The small decisions that we make on a daily basis shape our professional careers. It is only when we look back on those decisions that we understand how they panned out in our finance or accounting career. A finance role is a pretty good analogy of your career journey. In finance, you look at historical data, understand the business performance, jot down the lessons learned and plan the future actions based on the known facts (past performance) and a lot of unknowns. Finance, like our lives, makes perfect sense when we look backwards and try to connect all the dots.
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future.Steve Jobs
Our careers span 30-40 years of our lives, and we try to plan every move and where we want to end up on the corporate ladder. When we graduate, most of us opt for a job that mirrors our educational background. After working for a few years, either we end up loving it or we start our search for something that excites us.
We switch companies or move to a different department to try something new or start thinking about starting something of our own. Sometimes, we find the perfect role/company and everything clicks, but sometimes we still keep an eye out for something more exciting. Some amongst us decide to jump from the corporate cruise ship to the kayak of entrepreneurship and take on the high seas in search of unknown treasures.
Whatever path we take, our experiences play a major role. In the digital age, we have more information in our hands and more access to experienced professionals, both of which help us make better decisions for our careers.
Finance is at an exciting junction with the adoption of fintech, growth of AI and increasing automation. All of these go hand-in-hand with a change in mindset from book-keeping to business partnering. The career opportunities in finance are tremendous. But with more options comes more confusion.
So, let’s take a look at how to navigate a finance career and what factors need to be considered when you decide to make a move within or outside your organization.
So, you graduated… Yay! And you landed a finance role at a Big 4 or tech firm… another Yay!! One thing most of us realize early on in our careers is that schools do a great job in teaching fundamentals of finance, but success in your job depends on many factors beyond accounting skills and understanding different forecasting techniques. Factors such as stakeholder management, negotiating skills, storytelling and influencing people play an important part in career development and building your own brand.
One reason why young graduates drop out of finance is that they get tired of the constant number crunching. What they fail to understand is that the excitement of a finance career lies in understanding the narrative behind those numbers.
While a large part of a finance career is spent crunching numbers in Excel, there is another part which is explaining to your stakeholders what the numbers indicate and what decisions need to be taken. The fun of a finance role is in distilling the numbers and understanding the engaging story that is on the spreadsheet. You need to be an ace with numbers, but you also need to be a great salesman to convince your stakeholders of your analysis.
Numbers tell a story; they are the language of business. Always peek behind the curtains, look at the bigger picture, and see where those numbers lead you!Michael Zimmel
In a recent interview on Arinjay Bansal’s The BonsPod Show, our very own Michael shared following: “By the time I had completed my studies, all I knew was that I was generally good with numbers. Then I got offered a position with EY and I jumped at the opportunity. In school, I never took an active interest in accounting but when I started working, I tried from day one to understand the narrative of all accounting entries. I didn’t view the numbers as a set of debits and credits; that would be mundane. Instead, I peeked behind the curtains, looked at the bigger picture, and where those numbers led me. To me, numbers tell a story; they are the language of business. My interest in numbers meant that I never really had the nine-to-five mindset that many employees have. When I’d finish my work at the end of the day, my mind would not simply switch to something else. I enjoyed thinking about improving what I do – how I could make financial management better for people.”
So, if you are starting an accounting career, start looking for the story behind those numbers. It will help you understand more about your business area as well as help influence your stakeholders and nudge them in the right direction. Everyone loves a good story and when you communicate what the numbers are trying to tell, your stakeholders will better understand your recommendations.
As a young graduate early in a finance career you should focus on three things:
Business Partnering is a skill that you will need in every role. You need to develop this early on so that your business partners trust you, rely on you and look to you as a guiding light and not a roadblock. This also helps in building your brand.
While you spend half of your time analyzing numbers, the other half is spent presenting insights to your stakeholders. So, from day one focus on learning the story behind the numbers. A finance career will have you working with numbers all day. Hence, a love of numbers is important if you want a long-lasting finance career.
The first two years of your career are the time to learn about different areas in finance and outside finance. So, go ahead and grab a coffee with as many colleagues as you can and learn more about their roles and responsibilities. Build your brand within and outside your organization. When you speak to more people, you will understand the different avenues available to you and what type of roles excite you.
For a broader list of career tips on finance, read our article 10 Practical Tips for Finance and Accounting Career Success.
Now that you have spent a few years in finance, what next?
Let’s say you are enjoying your chosen career path, it could be Accounting, Treasury, Corporate Finance, FP&A, etc. Well, if you are loving what you do, then simply continue! Keep learning and keep sharpening your skills, and you will surely achieve your career goals.
But what if 2-3 years into your accounting career, you start craving a career change? Well, it is much easier to shift roles early on in your career compared to moving after 7-10 years. So worry not – just because you spent a few years in the Accounting function doesn’t mean all other finance avenues are closed. You can still move to FP&A, Corporate Finance, M&A, etc.
