CFOs are finding it increasingly challenging to find skilled finance candidates. According to the 2018 salary guide from Robert Half, 92% said it was at least somewhat challenging to find skilled professionals, up from 86% last year.
The demand for quality candidates is clearly there. But how can finance professionals stand out in job applications and match the level that employers seek?
The right skills and credentials are crucial. A professional management accounting qualification is a good start, as the survey lists it among the top attributes that employers seek. Other traits and areas of experience include: good communication skills; knowledge of systems such as enterprise resource planning; financial modelling; stakeholder management; advanced Excel skills such as in VLOOKUPs, PivotTable, and SUMIFs; commercial awareness; and business acumen.
Show examples of your skills
Research from Hays Accountancy & Finance supports this. Employers told the recruiting firm that communication, adaptability, and problem-solving are the top core skills they seek in finance professionals.
“Highlighting your strong technical skills and core skills is vital, but communication and management skills are equally important,” said Lee Owen, a senior business director at Hays. “So once you reach interview stage, share examples of each with your interviewer.”
Owen said the most successful candidates know what they are looking for, apply only for roles that suit them, and read job specifications carefully before tailoring their CV accordingly.
Optimise your social media
Increasingly, employers are looking to social media to find and screen job-seekers. But many potential candidates still underuse it.
“People still often share things they may not want a current or future employer to see,” Owen said. “To avoid this, spring-clean your entire online presence before searching for a job. Also check your privacy settings to ensure anything you want to remain private is.”
In contrast to your CV, which should be tailored to the role, your LinkedIn profile needs to have broader appeal. That should emphasise your transferable skills and experience and give examples.
“Think about the keywords employers look for,” Owen said. “Don’t use clichés, buzzwords, or jargon. Check your spelling and grammar, and keep your offline and online profiles up to date as your career progresses.”
Adept use of social media provides more than networking. It can help you demonstrate expertise as well as provide knowledge on companies you might want to work for in the future.
Update your career plan
Updating your career plan is essential when looking for a new job. This plan should define clearly your career goals over three and five years. It should be comprehensive and achievable and include an honest assessment of your professional strengths, interests, and areas for development.
This will enable you to make better informed career decisions and streamline your job search.
Stay positive through the search process and do not lose sight of your goals. Sometimes it can take longer than you expect, but persistence and preparation will help you land the role you want. In the meantime, stay on top of industry news and changes to legislation, attend industry events, and keep improving your technical and soft skills to stand out from your peers.
Sell your achievements
“People often undersell what they have done, especially at more junior levels,” said Daniel Hopkins, a senior consultant at Morgan McKinley. “They tend to only highlight their daily deliverables, which are important. But they focus less on tangible ‘value-adds’.”
Two candidates finishing a graduate programme will have similar experiences. The way to differentiate yourself is to show where you have made a quantifiable difference.
“There is a myth that CVs have to be one page,” Hopkins said. “If you have been working for five years, you should be able to go to two or three pages in highlighting these achievements.”
One common mistake is to have more about achievements in previous jobs than in your current one, which is what employers want to know most about.
Know the company inside out
Candidates have missed a big part of their preparation if they show an insufficient knowledge of the company, Hopkins said.
“Don’t just ask about the working conditions and culture,” he said. “Everyone will be doing that. Your questions must show a deeper level of engagement and analytical ability.
“Look at recent stories in the press, corporate accounts, and social media, for example. Formulate two questions to ask the interviewer based on each important piece of information you find. For example, how did a profit warning or accounting scandal at the firm affect the business, and what has it done to improve matters? How have these things affected dividends or bonuses? Questions like these are powerful as they immediately flip the balance of the interview.”
Avoid focusing on money
Another mistake is to become overly focused on salary — employers want someone who is passionate about the role and is a good cultural fit, not someone who just wants more money.
“For example, financial services pay better than other sectors, but it is a more pressurised environment,” Hopkins said. “So it depends whether that will suit the individual. For a [new hire], getting exposure to rapid development opportunities is far more important than salary.”
Some people want to work for trendy smaller companies, which is fine, Hopkins said. But it might be better to do that after you have gained experience in various departments of a big business, to avoid being pigeonholed as an accountant who specialises in small- or medium-size businesses.
“If you want to be a top 10% candidate, you need to learn the trade in a successful business,” Hopkins said. “Grow in that business, show internal progression. Get to a point where you feel comfortable, then parachute out.”
Use the STAR technique
Alastair Paterson, an associate director at Marks Sattin, said candidates need to sell themselves, their potential, and their ability to add value. Most candidates underestimate at least one of these at interview. A strategy called the STAR technique can help. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result. The technique includes an end-to-end retelling of how you approached a situation in the past, the steps you took to the improve it, and the final results.
“Your CV should contain responsibilities and achievements — think about how you improved a process or helped boost the bottom line,” Paterson said. “The STAR technique is the go-to method for answering competency-based questions and in writing a CV.”
— Tim Cooper is a freelance writer based in London. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.