insight magazine

C-suite Resolutions: Making It in the New Year

This is your year to build the skills and mindset needed to step into the accounting and finance profession’s senior ranks. By Clare Fitzgerald | Winter 2017

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Career resolutions can be as tough to tackle as those other popular New Year’s Eve resolutions that seem to last for about a week, like losing weight, exercising more, and eating healthier. But if you’re eager to join the senior ranks of the accounting and finance profession in the year ahead, it’s smart to set the lofty goal of developing the best version of your professional self. But be prepared to dig deep to create that new you, because the firm partners and corporate CFOs of tomorrow are expected to have a broader, deeper mastery of skills — and a nimble, innovative mindset — to keep up with ever-expanding roles and an unrelenting pace of change.

Indeed, technical competence only gets you so far, according to Tom Murtagh, tax partner at BKD CPAs and Advisors in Chicago. “So much of success in this profession is dependent on how we manage, interact, communicate, and lead,” he says. “You have to master a wide variety of skills, and you can’t let anything slip to the point that you’re not paying attention to it.”

In other words, seniority isn’t enough to put you on the short list for an executive seat. According to Murtagh, too many professionals mistakenly think that simply putting in the time will be enough to rise through the ranks. “Things won’t happen just because you’ve been there ‘long enough,’” he warns. “You need to understand expectations and take control of the direction of your career.”

Resolving to become a well-rounded professional capable of meeting high demands takes tenacity and a proactive approach. But focusing on relationships, acumen, and drive can help you gain momentum and boost your chances of C-suite success.

Relationships

“So much of our work is relational, whether it’s internal team building or external work with clients and referral sources,” says Murtagh, pointing to the trend of high-level finance roles becoming increasingly visible, requiring frequent interaction with team members and other departments, clients and customers, and outside partners and shareholders.

Unfortunately, people skills comprise one of the biggest skills gaps in today’s accounting and finance professionals, according to Ash Noah, CPA, FCMA, CGMA, vice president of CGMA external relations at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. A former CFO himself, Noah studies the evolving role of the CFO to help prepare the future pipeline of finance leaders. To close that skills gap, Noah recommends getting involved in team efforts and projects that require partnering and collaboration.

Serving as a mentor or coach and helping to build talent also can help you develop relationships and leadership skills. “It goes without saying that you need to be able to motivate and engage team members and manage and lead teams by example,” says Stacy Kelly, who leads search efforts for C-suite accounting and finance roles for Baker Tilly Search and Staffing in Chicago. “Being able to create a strong bench and knowing how to give people the opportunity to shine will reflect well on you when you’re being considered for a more senior role,” she adds, noting that it’s important to take advantage of leadership training programs to develop those abilities.

And don’t neglect your personal relationships and connections either — stay active in industry associations, business clubs, and online networking. “So many C-suite positions are filled through networks,” Kelly says. “The people who build strong networks don’t have to engage in job searches. They are sought out when a job becomes available.”

Acumen

Historically, the accounting function focused on reporting what happened in the business, but future finance leaders need to be more forward thinking. “Tomorrow’s CFOs, for example, will need to be out in front. Rather than reporting on revenue, they’ll need to be leading the efforts for generating revenue. They’ll need to analyze the numbers to find creative and innovative ways to grow the business,” Kelly says, noting that her clients are looking for people who can find better, more effective ways to do business. “You need to be in charge of making processes in these roles,” she says.

Noah says this often requires making a mental shift from skeptic to influencer. “Instead of reviewing information and saying why the company shouldn’t do something, shift to becoming the person who says why it can be done and how it should be done,” he says. “Finance professionals are used to providing information and analysis about what happened. Now they need to provide information on what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen. It’s a subtle shift from ‘no’ to ‘how.’”

That mindset will be increasingly important as the CFO role continues its stretch into having greater involvement in strategy and operations. According to Noah, finance professionals will be increasingly called upon to help guide organizations through disruptions to their traditional business models. “How we serve customers and create value is changing,” he explains. “Companies need greater and greater investments in technology, but the value of those investments can be vague, which puts pressure on management teams. Finance professionals need to be able to look ahead, see how strategies may change, and prepare for and invest in that change.”

On the operations side, the finance function needs to be able to provide quick decisions and analysis of data to help execute strategy. “Companies are looking for people who can not only come up with solutions but who can execute solutions,” Noah says. Developing the intangible business skills — how to make sound decisions, deploy solutions, and identify what drives value — often comes down to gaining greater exposure to the business and a deeper understanding of its operations. “You need to have a solid understanding of the products, customers, and competitors,” Noah says.

Demonstrating strong business acumen and administrative instincts is important in firm settings too. “Many firms look at talent from a balanced scorecard perspective,” Murtagh says. “The emphasis will be on production, billable time, revenue generation, and expanding services.”

In addition to growing the business, you’ll need to prove you can effectively manage the practice. Demonstrating good billing, time recording, budgeting, data analysis, and project management skills will help prove your capability as a potential partner. “You need to be able to manage multiple projects and keep your finger on the pulse of what’s moving along. You have to be able to see where you’re generating efficiencies and where there are bottlenecks so you can schedule workflow and improve delivery to clients,” Murtagh explains, adding that accounting professionals need to develop flexibility in their thinking, and embrace the pace of change in technology, to handle those tasks.

Drive

A fast-paced, constantly changing business environment demands driven, passionate leaders. “Things are moving so fast today, so there won’t ever be time to sit down and bask in the glory of what you did yesterday. You need to bring 100 percent effort every day. You have to show you have a willingness to take on extra projects, to jump in and do what’s needed to help the firm,” Murtagh says. “Having a good attitude about doing what needs to get done can be really helpful, too.”

Tapping into your passions can make it easier to go that extra mile. “The best way to build the career you want is with passion,” Murtagh says. “If you don’t have passion for your work, things can quickly become a grind. But if you find ways to get involved in interesting projects, or with clients or issues that you’re passionate about, it will feel a lot less like work, and your passion will be evident to others.”

Senior-level executives also are expected to display their enthusiasm for their work outside of the office. As Kelly explains, you need to be involved in your industry’s community, bringing ideas to the marketplace as a thought leader. And thought leaders need passion to effectively tell the story of their industry or organization. “The most successful CFOs are the ones who get authentically excited about the product or service they’re championing,” she says.

A commitment to personal professional development and lifelong learning also is important. Murtagh suggests looking beyond the education and training your firm or organization provides. Attending conferences, reading extensively, and listening to TED Talks and podcasts are all good ways to expand your knowledge base. “Anything you can do to develop your skills beyond the technical is going to help,” he says. “One of my colleagues always says that what you do from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. defines your current income, but what you do from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. defines your future income. Investing those hours in yourself or your business can help you get to the next level of your career.”

But be sure those flames of passion don’t burn out. Sustaining high performance in high-pressure positions can be extremely draining, which is why you can’t ignore work-life balance. Kelly suggests establishing boundaries around your availability and defining what qualifies as an emergency. “You have to take time out of the office,” she stresses. “People under you will work harder when they see that you’re not working all the time and trust that the team can keep the ship afloat.”

Seconding Kelly’s suggestion, Murtagh also stresses the need for maintaining a well-rounded life. “Technology makes it easy to work 24/7, which is why you have to be mindful about removing yourself from the work space. It’s hard to be completely out of pocket, but you need to look for ways to limit connectivity,” he says. “Be very intentional about your outside life.”

Meaning, take time for the things that help you relieve stress, recharge, and be a better person and professional — your ascension to the C-suite depends on it.