How to take the next career step

By Anthony Harrington

22 May 2015

Top jobs don't come easy, says Anthony Harrington, so make an assessment of your skills and take action to develop them.

Very few people get gifted the CEO position. The top job in any organisation has some severe filters in place to ensure that only the best get through. So the task for any ambitious CA executive is to ensure that they keep adding experience and skills until they reach the point where, when the spotlight turns on them, they are seen as the standout choice.

Developing new skills

The first step for any newly qualified accountant is to take stock of their strengths and weaknesses. Having just been through a technically demanding qualification, their technical skills will be up to speed, so the first area to look at will probably be the soft skills such as teamwork, effective communication, leadership and the ability to manage relationships positively.

Sonali Bricola is director of programmes, professional development with BPP, which manages the ICAS portfolio of courses. She points out that courses on all areas of soft skills development are a standard part of the programme of classroom and virtual classroom courses BPP runs throughout the year.

There are also courses available for people to work on over the internet in their own time. A good deal of soft skills learning is done in a workshop environment, either in an actual or a virtual classroom, where role playing is a key part of the learning experience. So candidates need to think in terms of allocating a day or so per course, spaced throughout the year.

Where courses are being run in conjunction with ICAS, we use ICAS as a venue. We schedule courses up to a year in advance and the full programme of courses can be seen on the ICAS website

 Sonali Bricola

Sonali says: "People are very interested in developing skills that will help them to progress in their chosen career path. Many realise, for example, that they do not have enough experience in the way of leadership skills when they are trying to grow to the next level and above.

"Pressure on time has led to a significant growth in the take-up of online virtual classroom courses. Unlike pure computer-based training courses, virtual classroom courses require the same time commitment as classroom-based courses."

Sonali points out that virtual classroom courses are fully interactive and allow role playing and collaboration with other students. They also have the advantage of allowing participants to ask the course presenter questions that the rest of the class will not see.

Short courses, or just dipping into a course to supplement your knowledge, can also be useful strategies. "A lot of people do not want to do a full-day course on a whole subject. They want to be able to get through the next discussion they are going to have, so a one-hour session might be enough," she says.

Take charge of your own development

  • Assess  your strengths and weaknesses and consider which skills you need to reinforce
  • Find out how the ICAS career mentoring scheme can help you
  • Don't expect that training and qualifications alone will get you where you want to go
  • Developing in-depth knowledge of your chosen sector is hugely important
  • increasingly, a holistic understanding of strategic issues, rather than specialist skill sectors, is crucial in senior executive roles.

Finding a mentor

CAs looking to develop as leaders would also be well advised to look at longer-term approaches – for example, finding an experienced mentor to help guide them through the challenges they will face on their route to the top.

Judy Wagner CA, director at executive search firm FWB Park Brown, has much experience in mentoring and helped to develop the ICAS programme.

She says: "The CA qualification is very good for business... it allows people to keep their options open, and it suits people who want to have a general career in business away from the purely financial area. I've been a head hunter for over 20 years and when we are looking for candidates for senior positions, one of the first questions always focuses on their financial and commercial acumen."

Seek practical experience

Judy counsels against newly qualified CAs rushing off to do MBAs. "You need to get a few years' experience first, then you'll bring more to the MBA experience and you will get more out of it.

"If there are two candidates up for the same job, one with great qualifications but no experience, and the other with good qualifications and deep experience, the latter will win out most of the time," she points out.

However, take two highly experienced candidates, one with a CA qualification and the other who is both a CA and has an MBA, and the additional business qualification could be the clinching factor.  Judy says "Courses are great, but it is like anything. If you are not practising what you are learning, then you do not become expert. Your workplace leadership experience and the projects you have been involved with are what most interests potential employers."

Stepping up to a senior position

Professor Sean Meehan, from the IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, says candidates need to realise that they are not alone if they feel challenged when they seek to step up to more senior positions. Traditionally, business schools and CEO preparatory training courses have focused on answering this challenge by trying to promote self-understanding – helping the candidate appreciate the impact that his or her behaviour has on others. This is all good and necessary, he says, but today more is needed.

"You do not get to senior positions without having some knowledge about motivating teams. However, the big opportunity today is to blend leadership skills with competence across the range of practical challenges that businesses face," says Professor Meehan. This provides a different emphasis and context for developing leadership skills, and achieving it requires in-depth understanding of the company's strategic issues.

"Leadership means being able to articulate strategic insights and understand in detail what it is going to take to implement that"

Professor Sean Meehan

"If you take a consumer confectionery company, some of its key issues will be around the impact of excess sugar on society. Leading the company's public position and actions around minimising the impact of its products on the social challenge posed by obesity will be key. Similarly, for a technology company, managing the speed of technology change, and dealing with potential disruptive technology threats will be vital. It is the ability to address the specific business challenges in a particular sector that gets people into the top positions today."

Refining your leadership skills

"We live in an era where near constant change is becoming the norm," says Professor Meehan. "So the refinement of the leadership agenda, and the way in which we go about training the next generation of leaders, now has to be much more about applied leadership in a specific context.

"We define a leader as a go-to person in an organisation. There are a relatively few individuals at the top of any organisation who are always the first that the company turns to if there is an acquisition to be made or significant assets to be disposed of. The big decisions that imply significant risk and where the ability to execute well is critical to the organisation are where leadership comes into its own," he says.

The aim, then, is to provide training that will help individuals to see what is required to be the person who can change the trajectory of a company's development.

Professor Meehan says: "Today, any leader has governance issues to deal with. They have to be able to bring the board along with them on any radical change they want to implement. As soon as you move from the known and try to change the curve, you increase the risks facing the organisation. How you handle the ensuing dialogue with the board will play a crucial role in the success or failure of the project."

Leadership means not just having great ideas and being able to motivate and direct an organisation. It means being able to articulate strategic insights and understand in detail what it is going to take to implement that vision.

He says: "Understanding the challenges facing an organisation is not beyond the grasp of most of the senior executives in an organisation, but executing a successful strategy that deals with those challenges requires a higher level of skill altogether."

Increasing your responsibiity

The way to turn middle management into people who have the vision to see the route to market is to give them responsibility for growth projects that have real significance.

He explains: "All too often what we see are organisations devising training projects aimed at developing middle management. You have to focus on real projects. Most organisations have between five and seven imperatives that require addressing.

"If the organisation is serious about developing a middle manager into a potential senior executive, the project has to be real, with a significant revenue impact for the organisation, and the manager needs to be made accountable to the executive board for its success."

Anthony Harrington is a freelance business journalist. This article first appeared in the May 2015 edition of The CA magazine.


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