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How to Be a Finance Leader (No Matter Your Job Title)

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Job-hopping isn’t the only way to climb the career ladder. Nearly half of CEOs are making their finance leadership pipeline a strategic focus, according to a 2016 PwC survey. And more organizations are recognizing that grooming internal talent is the most strategic and least cost-intensive way to build bench strength and continuity.

But for FP&A team members, the difference between getting groomed for a promotion and being left to tread water indefinitely isn’t a matter of luck. Nor is it a matter of being a tactical whiz at operating plan variance analysis or quarterly forecasts. That’s because, just as the role of CFO has become more strategic in recent years, strategic chops are becoming more crucial within the FP&A team too.

Watch the webcast “5 Ways to be Recognized as Top Talent”

To really stand out as top talent—and catch the eye of CFOs looking for potential leaders to promote when the time is right—consider these three steps:

Step #1: Self-Evaluate

The most successful people not only look for external reasons that they haven’t met certain goals, they also scrutinize their own performance for vulnerabilities and shortcomings. As Soren Kierkegaard so eloquently put it: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

But in the workplace, getting comprehensive feedback about your performance can be surprisingly difficult. Some 95% of managers aren’t satisfied with their performance review systems, according to corporate research firm CEB. And more than half of employees report that they don’t receive feedback on what to improve. So how can you get timely, accurate feedback in the face of lackluster performance tools?

You have to proactively initiate a self-evaluation, gathering honest feedback from your superiors, peers, and team. That’s the only way to understand your strengths and blind spots. I’ve even used an anonymous survey application to solicit honest feedback from people—and because the interface is intuitive and the findings are anonymous, you can get really great-quality input about your performance and where you should be focused on improving.

Step #2: Make a plan

Gathering that 360-degree feedback isn’t worth anything until you act on it. But when prioritizing the professional areas you’d like to strengthen, borrow the CFO’s vantage: Someone who can analyze data, derive insights, and drive home strategic benefits for the organization is hands down more valuable than someone who’s effective only at executing finance tasks.

When creating a personal development plan, focus on areas that connect to your strategic acumen: cross-functional collaboration, presentation skills, business literacy, risk analysis, and finance leadership development. What we’ve seen is that FP&A teams tend to be heavily weighted toward “doers”—people who can execute tasks and get the job done. And while there will always be a place for doers in the FP&A world, that’s not the type of worker who will catch the CFO’s eye as having leadership potential.

Just one in five CFOs identified Excel skills as something their team needed to strengthen, according to the Adaptive Insights CFO Indicator Q2 2016 report. Yet the amount of time that FP&A teams will spend on strategic tasks is expected to double by 2020. No wonder, then, that analytics and collaboration both topped the list of skills grabbing CFOs’ attention, as ways to make their teams more effective across the business. If you want to get noticed, your development plan needs to reflect those same skills.

Step #3: Study the big picture

Top FP&A talent is focused less on a to-do list of tasks to execute and more on the roadmap of where the company is headed. Start with understanding the organization’s strategic vision, but don’t stop there. You should work to understand how each department drives that vision and be able to trace how key initiatives support the strategic plan. The more you can focus on how things are interconnected—and ask the right questions and flag the right issues when something seems radically misaligned—the more you can drive value for the organization far beyond your small slice of the FP&A pie.

Understanding the big picture can also mean advocating for and embracing change—even if it’s disruptive in the short term. If greater cross-departmental collaboration is a strategic goal, for instance, grafting collaboration onto the existing process the FP&A team uses might seem like a quick fix. But will it last? Is it enough? And could a bigger change bring greater benefits? Truly transformative collaboration—and all of the agility and bottom-line benefits that come with it—might require eschewing the quick fix in favor of a more strategic shift. Moving budget managers to a new platform, such as Adaptive Planning, has the potential to radically increase collaboration between departments while also increasing data veracity and slashing data-update delays.

FP&A professionals are regularly told to “think strategically” for their career growth, but this three-step plan can help you put that nebulous directive into concrete action. And the more you can strengthen and show off your strategic acumen, the more likely you are to get recognized as top talent—and get promoted when the opportunity arises.

Joe Dahl is a senior solution specialist at Adaptive Insights.

Watch the webcast “5 Ways to be Recognized as Top Talent”

Our CFO Indicator Q4 2016 report reveals that while 85% of CFOs say their teams have direct access to the financial and operational data needed to generate accurate reports, it is the non-value-added tasks—like data gathering, verifying accuracy, and formatting reports—that take time away from the strategic analysis desired by top management and other stakeholders. Most CFOs also cite data integration as the biggest technology hurdle to gaining actionable reporting information, given the increasing need to report on both financial and operational data typically housed in disparate, unconnected systems. Read our other CFO Indicator reports here.

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