Mind the Gap! Avoiding the many pitfalls of a career in finance

Published: 29 November 2016

Mark Freebairn, Partner and Head of the CFO practice at Odgrs Berndtson, kindly presented his thoughts on how to reach the very top of the finance career ladder to a group of selected individuals as part of our leadership series last week.  Mark is uniquely positioned to offer this advice, having recruited CFO’s and Audit Chairs for over 20 years – few people in the market have had as many conversations with CEO’s and Chairs on what they look for in their next CFO as Mark. His thoughts prompted some lively and fascinating debate about how to build a successful career.  For those who were unable to attend, I have summarised some of the discussion points below:

Plan Ahead – It is never too early to plan for the future, as your pensions advisor will no doubt tell you! The same applies to constructing a career within finance.  There is an ever increasing trend of CFO’s progressing to Chairmanship positions and portfolio careers but in order to do this by your late 50’s you must plan ahead.  Work backwards from your end goal – this may highlight that you need to take on a role that you hadn’t planned to (or particularly wanted to), such as a Group Controller position, but missing out one of the key steps could be hugely detrimental to your chances of reaching the top.  

Be wary of over-specialisation – If your ambition is to reach the boardroom there are certain specialist skills and experience that can be invaluable;  M&A, tax, treasury and investor relations all form important parts of a CFO’s toolkit.  It is never be a bad thing to spend some time in one of these core disciplines; however it is all too easy to stay too long in one of these roles, at the detriment to the rest of your skillset.  It is important to be aware that these roles are a small part of an overall function, therefore make sure that once you have achieved what you set out to, you then transition back into a core finance role.  We would also advocate against moving into one of these roles externally more than once as you are likely to be pigeon-holed as an expert making it harder to move out again.

Be analytical about your next move – We find all too often that people accept roles, both internally and externally, because ‘it sounded interesting’.  While we aren’t suggesting that interest and intellectual challenge shouldn’t be an important part of your consideration, it can become a negative if it takes you significantly off-track.  Think about where a role might leave you and how it will impact your future marketability (internally and externally).  Individuals from a Plc background should also be wary about stepping into the SME or PE backed environment – the roles are often very interesting and varied however it can be extremely challenging to work your way back up the chain, if that is where you ultimately see yourself.

Learn to network effectively – While this may be the last thing that many finance professionals would want to do and challenging for many, there is immense value in networking.  Creating a network of those whose advice you value and trust is essential and can add real clarity to your own decision making process. It should be made up of peers, board level individuals and specialist headhunters – all of whom can offer valid insights into how the decisions that you make now can impact on your longer term career.  Take advantage of opportunities to grow this group and don’t be afraid of asking for help.

Be realistic – While the job market for finance professionals has been through peaks and troughs following the global financial crisis, it has never reached the same levels of demand as before.  The competition has remained extremely high however, and that means that when considering a career move it is important to be realistic about what it will offer you.  Being able to combine a major salary hike, a significant step up in responsibilities, a move in sector and a new functional role focus are highly unlikely in this market, however two of these component elements can be achieved when approached correctly.  If you really want to achieve all four in one go then you may be waiting a long time…

We are conscious that these are all emotive topics and we are talking in generalities- there are plenty of examples of where people have acted counter to this advice and been very successful - but it does come from a position of great experience.  We are always happy to talk about these issues and provide advice on progressing your career, so please do get in touch.

Hal Stoddart is a Consultant in the Financial Leadership Practice at Berwick Partners 

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