A common question that I get asked by mid-level finance candidates is how to step up into a Finance Director role. Often candidates can feel as if they’ve hit a ceiling in their personal growth and career development once they reach a Financial Controller position; the step above seems just that little bit harder to reach than the steps that have come before.
I reached out to some of the most impressive people in the industry and asked them what they think makes a successful Finance Director. So, here are the main pieces of advice that they would give to the Finance Directors of the future!
n.b. Prepare yourself for "climbing the ladder" to be a common theme in my choice of pictures throughout the entirety of this article (the google image search results for "finance" weren't quite as inspiring).
When you are a finance director, you need to be able to inspire and lead people. You are helping to push forward the aspirations of the company and you need to get the buy-in from your team to be able to facilitate this. No Finance Director is an island.
“It's a people-driven business. Never lose sight of that. It's partly what makes the job unpredictable, exciting and challenging in equal measure. Develop agile strategies that support the people goals of the business.” - Andy Muir, Chief Financial Officer at Green Park Interim & Executive Search.
“To be successful as a Finance Director, you need to influence change. To provide a vision for your function that inspires people to join you on a journey and to be the best they can be. Innovation can bring spark and zest to your function and the company as a whole. Communication is fundamental to success. Presenting yourself with warmth and strength will help you on your journey and preparation for key meetings is crucial." - Seim Munif, Senior Partner Finance (Director of Finance) at SThree.
You're no longer looking at one specific element of the company, you're taking a holistic view of the business. You need to be able to demonstrate an aptitude for this.
"If you think you’re good enough then you have to believe that you’re good enough and you will be good enough – it’s not such a big jump if you believe you can make it. Being a Finance Director is obviously about thinking of the bigger picture and not just necessarily within the constraints of finance, it’s more strategic but you still can’t take your eye off the day job.” - Neil Hughes, Finance Director at Locum Staffing.
"Be prepared to get stuck into all aspects of the business, not just Finance. Most decisions, issues and problems will have aspects of Finance. Don’t be afraid to use your voice. Most Sales directors appreciate your suggestions/point of views and their confidence grows in you and in yourself." - Hiral Patel, Head of Finance at Human Capital.
“For me, the big difference between the Financial Controller and Finance Director role is one of awareness of the whole picture. Financial Controllers tend to be more focussed on specific roles and tasks, whereas a good Finance Director has to have total vision of everything that happens across the business. My approach is every process in the business either costs money or makes money, so you need to have sight of what is going on and know the risks associated with each.”- Pat Rodgers, Finance Director at Damia Group.
"The Finance Director needs to be seen as the CEO in waiting. They need to break out of the finance bubble and humanise the figures. A true business partner that is respected and approachable."- Poonam Mawani, Director at Azuki Accounts.
We held a Finance Director dinner recently, a running theme of which was around working collaboratively with your CEO. It was clear that Finance working in tandem with the sales side of the business is absolutely integral to a recruitment business excelling.
"Integrity, confidence and commerciality are important. Although times have changed from the days of a ‘CF” no” a key part of your role is to be a trusted business partner to your CEO and this means that at times you do need to ‘speak truth to power’. To gain the respect of the CEO on key issues you need to believe in your judgement and have a strong understanding of the commercial implications. When you have tried to influence the CEO on a key matter a couple of times and you don’t get your way, you need to be able to pick yourself up quickly and present yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with the view of the CEO. However, integrity remains fundamental and should never be compromised.”- Seim Munif, Senior Partner Finance (Director of Finance) at SThree.
"It's your job to challenge thinking, to offer alternatives, to question, to probe and to be honest, straightforward and pleasant to deal with every single day. Ultimately you must support the owner. You won't win every battle. When you don't, get over it immediately, don't bear a grudge and respect who the boss is.
It can be a lonely place being the owner of a recruitment business. It's your job to make it a little less lonely.
Partner and support the owner on everything. Become an indispensable sounding board who's opinion is actively sought out and valued."- Andy Muir, Chief Financial Officer at Green Park Interim & Executive Search.
“To be a successful Finance Director in the recruitment sector you must connect and provide a value-added service to stakeholders and achieve this through enhanced reporting, improved efficiencies, and automation. This will enable the business to evolve and grow through clear direction, process and increased productivity.” - Anonymous, Financial Director.
In order to make that next step up you need to evaluate what parts of the role you are currently already doing, what parts of the role you understand but don't currently carry out, and what parts of the role you need to learn. In order to do this, you need to fully understand what the difference is between your current role and a Finance Director role (because it can look a hell of a lot easier from the outside!)
“Before looking externally for a Finance Director role; assess your skill-set, embrace as many operational/financial challenges as possible and constantly search for ways to top up your repertoire. Maximise this peak time of development, enhance your personal brand and then the Finance Director title will come.” - Harry Hewson, Head of Practice - Finance (Finance Director & CFO Recruiter) at Camino Partners.
“What makes a Finance Director successful can be very different from what makes a Financial Controller successful. The level of responsibility and the expectations upon you as a Finance Director take a significant step up as you transition from a Financial Controller. You no longer have the time to be an expert or to manage projects and you need to let go of ‘controlling’. A strong Financial Controller is highly pro-active, efficient and delivery focused. A strong Finance Director needs to be ready for the unexpected and be flexible in their approach." - Seim Munif, Senior Partner Finance (Director of Finance) at SThree.
The advice that I usually give to my candidates will depend upon their situation and the setup of their company - but generally, I have two consistent pieces of advice.
Firstly, get yourself into a prosperous company with a vision. Success breeds success and it's no coincidence that candidates’ careers accelerate in growing businesses. As the previous CEO of Google once said,
"When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in. If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, just get on.”
Secondly, the person you’re reporting into needs to support your development. Whether it be a Finance Director or a CEO, your leader should teach you new skills and encourage your growth. If you've not learnt anything new in your role for a while, your career will be becoming dormant.
If you are a finance professional in the recruitment or executive search sector looking for a new role (or just wanting to have a little bit of a window shop!) get in touch with me:
firstname.lastname@example.org / 020 3805 5233
To have a look at our latest Finance Director jobs, click here!