Advancing your career: strategies for mid-level finance professionals
If you’re a mid-level finance professional, you may have found yourself at a crossroads. Move up the traditional corporate ladder? Or expand your horizons with a lateral move into a different sector or subject?
Whatever you choose, everyone’s career path looks different. It helps to get expert advice from people who have been there. Luckily, CFO Connect gathered four finance leaders in a recent webinar to talk about this awkward middle career stage, and how to navigate through it.
This article will recap their tips and strategies for career advancement (in any direction).
Meet the experts
Sahil Kamani - Senior Financial Controller/FP&A at Grover. Sahil has over a decade of experience in finance, six of them in corporate finance. He has experience working for the Malaysian SEC, and now lives in Germany and works in an operational finance role.
Melissa Patino - Finance Business Partner at N26. Originally from Peru, Melissa currently works at Berlin-based online bank N26. She also has a decade of experience in finance; she started in banks and transitioned to strategic roles in startups after earning her MBA.
Jeremy Zheng - Financial Controller at Kering. Jeremy is based in Berlin and works at Kering, the global luxury group. He’s worked in financial controlling for eight years, mostly in Germany, and he’s originally from France.
You can watch the full webinar below, or continue on to read the highlights.
Build strong business relationships
There’s an impression that finance professionals hide in the corner and crunch numbers all day. Hopefully, this stereotype is on its last legs. Finance team members are integral to helping build the company’s strategy, and now you have the opportunity to become a real strategic business partner.
But this transformation won’t happen overnight. As Melissa explains, finance professionals should take the time to build solid relationships with CFOs, teammates, department counterparts, and teams outside of the finance department.
She says the key is to build trusting relationships with partners. Once she got a big promotion, she was working harder than ever but realized nobody saw what she was doing, especially the CFO. So she stepped out of her comfort zone:
“I was in the shadows, the new CFO didn’t know what I was doing. I did something completely different, I started building relationships, making sure they were vouching for me in my career. I talked to leaders and managers to make sure my work wasn’t invisible. That got me to scale up. It was a big learning experience.”
Sahil agrees that visibility is key: “Having your work put out there and being seen is very important. Ask yourself: I’m a junior, how do I put myself out there?”
Jeremy provides concrete advice for improving the relationship between the finance team and other departments: “Make sure their invoices are paid on time! It’s as simple as that but very effective. Build up a business partnership with other departments.
“I was the business partner for the Marketing department. Try to understand what they need and then explain Finance’s perspective. You try to find the middle ground between both departments. Be there to help them if they have any issues. Figure out ways to improve the relationship, and try to make their life easier.”
Explore horizontal career moves
Career success doesn’t always necessarily mean climbing the corporate ladder. In fact, a fulfilling and stimulating career will look different for everyone.
Jeremy explains how he views vertical vs. horizontal career progression: “The classic career model is vertical. Become a manager, lead a big team, group, or division. Or there’s horizontal, where you become an expert in a certain topic, specific tool, or subject like cashflow statements. You can become an expert and give back that knowledge.”
The panelists agree that their horizontal moves have contributed to their career growth and personal development.
For Sahil, this is paramount: “De-center the myth that vertical growth is the only option. Maybe this was true for our parents’ generation, the more traditional path. For us, this could mean collecting experiences along the same path, or it means you take two steps back to take steps forward. For example, I moved from corporate finance to operational finance. I had to take a step back. I couldn’t start as a manager, I had to learn the ropes of these departments in order to advance.
“We should broaden our mindset, think outside of the box when it comes to our career growth. Be innovative and nimble. In startups we can grow linearly, it comes down to networking. You may develop interest in another department. Keep your mind open!”
Vinita, whose career path has not been linear, reflects on her own experience and agrees: “We need to ask and reassess our own needs. What do we think is necessary for us as a person, and how we could change our careers to achieve those needs? Keep reassessing and asking yourself those questions: am I happy where I am today?”
Develop relevant soft skills
Not surprisingly, soft skills are a huge part of career development. The skills you actually need aren’t taught in schools.
Jeremy says that critical thinking skills and the ability to judge your work are the most important: “A major skill is to be able to stand back and look at what you did, and ask yourself how someone else would react to my job? You need a mix of empathy and a clear vision of your own work. This would be critical thinking.”
Melissa says that business knowledge will help all finance professionals: “To understand numbers, you have to understand the business. Know the product managers (tech), operations, challenges, discovery phase, pain points for customers.”
Sahil sees storytelling as critical. “Keep in touch with stakeholders and keep your finger on the pulse of the business, because you must relay it to CFO and finance teams. We need to evolve our mindsets from just working in silos, working on Excel spreadsheets…you need to have the story angle.”
Melissa adds: “Once you know the information about the business, you need to present it better. P&Ls for non-finance people are too confusing. Graphs, solutions, think out of the box. Finance is evolving because we’re the ones who have to bring this to the table.
“Learn how to summarize and present this information. I suggest one slide that explains the main message and three takeaways. Then a call to action. This should help build a compelling storyline.”
Keep improving hard finance skills
Don’t forget to keep up on hard skills too! Hard skill acquisition doesn’t end once you enter the working world.
Jeremy shares his three most important hard skills:
“1. From a Controller’s perspective: know your accounting. We’re the point between the accounting department and the outside world. Really get into the books of your company. Make links between P&L and the impact on the cash flow.
“2. Master the basic tools. Most companies are using Oracle or SAP. If you’re an expert, people will come to you. It’s still a very scary tool that nobody wants to use, so you become a magician when you solve these issues.
“3. Know one trendy tool: chat GPT, BI tools, automation. This will eventually come into our daily work.”
Melissa agrees on the accounting front: “I would emphasize accounting, it’s the basis of what we’re doing. Balance sheets, P&L, cash flow, what’s happening in the company…and how to explain it. I cannot stress this point enough.”
And she includes another skill: “Modeling skills - we’re the ones bringing our crystal balls and building the models. This is how profitability will look, we’re predicting, and I enjoy that part of the job. Know the inputs and main drivers to put into the model so you can predict the future.
The next step for finance professionals
Career progression doesn’t have to be a vertical ascension. Many finance professionals enjoy a non-linear career path.
You’ll need to put thought into where you want to go, and make sure you’re equipped with the hard and soft skills that will get you there. Joining a community of like-minded finance professionals doesn’t hurt either.
Thank you to our panelists and moderator for sharing their insights with the CFO Connect community. See you at the next webinar!
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