Fly out of That Pigeonhole

Don't stay cooped up in finance. Take a broader view of your company and you'll have a better opportunity to broaden your career as well.

Once there was a finance manager who worked hard and consistently met expectations. Eventually he ascended to become a divisional head of financial planning and analysis. As he steadfastly pursued excellence in fulfilling the requirements of his job, the manager became the go-to person whom senior executives relied on for accurate financial information.

When promotion season returned, however, the manager was passed over. As Rick Smith and James Citrin relate in their recent book The Five Patterns of Extraordinary Careers (Crown Business, 2003), after the manager endured a frustrating period in which younger colleagues were promoted over his head, he was laid off. (When the book went to press, add the authors, the manager remained “incredulous as to why he went off the tracks” and was still “desperately looking for a job.”)

The manager’s handicap — one that’s not uncommon, according to executive career consultant Larry Stybel of Boston-based Stybel Peabody Associates — was an inability to think beyond his job description. Finance is a discipline that encourages conservative thinking, of course, and creative approaches to accounting have “consequences you don’t even want to think about,” notes Stybel.

Yet the ability to think in different modes — and to recognize the importance of disciplines outside finance — is what ultimately distinguishes great CFOs from the merely competent. In an informal follow-up to their book, Smith and Citrin asked executive recruiters at Spencer Stuart for extraordinary examples of men and women who held a rigidly defined finance title: controller. The names that ended up on their list, explains Smith, turned out to be the controllers who were considered the most innovative in their roles — who had “the business perspective to most effectively apply financial tools.”

Deliver Unexpected Value

In finance, Smith continues, it’s very easy to fall into the mindset that defines success as “avoiding unexpected negative outcomes.” That attitude is reinforced by many nonfinance executives, who often have little regard for finance executives once they’ve stepped beyond the bounds of their usual responsibilities. But those low expectations, says Smith, offer finance executives a “phenomenal opportunity to deliver unexpected value.” Once operations employees see the light, adds Larry Winkler, CFO of wireless provider InPhonic, “they never let go of the finance person.”

Operations is the key word, says Dennis Lacey. The finance chief for Teletech, a provider of outsourced customer-management services, insists that you’ll “do a better job as a CFO if you have operating experience.” (His own story — more about that later — seems to bear him out.)

Peter Currie, CFO of Royal Bank of Canada, agrees. “You have to have tangible experience” with your company’s products or services, he says. And to be truly a part of the team, adds Currie, “you have to identify with the people in the company who are making the product.” By contrast, says Winkler, “if you’re just counting things, you’re not adding value; you’re a historian.”

Just Show Up

Once you accept that simply delivering the numbers is not enough, what next? Larry Stybel maintains that an act as simple as scheduling time to get outside the finance department can have a profound impact. You’ll learn a lot — and you’ll help other executives to perceive you as a business partner. Tell other managers that you’d like to spend half a day on the factory floor, or accompany sales staff on client calls.

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