Journeying from accountant to Finance Director

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How can you climb up to a top job in finance?

The journey from apprentice to Financial Director is a challenging one, but there are several things you can do to set yourself apart. Mike Copping, FMAAT spoke to Mark Blayney Stuart about how determination and focus – plus a few unconventional decisions – led to his rise to the top.

How did you begin your career?

At school I wanted to be a lawyer, but when I went to sixth-form college I discovered many other people thought the same and the law course was actually full! I started five ‘A’ levels and found accountancy the most interesting; but unfortunately I absolutely hated sixth form college and dropped out after two weeks. Cue lots of criticism from family members who thought I’d made the worst decision of my life. I found an advert for a trainee accountant role that offered sponsorship for professional qualifications. It felt vital to get this and I felt that it would change my life.

Tell us about your first professional role.

It was for NICEIC (National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting); they regulate electricians. I was there as a trainee accountant, going to night school two nights a week to study for my AAT qualification and working full time. To begin with I was cycling to and from work because I was too young for my driving test. I gave it everything I had, and ended up winning student of the year in the final year. There was a big ceremony, cuttings in the newspaper – incredibly memorable.

What strategic decisions did you make early in your career?

I changed from industry into private practice, some time after completing my AAT studies. I’d been in my first company for nearly four years and it was time for a change and to broaden my skills. I could have gone to work as an audit junior in a large firm – it would have looked great on my CV – but I decided to enter the small practice world, and be part of an owner-managed business.

It’s definitely a decision that worked out well as it’s given me rounded experience and I’ve seen large company finance, small company finance and the world of practice including tax, statutory accounts and audit.

What’s your advice for others climbing the ladder?

Say yes. I said yes to everything! By this I mean say yes to all of the challenges and opportunities thrown your way in the workplace. Avoid the inner voice that can say things like “it’s too difficult,” or other people saying “that’s not your job.” Show an interest in the businesses that you work for. Ask questions and try to learn what drives value in the business.

The days of being a “bean counter” are well behind us and the role of accountants has changed dramatically, even over the course of my career. My other key piece of advice is to treat everyone outside of the finance department as though they’re a client that you’re providing a service to. Find out where you can add value to what they’re doing day-to-day. If you can do that, it makes you invaluable and will fuel your rise to the top.

Avoid the inner voice that can say things like “it’s too difficult

What are the pitfalls to avoid?

I’ve always put work ahead of everything, and even now I put my clients first above all else. At times this has been done at my own expense and I’ve missed or shortened holidays. The answer is to find a way through that and create a system to balance everything – that’s something I definitely would have done with hindsight.

What you would tell your 20-year-old self, if you could?

I’d say keep going – it is worth it in the end! Long days, late nights and missed time with my friends was hard, and still is. However, watching a strategy that I’ve been involved with pay dividends in a business, or seeing an owner grow their business to the point where they need to hire more staff or move to larger premises is so rewarding. I’d also recommend to the young version of me the idea of keeping a diary. I’ve worked with some incredible businesses and people and I’d really enjoy one day being able to look back and reading about some of the days I’ve had!

How do you cope with stress?

I work with high-growth SMEs and managing and forecasting cash flow is always a critical pressure point. Being the person ultimately responsible for making sure 150-200 households get paid every month and can put food on their table is definitely stressful. When you know directors and owners personally, they’re real people with real kids. This does add pressure as you’re in at the deep end; if things don’t go well there are real consequences.

Fortunately I’ve always coped with pressure pretty well which is a great blessing. I met a Finance Manager recently who was struck by how laid-back my approach as a Finance Director was. I had to admit that it’s partly an act! I care about every business I work with and inspiring confidence as a leader is critical – you can’t be seen to wobble.

What’s the value of hard skills, and how do you learn around the job?

This is a really important part of how I got to where I got to, and a big ongoing responsibility too. I read all the time – in lunch breaks, on trains, on buses, in bed at night. I make use of LinkedIn and Twitter to follow relevant media outlets such as Bloomberg, Business Insider and AccountingWEB, to name but a few – as well as AAT Comment of course!

I love podcasts, radio shows and TED talks and am always on the lookout for new ones. Life is an education; you should never stop learning. I used to ring-fence half a day per week to self-study or attend a training course; but I do find I struggle for time nowadays.

And finally, what’s the importance of a soft skills set?

I genuinely believe that you can get to a point whereby you have all the professional qualifications and professional memberships that you need, you have many years of experience and you’ve made it up the career ladder. However – attitude and soft skills are what make the difference between a very good finance manager or financial controller, compared with those who make it all the way to FD.

The ability to cope with, and adapt to, change – coupled with the ability to communicate with non-financial colleagues and add value to the wider business. Those elements make up the key that unlocks the top job in finance.

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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