A quarter of accountancy and finance professionals say they left their last job due to a lack of career progression, according to the Hays UK Salary & Recruiting Trends 2019 guide. Additionally, 40% feel there is no scope for progression with their current organisation.
Recruiters and senior finance professionals said these findings should ring alarm bells for employers with poor career development practices. However, things can be different if they promote clear career paths and ensure leaders have continuing potential to grow, they say.
UK-based John Windle, FCMA, CGMA, director of FP&A at Cambridge Assessment, said one problem is that staff turnover in many companies is low and opportunities do not arise frequently.
“When they do, employers may want to go for people who have already done that level of job,” he said. “If they are not preparing people for the next level, they recruit from outside. This then works against those who are looking for encouragement to work for the next step.”
Employers should be more open in their succession planning with individuals, said Windle. They should involve promising staff members in wider activities such as project management, strategy planning days, and sales conferences.
“Develop them as business managers,” he added. “Give them space to lift their heads out of the spreadsheets. Have [fill-in plans] so that you can release management accountants for secondments or other broader activities. Focus training and development on clear career goals that the employer and employee understand so that both are working to achieve that.”
Windle added that management accountants themselves need to broaden their horizons and be prepared to move sideways to gain experience. They must also remember that employers cannot just pay people to develop; development must yield short-term value to be worthwhile.
Getting the right experience
When money is tight and companies struggle to provide study support, such as paying for professional qualification exams and training, this can also lead to some staff feeling they have no path to progression, said UK-based Joanne Watmore, ACMA, CGMA, financial controller at Equilibrium Asset Management. But this would be a mistake.
“If you’re training but don’t receive the right support and opportunities to add breadth in your role, you won’t get the experience you need to progress,” she said. “Employers should review their junior recruit’s progression plan regularly, ideally every six months, and work out how to fill the gaps. Otherwise, in two years they may leave if they’re not getting the right experience.
“It’s easy for trainee management accountants to get stuck in a rut, or focus on their role without realising they need experience in other areas — like financial control or transaction processing.
“Following qualification in a small to medium-sized business, you often move quickly into a management accountant or financial manager role, but then there is nowhere to go. [Progression] is not just about growth in the role, but growth in how you support the business. I’ve worked in a growing business, where my role has had to evolve to support the business. As an accountant, you’ve got to [make that happen]. You can’t just wait for it to come to you.”
Watmore said that management accountants sometimes think it is easier to jump to a role in a different company rather than looking for the opportunities in their existing company. But sometimes a sideways move into a different part of finance or into a project role can give the breadth they need at that stage of their career. Then they can come back to a higher role in the future.
Watmore lived that example. Her involvement in projects outside day-to-day finance led to a role overseeing a shared services department, which, she said, “gave me more breadth and then allowed me to move into a financial controller role”.
Equilibrium has recently launched a training academy where staff can also learn soft skills, Watmore said.
“Finance people at all levels should take these opportunities if they arise,” Watmore said. “If you are just doing your exams, you may not realise soft skills are an important part of your development. Companies that train soft skills will develop some great management accountants and finance managers. So every day is a school day. Even if there isn’t necessarily progression in a role, there can and should still be lots of opportunities to learn.”
Inadequate communication of a clear career plan may make employees feel neglected, said UK-based James Brent, director at Hays Accountancy & Finance.
“Acknowledging and rewarding achievements regularly will keep career plans relevant and help professionals stay engaged in their jobs,” Brent said. “I’d also urge employers to improve their investment in internal development programmes, as currently just 41% offer training and professional certification support to staff.”
Whatever training options they offer, organisations must communicate these clearly to their staff, Brent said.
It can also be helpful to use a mentor or coach to give objective advice tailored to individual career plans, he said. A formal mentoring scheme for staff at all levels helps to cultivate future talent and will make them feel valued. But it can also be informal: Having coffee with a CFO might provide the best insight a management accountant can get.
Employers should, of course, remember the importance of competitive salaries, Brent said, as 40% of finance professionals say a better salary and/or benefits package would tempt them to move jobs. Forward-thinking employers will also embrace flexible working practices and prioritise a work/life balance.
Again, such benefits must be clearly communicated: 54% of employers offer part-time working and 49% offer home or remote working, but 24% of accounting and finance employees say they are unaware of the flexible working options available to them.
— Tim Cooper is a freelance writer based in the UK. 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.