My first job was actually making subs at a sandwich shop that also sold donuts in a mall food court. Ultimately, what I learned from it was the importance of being fair, planning, and hard work. Being in the service industry also taught me how important the customer is. While a 1% failure rate sounds reasonable or even on the low side, for one out of 100 customers, it’s a 100% failure in the eyes of that person. Make everyone you meet feel as if they matter to you.


If I could have given my younger self advice when I was starting out in my career, I’d have said to start networking earlier; utilize the power of your network wherever you are in your career journey, rather than waiting for opportunities to present themselves. Everybody knew the concept of networking back when I was in school, but it was about going to events such as career fairs, shaking hands, and picking up a flier for an internship, then after graduation, exchanging business cards.


I wish that I’d received more guidance that networking starts in high school and continues in college classes with your peers and professors. I did network but certainly not to the extent that I do today. Back then, we waited for official networking events, but you can find networking opportunities no matter where you are with whoever is beside you. Professionals who went to your alma mater and already have jobs can be especially helpful. Even those sitting next to you on a long flight could give great insight.


Try to find other students or professionals who are in a similar stage of their career as you are, also finding their own way and experiencing the same questions and doubts as you are. It’s important to create a support system of peers, fellow students and alumni, professors, current and former coworkers, and mentors whom you respect. To do so, begin focusing on networking as early as possible.


A networking best practice is to ask other people a key question or two about what they do and how they got to where they are professionally. No matter who you are, where you are, or who you meet, if you ask people about their career journey—what they do, where they found opportunities for advancement, why they chose their career path, how they ended up where they are today, and so on—you’ll get a personal testimonial or an advertisement about themselves at worst but possibly actionable advice or a referral at best.


Look for ways to build connections and signal that you’re interested in the people you’re speaking with rather than networking for your own benefit. Show interest in learning about how other people have navigated their careers and how those careers have intersected with ever-evolving and complex personal lives, and the conversation may turn to your own career choices and opportunities, or you may be able to reach out to that person for help at a later date. Networking requires give-and-take so that both parties receive value from the relationship.


Taking on a Leadership Role


To prepare yourself to take on a management or leadership position, the first place to start to consider is getting a finance and accounting credential such as the CMA® (Certified Management Accountant). A respected certification gives you instant credibility. It shows people know that you possess a certain level of competence when you’re being considered for a role in management or a promotion to controller or even the C-suite.


Businesses are evaluated based on earnings per share; capital deployment and returns; distributions to owners; earnings before interest, taxes, and depreciation; and, yes, even net profits. In short, the common language across every business, regardless of geography, industry, or who’s the beneficiary and the benefactor, is numbers. So, to be successful in a management or leadership role, you’ve got to understand the numbers. You don’t necessarily have to be a subject-matter expert in cash flow statements, U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, and International Financial Reporting Standards, but you’ve got to have at least a baseline of competence in those and a wide range of other such areas, which is demonstrated by obtaining a credential such as the CMA.


If you want to take on a leadership role beyond management, getting promoted up the ladder is really dependent on soft skills. You need to have a baseline of book smarts and you can learn the concepts of effective management and leadership, but street smarts or legitimacy isn’t something you can rely on garnering from a book. It’s important to learn from others and to have an attitude of humility. A key component is understanding where you are in the schoolyard vis-à-vis other people. Being a successful manager or leader is all about emotional intelligence, the skills of persuasion, active listening, and empathy—all that mixed with core competency in your industry and profession, as well as personal accountability.


Keeping Up with Transformative Technologies


As ever-evolving technology fosters changes to all industries and workplaces, it’s led to a shift in the skills and experience that employers and hiring managers increasingly look for in candidates. There’s an abundance of data, and companies want to hire people with data management and analytics experience. We have reams of data on where people go on a daily basis, where we travel, what we read, what we consume—patterns in consumer purchasing, ecosystems, transportation, utility, education, and credentialing.


We don’t lack data anymore. In fact, our problem is that there’s too much data, and it’s challenging to determine what component, if any, is relevant, reliable, and legitimate. Technology is the only way for us to make sense out of that data. Individuals who want to be leaders, managers, and executives in the 21st Century must have the knowledge to parse data and highlight what’s material and decision useful. They might not need the technical knowledge to deploy the data, but they do need to be able to use technology to take that data and to make sense out of it, then tell a relevant and reliable story with that data. This is more than just speaking to a chart on the slide of a presentation; it could mean translating that story into reps and warranties in a transaction. The deployment of technology is the only way to be able to tell coherent stories from the quadrillion bits and bytes of data that exist out there today and to make savvy decisions that have real impacts all the way from your general ledger to your next deal bring down at closing.


Managers and executives need to know where and when technology can and should play a role in analyzing data while utilizing internal and external resources and the knowledge of subject-matter experts. To be able to harvest data and tell an accurate, compelling story based on it, they don’t need to know how to code or the ins and outs of the technology themselves; they need to glean actionable insights from it. Accountants don’t need to become developers who can write algorithms, but data analytics is a key competency of the accounting and finance profession.

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