When you’re starting out in your career, remember that you aren’t necessarily the smartest person in the room, and, even if you happen to be, you should listen far more than you talk.
As you start climbing the ladder, listening remains important as that’s a key to making colleagues feel heard and valued. New managers: Remember that everyone you know is fighting a battle inside that you don’t see. New executives: People will forget what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel. In addition, stick to the bottom line when you communicate, especially with senior management—being relevant and concise is critical. Leaders want to understand analysis more in terms of business insight and outcomes and less about the process used to derive that insight.
Whatever you’re doing, there are people upstream in the process flow who create information that you use and people downstream who use what you produce. Talk to those people and find out what they do. You can glean great insights about the value of your work and the end-to-end process from those discussions, especially when you’re new to an organization or department.
SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS EARLY ON
My first job was an administrative one, where I opened the ledger in the morning, closed it at night, asked people to sign journal entries they had submitted, and other tasks. I learned two things from that—first, that all jobs are important in their way, and they all deserve to be done well, and second, that every job presents you with an opportunity. In this case, the chance to meet and talk to every accountant in my area to learn what they did was invaluable.
Looking back, I’m glad I did my MBA degree while working full-time, but I recognize that isn’t for everyone. It worked for me because my employer ensured that I was able to get to class—most of the time, anyway—and I didn’t want to take a break from a company that I enjoyed working for. It made for long weekends of studying and getting together to work on group projects (in the days before Zoom), as well as some sacrifices in my personal life, but I was able to continue to earn an income during those years. Others may appreciate the break of a full-time MBA, especially if they’re planning to change companies or career paths after their time in school, but that wasn’t my focus.
A lot of people will tell you that certification is good for job searches, to help you stand out from the competition, and I really believe that’s true, but it’s deeper than that. Getting certified and going through the education that’s required to become certified can equip a person not only with the knowledge underlying the certification but also with practice in applying that knowledge in practical ways. It also instills confidence in the individual that they can approach problems with a more robust set of tools and techniques and help to solve those problems in the best way possible.
New employees learn how to work in a professional environment after leaving the collegiate one. There’s a different rhythm to professional life compared to what most students experience—that includes full days of dedicated work, a change from semester or trimester periods to a work year that’s continuous, and potential opportunities to work with a more diverse set of coworkers with a wide age range. I’m a big fan of internships and co-ops, which give students those experiences before they graduate.
Graduates and early-career professionals also need to learn their chosen profession, including industry- and company-specific skills that they need, leaning on mentors to familiarize themselves with what publications to read, what technology applications to learn, what accounting standards apply, and how their role and mandate fit into the overall company’s mission.
LEARNING FROM VARIOUS ROLES AT IBM
Once you have mastered your core job duties, always try to find ways to add extra value. In one project early in my career at IBM, for example, I put two technology tools together—Db2 Query Management Facility and spreadsheets—and connected them in a structured way. This took the processing time for a monthly report from about three person-days to about three person-hours.
My favorite role during my 28-year tenure at IBM was lead accounting analyst. I was the first accountant who got to see the consolidated total-company picture each month and quarter, and I worked on issues that were enterprise-wide and externally focused. Thus, I had senior management’s attention. In a company the size of IBM, with nearly 10,000 finance professionals, that was a rarity, and it changed the way I looked at all future roles.
As for the role in which I served the longest, I was the vice president of financial planning and analysis in IBM’s global technology services division (now spun off as its own company called Kyndryl) for five years. It was a high-stress role, especially during quarter-closing periods, but it was a great team-oriented atmosphere that made the work enjoyable, even if it was hard. That was the most dedicated team of professionals, including many in the early stages of their career, with whom I’ve worked in my career. I learned the value of gaining management experience and acquiring the skills necessary to motivate team members to excel in difficult conditions.
The most interesting time of my career was when I spent five years living and working overseas, first in Madrid, Spain, for three years and then in Shanghai, China, for two years. Learning how to work within unfamiliar cultures and trying to encourage very different cultures to work together was enlightening. It reinforced the need to treat people as individuals, within the context of their culture. That message applies whether the culture is shaped by geography, ethnicity, profession, or even companies’ tone at the top.
EVOLUTION OF MANAGEMENT ACCOUNTING
I’ve seen a dramatic transformation in the management accounting and finance profession over the years, as technology has enabled us to move from a higher reliance on bookkeeping skills to today’s focus on the value-added skills of analysis, insight, and foresight. Management accountants today can have a far more holistic view of their businesses, both in terms of breadth and depth, and a firmer grasp of the markets in which their companies operate. Taking advantage of that perspective to help drive the organization’s goals is one way accounting and finance professionals can really stand out as leaders.
Technology has permeated the profession so much that some technology skills such as proficiency in Excel are taken as a given. Exposure to higher-value skills and experience working with tools, or at least the concepts that underlie them, can help a candidate stand out to employers during the recruiting process. Aspiring accountants may not know the exact application implemented at a company, but if they understand the concepts behind various technologies, then they can learn the specific applications far more quickly and reduce the time and investment required by their employers to get them up to speed, making them more attractive as potential hires.
There are so many new technologies being adopted and implemented that will have far-reaching implications for accounting and finance practitioners. Analytics has been a major driver for the past decade, as CFOs and their teams learned how to aggregate and leverage the vast amounts of data that can be collected throughout their companies’ value chain. Pulling insights from that data and turning them into action are where the real value lies and where accountants can help to evaluate and propose the best actions among attractive alternatives. Machine learning is also on the rise, and that’s a great way for companies to make use of the overwhelming amount of data created every day.
There’s more coming. Blockchain and other digital architectures are the next big waves. As the supply chain gets increased focus and digital assets become more prevalent, these architectures will take on increased importance and significance, and management accountants will need to understand the technologies, applications, and their likely impact on their companies and ecosystems.
Technological advancements aren’t stopping, and the next big transformational technology isn’t clear yet. What’s really key for professionals to understand is that technology continues to rapidly change workflows, roles, and responsibilities, as well as markets, and staying current on how the technology landscape is changing is critical.
I have confidence that our profession is going to continue to be challenged, adopt new technologies—including process technology such as digital platforms and intelligent process automation—and evolve. In the short term, the anticipated wind-down of the pandemic will be a key focus, along with the economic challenges such as inflation, the Great Resignation, and accompanying supply chain disruptions. Mostly, I see our profession as providing stability to organizations that are navigating significant turbulence. Over the past two-plus years, we’ve been a steady hand in the storm, and we can continue to serve our organizations by applying that same discipline in the future.