For those at the start of their careers, this broad skill and experience set can seem a significant step away. So what can aspiring FDs do to develop the strengths that will set them apart from the competition?
While robust technical knowledge remain crucial, what differentiates potential FD material is strong leadership skills, commercial acumen and emotional intelligence.
Recent research buy Hays found that 'commercial awareness' is in fact the most important attribute for an FD. What employers want is a candidate who will formulate strategy to drive the business forward.
Tim Raiswell, CEB
The rise of analytics means there’s a real need to think and crunch numbers in new ways
“It’s what marks out senior people from middle management,” says Lucy Whitehall, a career coach and wellbeing consultant for the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association (CABA), which provides career development advice to ICAEW members. “Emotional intelligence is all about being resilient and trusted. If they are to work alongside the CEO they need that level of integrity. And identifying emotions in other people and dealing with them effectively all helps them to manage teams.”
The good news is that they’re all attributes that can be developed. “Some of the best leaders I know aren’t naturals when it comes to these skills,” says Luke Davis, financial services director at recruiter Robert Half UK. “It’s something they have learned and honed.”
Davis says having a mentor can offer real benefits, “but don’t rely on formal mentoring schemes. Find a way to create your own mentoring arrangement by identifying people you admire in positions you aspire to and find out how they got there and their modus operandi. Send them an email and ask if you can take them out for a coffee.”
Similarly, developing a peer network early on in your career - including people you’ve studied with or worked alongside - can pay dividends later on. Social media, particularly LinkedIn, has made it easier but nothing beats a face-to-face meeting and the opportunity to thrust your business card into someone’s hand.
"Networking is crucial for forging new contacts and for getting yourself noticed, rather than being 'hidden in accounts'," says Bridget McIntyre, former CEO of Royal Sun Alliance and the founder of business coaching and mentoring company dream on.
McIntyre speaks with some authority on the issue of career progression to the highest echelons of finance having successfully made the jump from Financial Controller at publisher Harpers Collins, to Accountant at Volvo, to Finance Director at insurance company Aviva. Networking also offers a great opportunity for researching your next role, McIntyre adds.
Experience across a variety of areas is a big tick in the box for budding FDs, bearing in mind the cross-functional perspective required by the job. Research conducted by recruiter Hays found that 69% of FDs think the up and coming generation need to get involved with their organisation’s operational activities. “They need to understand other parts of the business to give them that business partner edge, for example sales and marketing, and forge relationships with those people,” Whitehall says. She says opportunities for secondment into other parts of the business or across to clients are a good way to gain new experiences.
While the role of the FD has evolved to encompass more strategic thinking and a greater focus on interpersonal skills, adding value and growing a business remains central to success.
Karen Young, director at Hays Senior Finance says being able to tick certain boxes – notably, people management, project experience and some form of international experience – will stand you in good stead. The Hays report found that 93% of respondents who had worked abroad say that the experience had benefitted their career.
For Tim Raiswell, finance research leader at management research firm CEB, problem solving and critical thinking top the list of requisites of those hiring FDs. “The rise of analytics means there’s a real need to think and crunch numbers in new ways,” Raiswell explains. Increasingly FD candidates who reach interview stage should prepare themselves for a case interview; they are presented with a problem and have to explain the process they went through in order to solve it and defend their position in front of a committee of peers. You may need to secure the funding needed to aid a expansion or a merger. If you can demonstrate your knowledge of a raft of options both within and outside of the mainstream, you will be at an significant advantage.
So how are savvy accountants getting these skills to make the leap? Many are turning to online tools and resources to keep abreast and hone their knowledge of practical business information – from the latest legislation or tax treaties, to changes in business finance options.
One such resource has been launched by ABN AMRO Commercial Finance – aimed at providing an E-Learning tool that aids professionals who want to expand their knowledge, add value and develop the knowledge and skills required to be an FD of the future.