The Right Stuff
The young professional's guide to succeeding in corporate finance.
Think you’ve got what it takes to really make it in the awesome, attractive and all-out competitive corporate finance world? Your best strategy might be to play it cool—becoming the stand-out recruit for that Fortune 500 finance position is going to take a lot of careful planning, patience and savvy.
“Sometimes individuals have unrealistic expectations about the kinds of opportunities they can land on day one,” says Jeramy Kaiman, vice president with Accounting Principals, Parker + Lynch.
He notes that starting out at the ground level doesn’t mean you can’t do very well over time. “Being flexible ab-out the types of opportunities they pursue to get into the market is important,” he explains.
In reality, nearly half of young accounting professionals believe they’re ill-equipped for their first job, according to a recent Accountemps online survey that indicates the knowledge gained in the classroom doesn’t always translate to real-world work and the realm of office politics.
“The accounting and finance profession has morphed, and accountants are no longer sitting in a corner, trying to understand the debits and credits of a business,” explains Peter Dousman, director of permanent placement services at Robert Half Finance and Accounting
in Chicago. He notes that corporate finance departments increasingly are seeking candidates with enterprise resource planning experience and solid soft skills—such as interpersonal communication and networking. “It’s more of a business-partnering role. Young accountants will need to be able to work with and share information with a variety of audiences, and also will need to be able to communicate to their bosses about where they want to be in the years to come.”
So, how does a young pro hone his or her skill set for the corporate world? “For many, the best career path starts in public accounting,” says Kaiman. “The assumption is that if someone has gone into public accounting, they are very focused on their career—willing to work extra hours, able to service their clients well. They get exposed to a lot of different industries and different sizes of companies, different ownership structures, different issues, so that breadth of experience allows them to be more technically well-rounded when they come into a corporate finance role,” he emphasizes.
A tour through public accounting isn’t the only path to success, however. Some companies are willing to hire college graduates straight out of school, but without question, they’re seeking applicants from the most reputable accounting programs. Don’t be dissuaded; even starting out at the lowest levels has its rewards, like gaining experience in financial analysis, risk, compliance, business analysis and internal audit. “All of these areas provide professionals with the foundation and skills to move around within the organization as their careers progress,” says Dousman.
For those looking for long-term growth, perhaps all the way to the C-suite, Kaiman suggests a balanced mix of experience in public accounting, financial analysis and corporate finance.
Credentials are also a key differentiator in the corporate finance world. In fact, in-demand designations can boost one’s salary by up to 15 percent. Dousman and Kaiman point to the CPA credential as key to any accounting track, while also pairing it with an MBA from a reputable school.
“The CPA is really important for people looking to ascend through the organization. Often, it’s a hard requirement for a controller or CFO role,” says Kaiman. “And not just any MBA program is sufficient. Where people get their MBAs does matter. It’s important that people understand that.”
If you’re striving to differentiate yourself from the competition, Dousman recommends that you also consider attaining the CMA
(Certified Management Accountant), CIA
(Certified Internal Auditor) and CFA
(Chartered Financial Analyst). The CIA, in particular, is aimed at those interested in launching careers in internal audit, while the CFA can lead to careers as portfolio managers, research analysts or corporate risk managers.
The Chartered Global Management Accountant
designation (or CGMA as it is better known) is another worthwhile credential to pursue. Created through a joint venture of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA
) and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA
), the CGMA is a global designation that recognizes the unique expertise and competencies of corporate accounting and finance professionals.
If your goal is to make it in the world of corporate finance, get ready for a competitive climb. However, with the right stuff—accounting experience, soft skills, credentials—you’ll have every chance of reaching the top.
Four Ways to Stand Out From the Crowd
Peter Dousman, director of permanent placement services at Robert Half Finance and Accounting, shares four often overlooked best practices that may help you make it in the world of corporate finance:
1. Secure an internship while still in college.
This is key. It shows a commitment to your career, and a greater ability to hit the ground running when you’re offered that full-time position.
2. Hone your soft skills.
Technical skills are all-important, but they share the spotlight with the ability to communicate, network and work well within a team.
3. Know your personal brand.
Use social media, but beware of what appears online; have a professional picture of yourself on LinkedIn and make sure your Facebook settings are private.
4. Showcase your experience.
That means both on social media and in person. Creating your own website or blog that illustrates your passion for and expertise in your profession can really help to get you noticed.