Top tips from the experts

Dec 01, 2017
As career success depends on more than technical expertise alone, two senior business leaders share their tips for success.

The Chartered Accountancy qualification provides an excellent foundation for a rewarding and diverse career, but reaching the pinnacle of business isn’t easy. It requires strategic career decisions and a range of non-technical skillsets.

I meet hundreds of accounting professionals every year looking for advice and opportunities to help them advance. Many of them ask questions about the experience and skills needed to help them progress to CFO level and beyond. I recently spoke with senior leaders who have enjoyed successful careers to hear their story.

Mark Irwin trained with a Big 4 firm and since making the move to industry, he has worked in financial services through the financial crisis and Paddy Power Betfair, where he is currently Group Director of Finance and Corporate Controller. Mark managed to progress his career despite working in significant change and transformation environments.

David Fitzgerald, who also trained in a Big 4 firm, has had a diverse career across the FMCG, technology and pharmaceutical sectors. He has held a mixture of financial, operational and general management positions in a number of companies including Microsoft, Uniphar, Danone, Britvic and Glanbia, where he is currently EMEA Strategy Director.

While Mark and David have had different but equally successful careers, both agree that the training they received from working within the profession was fundamental to helping them progress. “Be mindful of where you are,” David advises. “If you are working in audit, for example, really think about the company you are auditing as you have a unique opportunity to see, at a very senior level, how a business operates in lots of different sectors. That’s a privileged position that many trainees don’t necessarily appreciate.”

Mark also feels that the ACA qualification holds a lot of weight. It is the foundation on which everything else in his career has been built. “It opens many doors for you. However, it will only get you so far. How you progress is really about the broader range of skills you develop and the experiences you encounter.”

Finance of the future

The role of finance has changed considerably over the last few years as it becomes more embedded within organisations. So what do Mark and David feel are the skills that finance leaders of the future need to develop to ensure they can continue to progress?

“Organisations are investing heavily in improving technology and processes with more tasks becoming automated,” Mark says. “There is no point in hiring talented people to have them simply push numbers through a system. Business partnering as a theme within finance is becoming widespread and to do that, Chartered Accountants must really understand the business they are working in and become more commercially minded.”

David has also seen a change in the skills sought within finance. “One of the key things we look for within our business is analytical skills. It is not enough to be able to run the numbers, as technology will do that for you now. It is the interpretation of the numbers that is important. In the past, the emphasis was on the figures being correct; now it is figuring out the true message. What am I picking up from how the business is performing? How do I impart that message to the people I need to sell it to or explain it to?”

Accountants have historically been perceived as being purely responsible for reporting the numbers, but David sees finance professionals of the future taking this much further. Finance needs to correlate internal information with external information – what is being said in the press and could the external context be partly responsible for results tracking as they are? “We are living in a data rich world of analytics. The trick is to extract the right bits, put it back together and create meaningful information that will shape the way the business is performing.”


Building on the technical skills learned through training is important, but the most fundamental skills that underpin someone’s ability to progress come with the softer skills associated with personal interaction. Leadership credentials are paramount to successfully moving forward and there are numerous elements to being an effective leader – not to mention the challenges associated with managing teams.

“Finance is as much about people as numbers,” says Mark. “If you hire the best people and build the strongest teams, these employees need to be supported and empowered. You have to remember that every employee is an individual and therefore, you need to adapt your style to be effective.”

By being conscious of this, Mark has helped to create highly-engaged teams with strong retention rates. “We decided what our team stood for by holding seminars and listening to each other. We then created a charter with a clear vision and purpose, the way we wanted to work, the rules we would operate by and our key objectives. This created a culture of openness, collaboration and helped build momentum.”

David also adopts a similar style and would describe himself as a ‘consensus builder’ where he can be. He has found that gathering opinions from his teams has led to greater productivity, although sometimes you do need to be directive and make decisions. Building rapport as a leader is important, as is being conscious of how you frame questions and invite your team members to provide their opinions. To get a team to buy into your vision, a number of soft skills are important. The ability to communicate, build relationships, have demonstrable emotional intelligence and be able to understand what makes each person tick will stand you in great stead as a leader.

Using this information, it is possible to build highly-engaged teams, improve performance and generate your own future success. As David points out, “Well-run and highly-engaged teams can do a huge amount of difficult and sometimes horrible work together. Whereas the work could be easy and interesting but if the team doesn’t get on, then you won’t have a happy workplace and productivity will suffer.”

From a behavioural standpoint, David notes that leaders also have a responsibility to ensure that they and their teams are focused on getting the job done. “Being reliable is important and you should always keep your stakeholders informed about how you are tracking,” he says. While it might seem pretty obvious, David maintains that it is easy to forget the importance of being confident in your capability and to ask for help where needed. “Never spoof your way through things. Otherwise, you will just let yourself and the business down,” he says.

Take ownership of your career

Strong technical skills, commercial acumen and leadership skills will put you in a good position but, as Mark explains, promotions don’t just happen – even if you do have a great work ethic. “You need to be proactive rather than reactive, and recognise opportunity when you see it. Don’t be egotistical or superficial, but do deploy energy to promoting yourself and building relationships within your organisation. Speak up in meetings, have ideas and don’t be afraid of failure or to take some risks”.

David also states that, when assessing career options, Chartered Accountants must ensure that there is a potential career pathway ahead. “It doesn’t matter how long that pathway is per se, but there needs to be possible opportunity ahead if you perform,” he adds. David also advises that when one looks to move positions, the people aspect is an important factor along with engagement with the brand and the philosophy of the company “If you can’t get on with the people you’re working with and you’ve no passion for the business, then you shouldn’t be there because you won’t enjoy it.”

According to Mark, diverse experience is also very important. Ambitious people often look for, and push for, promotion up the ranks. However, making a lateral move into a new area, new industry, new company or international location can really help you hone new skills and position yourself for other opportunities in the future. Being introspective around personal development areas, stepping outside of your comfort zone and being prepared to take a risk can end up transforming your career.

This is astute advice as from a talent perspective, I now see demand from clients globally for high performance finance and accounting professionals with a breadth of experience. There are so many career paths available to Chartered Accountants that all experience can be valuable at certain stages. Making the right choices and understanding the benefits and prospective career paths available to you is something that all professionals, but especially those newly qualified or recently qualified, should take time to think about.

Not everyone can make it to the upper echelons of the business world but if you make considered career choices, hone your leadership skills, add commercial value and build rapport within your current or future organisation, you will have a strong chance of making it to the top.

James Gallagher is an Associate Director at Morgan McKinley.