Binod Shankar

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How finance folk can break into the C Suite

Many finance professionals are still stuck in their comfort zone, their narrow technical world of accounting, reporting, analysis, investing etc., fiddling with processes, reports, Basel IV’s, IFRSs, RPA and ERPs and excellent at studying for and passing tough exams (CFA, CPA etc.), the last well into their 30s and 40s. No wonder most are overlooked for promotion to leadership. 

Yes, you must be knowledgeable, diligent, analytical etc. But the recipe for true leadership has some other important ingredients. Eight to be precise.

Read on. 

Commerciality 

Know the business inside out. 

When I was in corporate, I just had to know how the company worked. I’d visit the construction sites, talk to architects and Project Managers etc.

What are the drivers of profitability? What are the critical success factors? What risks are being faced? What is the ground reality that Corporate has no clue of?

When you know these it not only adds a lot of value, it makes your work more interesting, you develop your network etc.

Visibility

Finance folk are notoriously shy, often keeping well below the radar. 

If you’re aiming for leadership position, visibility is critical and isn’t a “good to have”. People need to see and hear you. The marketing, sales, operations, HR etc. departments must know that you exist, that you are confident and competent and that you can add value to them. Think beyond your department, your company. Think industry, region and even country.

Go to industry (and not just finance) events, know your counterparts in other companies, write in industry publications, speak at company and outside events etc.

If you are not seen you don’t exist.

Solving 

Finance chaps are excellent at pointing out problems. 

They’ll tell you how not to do something and talk about low profits. They’ll moan about high overheads and bloated budgets. They will tell you a zillion ways things could go pear shaped. They leave the problem solving to someone else. 

Leaders don’t talk just about issues. That’s easy. Leaders step up and find solutions.  Yes, solutions often cross departmental boundaries and can be thorny but that’s a great opportunity for you to reach out, connect, remedy the situation and stand out.

Not just that, they go beyond problem solving and see and seize opportunities.

Communication 

The language of finance is numbers and finance folk believe that the raw numbers tell the story and that’s enough. It isn’t.

Most non-finance folk don’t get accounting or finance and are indifferent to or scared of numbers. On the other side most finance people tragically lack the ability and/or the willingness to demystify finance for their non-finance people. The result? Lots of important stuff that’s unfortunately lost in translation. I have run (and still run) Finance for Non-Finance Executives courses for many companies and keep hearing this in the classroom. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone you work with grasped at least the basics of accounting and finance? That would just multiply your effectiveness as a finance leader.  

Courage 

Stand and deliver. 

When you’re in finance you’ve an unrivaled view of company performance. You’ve insights that no one else will have. Hence you have the opportunity to take action about issues that can either enhance or screw up the long-term viability of the company. 

Red flag issues. But do it tactfully. Courage doesn’t mean being brash and rude. 

You can’t be a leader without being bold, without taking some calculated career risk. 

Trust 

People follow people because they trust them. 

You can be as qualified or experienced or as brilliant as you want. You can be dripping with charisma. But none of this will cut the mustard if your people don’t trust you.

How do you build trust? By having a clear set of values and by acting according to those values. By always doing what you say you will do, irrespective of the challenges. You do that and you’ll be seen as reliable and trust worthy. This is easy to say but can get difficult to implement, depending on your corporate culture.

Which means (for example) if you say you value your people then slashing the head count isn’t something you do when times get tough. 

Interested

This is one word, one complaint I always hear about the numbers crowd. 

Introverted.

Your average Chief Accountant, Finance Manager, Finance Controller or VP-Finance is just not seen as approachable or friendly, thanks to their low profile, morose outlook and serious, risk averse demeanor. They discount interpersonal relations so much that they aren’t curious about others and never engage. The result? People don’t want to interact with them and often mistake this introversion for indifference or arrogance.

Be Interested in people. Just like you like people to be interested in you, others also like that.

Interesting

Be interested but be also be interesting.

Finance folk can get as dull as ditchwater. Develop a unique personality and craft your management style and don’t copy paste- these must be based on your values, your personality traits and your unique strengths. Please don’t be the stereotypical dull bean counter who works 15 hours a day and who only know the home and the office.

Be curious. Develop hobbies, travel, read a lot, keep improving yourself etc.

People like and are attracted to people who are multi-dimensional.

Conclusion

So, to be a Leader you must be commercial, be visible, solve problems, communicate, be courageous, trust people and be interested (and interesting).

 

As an executive coach, I specialize in coaching mid and senior level finance professionals to transform themselves and break into the C Suite.

My corporate career went all the way through the Big 4 to Executive Director of a listed company. I then left the corner office to co found and lead a highly respected brand that was acquired by Kaplan, the training and publishing giant. After which I quit the company I started to kick off a coaching career. So, I know a lot about getting unstuck and transformations, including from a finance mindset to a leadership mindset.

I have also shared a shipload of insights and practical tips in my book Let’s Get Real: 42 tips for the stuck manager which will come out soon.

The C suite is a great place to be.  It’s not just about title, power or pay- the real kick at that level comes from the impact, the influence that you can make. And that in my book is worth the effort of transformation.

If you wish to transform yourself and achieve your potential just book an appointment with me for an exploratory call.