Five ways to get to the top in finance

aat comment

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting – and interviewing – some of the most senior people in the finance profession.

I often ask them the secret to their career success and while I get many different answers, these five themes crop up most often.

1. Be a partner to the business

There is a reason why finance is jokingly referred to as the ‘sales-prevention department’ in some organisations. At times finance may try to prevent the sales team from taking on a new client or investing in a certain project without fully understanding why that client or that project is actually a good business fit.

Impress your finance leader by taking the time to appreciate the business’s strategy and to network with colleagues in other functions to understand how you can best support business growth while managing risk.

This might mean going out with the sales team to meet the potential new client in person, rather than just assessing them via their credit rating, or helping to work on the business case for the new project.

Finance leaders know that finance needs to be seen as relevant to every function in the business for it to have the rightful influence that it aspires to.

 2. Take time to think

A few years ago, I was sitting next to a then senior partner of a Big Four accountancy firm at an awards dinner. Feeling the opportunity was too good to waste, I asked him how he coped with the pressures of his job. I expected him to say that he made a point of not reading his emails at weekends, or that he forked out tens of thousands of pounds on expensive holidays in order to stay sane.

But his answer was this: “Don’t feel that you have to make every decision straightaway. Some decisions do require an immediate response but you can afford to take your time and give more thought to other decisions.”

So, how do you know which decisions require a quick response and which don’t? A couple of key factors come into play here.

The first is urgency – is there an imminent deadline looming, for example the end of the month or the financial year?

The second is the scale of the consequences in the event that you make a bad decision – for example hiring a new recruit whom you had doubts about because you thought you were too busy to see anyone else and you wanted to fill the post.

If you have a big decision that is weighing on you, take some time out of your office environment to get a fresh perspective. Go for a walk, sleep on it or talk it over with a trusted colleague. And if you think you need more time, don’t be afraid to ask for it – but make sure you explain your reasons why. You’re not trying to procrastinate – you just want to do your research so that your decision is fully informed.

3. Hire people who are better at their jobs than you would be

If you’re an ambitious finance person aiming for the top, it may seem contradictory to hire people into your team who may outshine you.

Yet it is the strength of the team around you that will ultimately determine how far you will go. If you have good people to delegate to, that will free you up to focus your time on the decisions that matter and to get involved in setting business strategy.

If you have a team of bright sparks succeeding in their work, it reflects well on you. Their success is your success. Take the opportunity to leverage the unique skills of new team members to achieve greater success on projects and learn from their varied experience and working styles.

Remember as well that there is plenty of room for all the talent in the team. Rely on your expertise and established relationships to cement your leadership.

4. Never stop learning

You can never learn too much – in business, or in life. If you want to succeed in finance, you will need to be flexible and adaptable and open to trying new things, whether that’s a new software system or a different method of funding.

Attending industry events,where you can share best practice with your peers, is a great way to find out what other organisations are doing to become more efficient or innovative.

It is also important to invest in yourself, by sitting qualifications, by doing your CPD, and by reading widely about finance and business.

5. Take (calculated) risks

Risk and success tend to go together. This can be a difficult concept for finance professionals to accept, however, since they tend to be more used to minimising risk rather than embracing it. I’m not suggesting that you chuck in your job tomorrow in order to retrain as a paragliding instructor but you will need to take a few risks over the course of your career in order to achieve your personal goals.

This might mean leaving an organisation where you feel happy and comfortable for a role elsewhere that offers you greater opportunities for progression. Or it might mean accepting a challenging promotion or starting your own business.

If you’re looking for inspiration, look no further than accountants Peter Hargreaves and Stephen Lansdown, who are billionaires after co-founding FTSE 100 financial advisory business Hargreaves Lansdown in 1981.

Hopefully the five points above will set you on a good path for your career journey – I hope that you enjoy the trip.

Sally Percy is an experienced journalist and commentator, specialising in business and finance.

Related articles