Pursuing a career in finance can lead to a variety of different paths and roles. Once you’ve got a foot in the door, it becomes so much easier to work your way up the financial career ladder.
However, it takes a lot of hard work to achieve a CFO level of success. And you may face a lot of challenges on the way to the top, which can make you doubt yourself and your abilities.
When imposter syndrome kicks in, sometimes the best way to overcome it, gain your confidence back and re-focus on your goals is to learn from others who have been where you are now, which is exactly what you’ll find in this article.
We asked a few of our special guests on the Two Cents: Finance Talk podcast to share their best finance career advice to help build a successful finance career and here’s what they had to say…
What advice do you have for someone who wants to build a successful career in finance?
Principal and Founder of Kalish Consulting
I've been around for a little while and when I was hiring for my FP&A team 20 years ago, what I wanted was someone who knew accounting, and was a Jedi Master at Excel. That skill set is not the skill set that we need for today or tomorrow.
When people ask me - what makes a good FP&A professional? What are you looking for?
I always say I want a quant, which is someone who understands finance and understands accounting but tells great stories. I need a storyteller communicator who completely understands my business.
Yes, it’s important to have the blocking and tackling of finance and accounting. Your life will be a lot easier if you can read a balance sheet and understand the general ledger, those are important. But you’re already expected to know those things.
The next level is communication. So, how do I determine whether someone's a good communicator or not?
1. Understanding your audience
A part of it is understanding your audience. You have to be a good either teacher or a chameleon in the sense that you need to be able to understand your audience because the way people consume information is very different. The onus is on your ability to tell that story, and this depends on the way you present information.
2. Speaking their language
Analysis is critically important. But the ability to share that with someone is just as important. I believe that math and numbers are a language, and I understand what numbers mean. However, if you show that to HR or the marketing department, that's not the story they need.
So, you must understand how communications works and how people consume information differently.
3. Understand what business you’re in
I like asking people two questions. The first is simple - what does Starbucks sell?
The number one answer is coffee, which is the wrong answer. They don’t sell coffee, they sell an experience.
If they were selling coffee, it'd be a function of price. You don’t buy Starbucks because you want a cup of normal coffee. You buy Starbucks because you want to buy a Starbucks cup of coffee.
Finance people need to get out and see the business. You must understand how the business works. If you don’t, nobody wants you to come to them and say, “Here's how you should run your business better even though I don't understand anything about your business.” You just don't have any credibility.
Start with small wins – think about simple things you can do to build trust. Even though you’re in finance, you have to look at things in a much broader sense and actively look for opportunities to understand the business better.
We're not just talking about numbers, we're talking about a business.
If I were to distill my finance career advice to one component or characteristic, it’s this – you need to be curious.
The way you're going to succeed is by asking the question why? If you're someone who just accepts the status quo, then you're a reporter. You're someone who's doing diagnostic and descriptive work.
If you want to do more than that, the best career advice I can give you is to be curious and have that innate ability to ask why. Ask why we’re doing things the way we're doing it?
We're not in the slow-moving world anymore. We're in a very fast-moving world and we have to understand it.
Try to learn something new every day. It doesn't necessarily have to be business related but try to learn something new and be someone who is constantly learning.
Want to hear more from Brian? Listen to his episode on the Two Cents: Finance Talk podcast here.
You can also read Brian's articles on the Finance Alliance blog, including:
- How finance automation is changing FP&A.
- How technology is impacting the planning, budgeting & forecasting function.
- How to build a culture of financial data analytics to develop and act on business insights.
Exec. Director of Business Operations Finance at ICON plc.
I think certain intrinsic things can be valuable as finance career advice such as simply being authentic. Try not to be the person who's looking at that ladder all the time because it becomes apparent that you’re just looking to climb the ladder, and not do a good job.
Sometimes you just need to do a good job where you're at, and they'll get recognized, and then the ladder climbing will come.
But there is recognition that, you know, we’re human beings, and the way we organize ourselves there is always a certain amount of politics. So, there will have to be an increasing amount of exposure to senior-level people but don't try to force those interactions.
If you do good things within the business units, etc. that will come to people's attention naturally anyway. You’ll be on calls with them, and you'll get recognized. An evolution to that stage rather than trying to force it is always better. It’s something that’ll happen through you doing a good job.
I think it's more important to ensure that you’re enjoying what you're doing, rather than looking to climb the ladder because you can’t do one without the other.
If you advance further, then you're enjoying what you're doing and I think we all should enjoy what we're doing. To some degree, do we enjoy every second? Absolutely not. But you need a sense of enjoyment and fulfillment from your work, which is more important than climbing ahead
A faster route to climbing up the ladder managerially and title-wise may not be the route that’s good for you, your core skill set, and what you would naturally enjoy doing on a day-to-day basis.
Obviously, we want to climb as high as our abilities will take us. But it has to be measured with everything else. It can't be the sole goal. Otherwise, you'll end up in the wrong place.
If things happen too quickly and that is your only aim, you may end up somewhere where you're no longer happy being.
My other piece of finance career advice is to be realistic about what's achievable. As long as you're doing the right things, you'll get to where you need need to be naturally. Not everyone's going to be a Finance Director. You have to have that realization of your capabilities and what's good for you.
It is not always your current knowledge that matters but what you are prepared to discover. - Stewart Houston
Read Stewart's article, The 3 pillars of a successful finance business partner – Stewart Houston, here:
Be curious, always curious. Read a lot like with any industry, just be curious. And you will see that things become easier, and your job will be a lot easier too.
As a Finance Analyst, you've also got to be negative in the sense that you must be suspicious of people and companies who want money from you. Treat the company's or bank’s money like your own.
When you’re considering lending money, for example, think to yourself – would you give this person money from your pocket? If not, then why should the company do it?
My next career advice is to stay up to date with your industry. Many things in finance haven’t changed since 1976, such as financial ratios. But the approach has changed because the world is constantly changing. Software is changing too, so as a finance professional, you need to be up to date.
Finally, enjoy your work. Loving your job is very important. Start loving your job. Our work is much more interesting than manually tying numbers, it’s almost like we’re trying to predict the future with our forecasts and scenario planning, etc.
My motto in life is that nothing is impossible. So, if something isn’t working, try to solve it yourself.
Read Ilya's article, How to create a financial forecast model, here:
To hear from more finance professionals sharing their advice, insights, and expertise, tune in to the Two Cents: Finance Talk podcast - and don't forget to subscribe!