How to manage your finance career: tips from the world’s leading CFOs

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Rising to the highest ranks of the finance profession does not happen by accident or through luck. Sally Percy spoke to some of the world’s leading CFOs to learn their strategies for success and what advice they would give to those hoping to follow in their footsteps.

Who do you need to be and what do you have to do if you want to scale the giddy heights of the finance world? That was the question I put to a number of the world’s top CFOs while researching my book, Reach the Top in Finance: The Ambitious Accountant’s Guide to Career Success.

Among the CFOs I spoke to were Paul Donofrio, CFO of Bank of America, Julie Brown, now chief operating and financial officer of luxury retailer Burberry, Ian Kenyon, CFO of charity Cancer Research UK, Scott Longhurst, finance director of utility company Anglian Water, and Geraldine Matchett, CFO of Dutch multinational Royal DSM. I also spoke to Ronan Dunne, formerly CFO then CEO of telecommunications giant Telefónica UK.

Regardless of your own career ambitions, there is much that you can learn from the world’s most inspiring finance leaders. Here are some of their top tips:

1. Make sure you understand the big picture

Traditionally finance professionals have been great at technical detail. To rise to the top of the profession, however, you must be more than just an outstanding technician. You should also be able to step back from the detail and act as an objective fresh pair of eyes. As Longhurst puts it: “The CFO needs to be able to differentiate what is commercially important or has a cash implication for the business from how the numbers are technically presented in order to comply with accounting standards.”

2. Develop yourself as a whole person, not just as a finance professional

We live in a rapidly changing world where advances in technology and globalisation are transforming traditional business models. Data is increasingly becoming the greatest asset that many companies own.

As a finance professional, you are no longer just the guardian of your organisation’s figures; you are potentially the guardian of a whole lot of other knowledge besides. So if you want to use that knowledge to your advantage, you must be curious. Read widely so that you understand what’s happening in your organisation, in your industry and in the wider world besides.

3. Proactively manage your manager

This may come as good or as bad news, but your line managers are hugely influential in determining your career success. Many of the CFOs that I spoke to talked about having managers who had encouraged them, mentored them and taken a chance on them. So if you don’t have a supportive manager, it may be time to think about getting a new job.

But what if you don’t want to leave where you are? Is there anything you can do to improve your relationship with your boss? “Look at the reasons why the relationship is not working and try and to address them,” advises Karen Young director of recruiter Hays Senior Finance. “Is it because you are not getting a one-to-one meeting every month? Is your line manager not giving you enough support or giving you too much support? Try to work out what the issues are, put some fixes in and avoid getting personal.”

Finally, if you are a manager yourself, think about what you’re doing to encourage the people in your team. Great leaders take their people up the career ladder with them – they don’t abandon them on the bottom rung.

4. Cultivate relationships with HR functions, recruitment consultants and head hunters

To achieve your full career potential, you will need support from the HR functions of the various organisations that you work for. They will often be able to source internal progression opportunities for you and advise you on how you can develop yourself.

From an external perspective, you will need to build relationships with recruitment consultants and executive search firms (also known colloquially as ‘head hunters’). They may suggest options that you hadn’t thought about before or open the door to you entering a new, exciting industry. So make sure you return their calls.

“There has never been a head hunter’s call that I have not returned, even if I have not been interested in that particular opportunity,” says Dunne.

5. Don’t let career hiccups hold you back

Almost every senior finance professional will have had a career hiccup at some point – a promotion they missed out on, a job they shouldn’t have taken, a project that didn’t go as well as it should have done, or an employer that couldn’t stay solvent. So a hiccup isn’t something to get unnecessarily worried about – unless your own negligence caused the company’s accounts to be restated, of course.

What matters is not whether you have a hiccup, but how you recover from it. If you’ve missed out on that longed-for promotion or messed up a project, what have you learned from that experience? Can you identify a skills shortfall that you can address to do better next time? If you’ve taken the wrong job, how can you move on swiftly to a better opportunity? If the company goes under, have you developed the necessary resilience to pick yourself up and start again?

They key thing, though, is to avoid having too many career hiccoughs. “Everyone makes a mistake,” says Mark Freebairn, partner and head of the financial management practice at executive search firm Odgers Berndtson. “Just don’t make another one because then people start questioning your judgement.”

6. Network, network, network

Finance leaders usually have an extensive network – for good reason. They know that opportunities come to those who are well known and well regarded in their industry.

For many, networking can seem a scary concept, but it’s really about keeping in touch with other people. It can be something as simple as having lunch with a colleague in another department or sending a message of congratulations via email or social media to a client or supplier who has moved to a new job.

Kenyon emphasises that it’s particularly important to stay in close contact with people that you have worked with previously. “Those relationships are incredibly valuable to you,” he says. “And maintaining them doesn’t take a huge amount of time out of your diary. They also provide you with the opportunity to learn from other people.”

Sally Percy is a financial journalist and author of Reach the Top in Finance: The Ambitious Accountant’s Guide to Career Success (Bloomsbury). Bloomsbury is offering AAT members a 30% discount on the book. To order it, visit and quote FINANCE at the checkout.

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

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