If you haven’t spoken to a lot of people in your organization, now might be a good time to start! Finance is typically seen as an isolated function in which numbers are the lingua franca. At the same time, a finance role gives you a great opportunity to be a bridge-builder. As a finance professional you interact with stakeholders across the organization.
The best way to gather information for a career move is to break the silo mindset. Start talking with people in finance and other departments. Grab a cup of coffee with someone from FP&A today and Accounting tomorrow. Hear about the work that they do and what career paths they took.
Shadow them for a day and see if that is the type of work you want to do. Speak to as many people as possible within your organization and from other organizations to factor in different views. Try to find a mentor who will guide you in your decision to make a career move and connect you to the right people.
A mistake that most make in career planning is that we always think in terms of very long-term scenarios like 10-15 years. But as finance professionals, you should understand by now that humans are not great at long-term forecasting! So, when you look at a career, look at a five-year horizon. Factor in questions like, ‘What skills will I get from the new role?’, ‘How will these skills benefit me in any future role?’, ‘Will the new role increase my circle of stakeholders?’ etc.
When considering a new finance track also factor in the impact of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). In prior years, companies would simply outsource tedious and manual processes to shared-services providers. But now more and more firms are automating these processes via RPA or AI. This has driven a major shift in finance where man-hours are being utilized for value generation and not bookkeeping or number tracking.
Hence you cannot plan for the next 15 years. It is highly likely that the tasks of today could be automated tomorrow. So, when you are looking at changing your finance track, understand the scope of automation and the value-generating activities that cannot be automated.
Implementing automation tools will help redirect your energy towards the most pressing business tasks. This is also the mission of Volve. Our expense management solution automates mundane manual processes which allows you to focus on higher value-adding tasks. This is even more relevant in our remote working environment.
So, in summary, when you are 2-3 years into your finance roles, you should factor in three things when thinking of your next move:
Recommended reading: Keep Calm And Let Finance Automation Kick Out Chaos
As you gradually move towards the career path of your choice, get the right set of qualifications. It is a popular choice among young employees to work for a few years after their Bachelor’s and then pursue a Master’s degree. Opting for higher education post working for a few years is a more thought out, intentional and rewarding approach.
The right education aids your career growth in two ways:
And getting the right education is not always expensive or time-consuming. If you have resources, opting for a full-time course is great. It gives you time to reset your career and interact with classmates. It also provides time and a platform for networking with the right industry professionals. If you study abroad, it provides an opportunity to develop culturally and this experience is valued by finance recruiters due to the global nature of finance function in large MNCs.
Part-time courses or self-learning modules (MOOC) are also a great way to gain relevant qualifications. These courses help you continue your employment and carry out the learning at your own pace. The major benefit of pursuing a part-time course is that you can leverage it quickly to change career direction within your own organization and a lot of firms reimburse your fees for the course. Plus, organizations love employees who regularly upskill themselves as it brings in new ideas and subject matter expertise.
If you are early in your accounting career, we strongly encourage you to research about available courses. When you are evaluating courses, evaluate it from three angles:
After working for 5-6 years in finance, you may realize that finance is more of a stepping stone for you. Your true passion may lie outside of finance. It could be strategy, partnerships, business development, sales operations, etc. The great thing about a finance career is that it’s interlinked with all functions and can be a great way into a different department. For example, in building business plans, you need to consider factors such as the market and competitors. You can leverage this experience a Strategy role. If you want to go into Sales Operations, you already have an understanding of target setting, forecasting and process optimization. The data and story-telling skills that you have developed over the years working in finance will be a great asset for any team.
So if you are considering lateral departmental shifts, here are three things you need to focus on:
As always, speak to more people who have made similar transitions and try to gauge their experience. What is important when you make a lateral shift is to understand your growth opportunities and exit options.
We understand that around the 5-6 year mark a lot of people also start looking outside their current organization. There are many reasons for this. Either you are looking to change sectors, looking for new organizational culture, better compensation, better career growth, etc. Whatever may be your reason, we advise you to do all your due diligence.
When you are considering changing companies, you need to invest significant time into understanding the organizational culture. When young professionals evaluate switching companies, we typically look at the salary, brand image and perks. But as you grow in your career, you will realize that organizational culture plays a key role in your career development as well as personal happiness. And in today’s remote work environment, company culture plays an even more important role in avoiding burnout and maintaining mental and physical well-being.
So, if you are evaluating changing companies, ask questions such as:
Throughout your career – whether you want to move to a different area in finance, a different department or even change companies – we would advise you to consider all the questions that we listed and speak to people who have made similar decisions.
Career decisions impact you professionally as well as personally, so we recommend taking your time, gathering information from all sources and visualizing yourself in the role/company over the next five years.