5 signs of potential to look for in new recruits

The path to leadership in finance can often be nonlinear.
 5 signs of potential to look for in new recruits

Everyone can agree that potential is desirable in any employee, but what does potential actually look like in a finance professional? The answer depends on the size and culture of your organisation, as well as the specific role you’re trying to fill, but many high-potential professionals have a handful of traits in common.

Robert Lamp, an Atlanta-based principal with management consulting firm Korn Ferry’s Global Financial Officer Practice, said he has seen the desired candidate profile for finance and accounting recruits shift a couple of times since 2008. After the Great Recession, he saw people turning to those with a strong technical background who had a transformation toolkit or a cost-restructuring background. In 2013 he noticed a swing in the opposite direction towards finance as a strategic leader and growth partner, with most of the technical tasks delegated to a strong supporting team.

“While it’s probably too early to tell how it’s going to shift now, I suspect given the recent events, we’ll likely see some shift back toward asking finance and accounting leaders to do more with less people, to squeeze every penny out of the business, and to use technology like never before,” he said. “The concept of potential for what I’ll be looking for in the next generation of talent is really a mix, but it’s probably something to do with nonlinear thinking and career paths.”

If you want to hire someone with the potential to make a large contribution to your company, here are a few key traits and behaviours to look for, according to several experts:

Demonstrates adaptability. It’s more important than ever for finance professionals to be agile. In an increasingly unpredictable world, you want someone who has seen as much change management and technology application as possible — the more battle scars, the better, according to Lamp.

To gauge adaptability, ask potential employees how they have shown initiative and persistence in a shifting environment. Look for people who have taken on stretch assignments and expanded their career experiences and haven’t simply followed the job description to a T. People can show adaptability in high-growth environments by building systems and platforms to support that growth, as well as in difficult circumstances by figuring out creative ways to turn things around.

“While the entire finance and accounting community is probably, just like all of us, worried about how we’re going to get through this current environment, everyone will have a little bit of a battle scar and a story to tell about how they hopefully persevered through this,” Lamp said. “What did they do to be more entrepreneurial, scrappy, and free-thinking about how they’re contributing to the business? I think that could be a nice silver lining of what everyone is going through right now.”

Embraces failure. Anyone who hasn’t had a failure in their career somewhere along the way is either operating in a comfort zone or has taken no risk at all, according to Duncan Brodie, FCMA, CGMA, managing director of Goals and Achievements, a UK training and coaching company that works with accountants.

“The greatest learning and exponential growth comes at those times when something doesn’t go to plan,” he said.

He explained that people tend to reflect on failures more than successes and are more likely to learn from them as a result. A track record without failure might indicate someone who isn’t willing to step beyond the boundaries of what they know and is too risk-averse to take decisive action.

When interviewing candidates, look for those who are willing to talk openly about past failures and what they learned from them. If they try to make excuses or brush it under the carpet and pretend it didn’t happen, then that should be a red flag, according to Nikki Wild, ACMA, CGMA, an executive coach, mentor, and trainer based in the UK.

“I want somebody who feels safe to speak out when things go wrong, so that they can be fixed,” she said. “The only way to make no mistakes is to do no work.”

Builds relationships with ease across functions. Indirect influencing and the ability to create relationships will be an important attribute during this time when many companies are trying to accelerate a cultural transformation, according to Lamp.

Look for natural networkers who can speak the languages of several different functions, in addition to finance.

“Business partnering is key at the moment,” Wild said. “They need to be able to communicate with other departments, so they’re not operating in a silo.”

Ask candidates how they have built their professional relationships in previous roles. A high-potential individual has likely gone beyond simple socialising and made connections across functions and possibly been asked to speak to boards or at conferences.

Offers a mix of skillsets. For some roles, you want to hire a specialist, but for roles with a pathway to leadership, you want someone who also has a broader set of skills in addition to their primary expertise.

High-potential professionals are people who don’t just understand the numbers but also what drives the numbers and the measures likely to achieve good results.

“Future leaders who have that mix of a technical foundation along with other skills can deliver better insight and give their partners better decision-making data,” Lamp said.

Brodie said a high-potential candidate would be a T-shaped accountant, meaning someone who has a deep knowledge about finance and accounting but also a breadth of knowledge about many related fields, such as IT, human resources, artificial intelligence, and data analytics.

Focuses on solutions rather than problems. The world is going to need more problem-solvers than ever before. High-potential finance professionals are the people who propose solutions rather than fixating on problems.

Solutions-oriented people are likely going to have a positive attitude and the ability to focus on finding solutions, even if the fixes are imperfect. Brodie said finance can learn from the IT industry in this respect because, in IT systems, the first version is never the final version — it’s just something to build upon.

Wild pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic is helping to highlight the problem-solvers. Everyone is having to adapt, and the solutions-oriented people are the ones asking where they can add value and be a useful part of their team, she said.

“How they’re handling what they’re doing right now is a good indication of how they’re going to handle change in the organisation,” Wild said.

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at