[IMGCAP(1)]In American corporate culture today, you can expect that many employees in any field hope to become part of upper management one day.
But the path to get there is a long and often difficult one, and even when you’re promoted, there’s usually still lower-level work to be done. According to a study by Ernst and Young, in 2002, 36 percent of CFOs from the world’s largest companies held non-executive directorships. A decade later, the proportion increased to 46 percent.
And to make the process even more nuanced and challenging, many companies are reluctant to hire from within for management positions. A survey by Robert Half Management Resources found that less than one-third of management positions in the accounting field were filled by internal employees. Not to mention, getting promoted in general is more difficult in today’s competitive business environment.
So how can you make sure you’re the one who is noticed and on the fast track for upper management?
As an employee in the accounting field, you have likely mastered a wide array of technical and analytical skills. But in order to move up to upper management, you also need to develop soft skills, such as the ability to communicate effectively and interact socially with both clients and executives.
This often means leaving your in-depth technical knowledge back in the cubicle. Many executives have a background in sales and tend to be more social and less technical in nature. Strive to match their communication style when dealing with them directly. While it might be natural for you to speak at length about ratio analyses, executives are likely to tune out jargon-laden language.
And if socializing and plain speaking aren’t your strong suit, there are many places you can develop these skills. Join a philanthropic organization or attend a Toastmasters International meeting, where you can get peer feedback on your leadership and communication skills. You can even get help on how to engage with other accountants, stockholders and upper-management types through social media.
Look at the Big Picture
While you may know everything there is to know about your specific role in the company, executives tend to discuss the broader view. They want to know if the company is going in the right direction. Is it profitable? Is it measurable? Will it continue to trend upward in profits? How can we reduce overhead costs? Increase revenue?
As a person with intimate knowledge of the company’s financial trends, you are uniquely qualified to answer these sorts of questions. Always be on the lookout for ways in which you can give input in a conversation related to financials.
Go the Distance
From the same Ernst and Young survey, we learn that 67 percent of CFOs have taken on, or would be willing to take on, a voluntary or non-executive role. They’re already going the extra mile, so you should demonstrate a similar drive to go above and beyond the call of duty. Don’t be afraid to suggest any new idea.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has this advice on what it means to be an experimental executive and how that took his company that extra mile further: “If you decide that you’re going to do only the things you know are going to work, you’re going to leave a lot of opportunity on the table,” said Bezos. “Companies are rarely criticized for the things that they failed to try. But they are, many times, criticized for things they tried and failed at.”
Identify Risks Early
When it comes to finances, it is imperative that a CFO identifies company risks early. Try to determine ways in which your company may be vulnerable to embezzlement or other financial crises. Does your company have a strict separation of duties? Does it perform internal audits?
Executives will appreciate being notified of these weak spots in their company’s security, and remember you for it.
In that same interview with Bezos, he had this to say about risk taking: “Good entrepreneurs don’t like risk; they seek to reduce risk Starting a company is already risky, and then you systematically eliminate risk step by step in those early days .You kind of need to systematically identify risk and then as the company gets bigger and more robust, you can start taking risks again but in those early days a lot of it is about okay I have a good idea, how do we reduce risk?’”
After you have offered useful insights into your company’s risks, costs and revenue, be sure to quantify your input. Did your advice help your company decrease costs last quarter? If so, by how much? What other benefits have you brought your company, either within the scope of your position or beyond it? Keep track of the value you bring your company and try to quantify it as precisely as possible. This will give you the leverage you need when you enter negotiations for a promotion.
In the field of accounting, it is no longer enough to just perform your job well. If you want to be promoted, you need to prove that you have what it takes to be in upper management. This means developing your social skills, providing actionable insights on the company’s risks, and quantifiably proving your worth to the company. If you do all these things right, then you can look forward to a long and rewarding accounting career.
Curt Finch is the CEO of Journyx, a company that provides project, time and expense tracking software, and resource management software that provides work and financial forecasting. Connect with Curt on Google+.