industries, including financial services, aviation, tech and pharmaceuticals sectors”.

As Niamh McInerney, head of talent acquisition at PwC, puts it “Whether our clients are looking to go beyond the numbers, make tax simple or need help adapting to changing operating environments, we have the knowledge and capabilities to support them.”

Professional services firms are kind of like the agony aunts of big business. But their staff don’t sit around burning incense and holding clients’ hands or anything. As Accenture’s HR lead Aisling Campbell points out, there are a lot of ways people can put their skills to tangible use – especially if they are good with tech.

Opportunities for techies

The business environment is crying out for knowledgeable people to help them cope with everything from AI to cybersecurity.

“We believe that every business will be transformed by technology, data and AI, so technology skills are key,” says Campbell. “We also look for people with interdisciplinary skill sets as well as those who have specific industry knowledge, for instance, someone with experience working in life sciences or banking brings deep knowledge of that sector and can leverage that to work with our portfolio of clients in that industry.”

McInerney agrees with the need for tech proficiency. “Technical skills are required across all our services, not just in tech consulting, although that is where we have deep expertise. At PwC, we blend technical expertise with business acumen to solve our clients’ challenges and help their businesses grow.”

The firm has recently added a new generative AI centre. “As the professional services industry evolves, we are always exploring emerging technologies helping to support our clients to harness them for their advantage,” says McInerney.

‘Many career paths’

Langton agrees that there are “many career paths” in professional services for people with tech skills. “I started my career as a tester, then spent some time cutting code and ultimately became a project manager leading large agile teams to deliver digital services for organisations.

“Others have followed a path based on a particular platform or solution gaining certifications to become experts advising many different clients.” Langton also says that career paths are unique depending on the person, so most professional services firms are willing to let people expand their careers as they see fit.

As Campbell says, these organisations are so huge that people can travel internationally from one branch to another if that appeals to them. “Professional services offer boundaryless career opportunities. Many organisations are international, with a global network of colleagues and projects, meaning that you can work with clients and colleagues from around the world. The broad nature of the work also means that there tend to be lots of opportunities to grow by moving into new areas of the business or working with clients from different sectors.”


Transferable skills are valued

For O’Sullivan, tech knowledge is “core” but it’s only part of the package you need if you want to work somewhere like Grant Thornton. As he puts it, “In professional services, technical and soft skills go hand in hand.

“When assessing candidates, we look for a balance between technical and industry knowledge, and soft skills such as collaboration and problem-solving. The most successful in this sector are those who can, not only manage the technical aspects of projects but also build lasting relationships with clients through clear communication and interpersonal skills.”

McInerney thinks it takes more than just technology to be successful. “It requires human ingenuity, insight and imagination combined with business understanding and the ability to navigate a complex business environment to allow those ideas to flourish. It really is an exciting time to join the professional services industry.”

Curiosity and teamwork

Langton agrees that soft skills are important, but an appetite for learning will also stand to you. Professional services move with the trends, so you could be advising on AI, for example. That means you have to know your stuff and be familiar with the latest market developments. A natural curiosity helps. So does an affinity for teamwork.

“The majority of our work is team-based,” says Langton. “Individuals who enjoy working with colleagues from diverse backgrounds and capabilities are attracted to working in professional services.”

Campbell agrees with O’Sullivan, Langton and McInerney on their points about soft skills and learning. “One of the most important traits for us at Accenture is the ability to learn. The world is changing so rapidly that the skills we need continue to evolve, so we’re really interested in a candidate’s desire to keep learning and reskilling throughout their career.

Mystery solved?

“Empathy, communication, problem-solving and project management are also incredibly valuable skills in any role within professional services.”

Overall, professional services is a broad umbrella term for an industry of business consultants who have varying specialisms and interests depending on what clients they serve.

“It’s such a wide-ranging area that I believe many people have skills that would be suited to a role in professional services,” says Campbell.

“Bringing together people with diverse skillsets, educational disciplines and backgrounds makes us smarter and more innovative, and that’s crucial when working on complex business challenges with our clients.”

McInerney says that her company is always looking for people from “diverse backgrounds –whether in arts, business, technology, engineering, finance, or law.”

Find out how emerging tech trends are transforming tomorrow with our new podcast, Future Human: The Series. Listen now on Spotify, on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts.


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