Our top skills development advice from 2021

Part one of our curated list of the best skills development tips that every finance professional should know from FM magazine articles published this year.

People around the world have been levelling up and learning new skills to keep pace with technological and pandemic-related changes over the past two years. According to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management taken at the end of 2020, more than two-thirds of respondents said they have a desire to learn new skills in order to qualify for roles that offer more opportunity and stability.

At FM magazine, we have interviewed global experts across industries to gather advice on how finance professionals can pinpoint and develop essential skills that will enable them to remain successful in their careers.

Here are just a few skills development tips that stood out this year.

Get specific about your goals

According to Ayelet Fishbach, Ph.D., professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and author of Get It Done, Surprising Lessons From the Science of Motivation, goal setting is fundamental to self-motivation, and the more engaging and exciting these goals are, the better.

"You should always set goals — whether for the day, the week, or the quarter — and they should be something you'd feel satisfied to both pursue and achieve," she said. In addition, any objectives you set for yourself or agree to should be very specific and detailed.

For instance, research has shown that sales teams with detailed sales targets consistently close more deals than teams that aren't given specific targets. In other words, vague objectives or open-ended goals, such as "studying for CIMA exams", are usually much less effective than something concrete and specific, such as "completing a CIMA course on integrated reporting by the end of the month".

As part of this detailed and intentional goal-setting process, Fishbach urged professionals to anticipate the obstacles or potential challenges associated with the goals.

"Think about what's going to interfere with your plan to finish that project or report this week — it might be some external obstacle (your collaborator is slow) or an internal one (you're not feeling it)," she explained. "Either way, knowing or anticipating the obstacle will prepare you to tackle it more effectively.

From "4 Ways to Build the Self-Motivation That Can Boost Your Career", by Jessica Hubbard, 16 November 2021

Conduct a skills audit

"What you need to do is take a step back, and the question you need to ask yourself is what you'd like to achieve over the next three years and what skills do you need to achieve that?" said Gary Cox, ACMA, CGMA, a coach for businesses and individuals. "Which is a different question from saying, I want to be a financial controller or financial director, so these are the skills I need.

"The way to do this is to conduct a personal skills audit and get a baseline of where you are now. I'm just going to talk quickly through that. What you want to do is you want a current situation. That's the first thing — your current skillset — three areas, so three headings: technical skills, business skills, and life skills. And you're going to write those down."

From "Skills Development: How to Create a Learning Plan", podcast episode hosted by Oliver Rowe, 8 December 2021

Speak to people in your desired role and fill any gaps

Once you have crafted your ideal job description and have a clearer idea of how you want to pivot, it's a good idea to seek out people who have made a similar shift in order to figure out how they pulled it off and make sure it's the right move for you.

"Ask people how they got to where they are, and find out any gaps you may need to fill," Caroline Castrillon, career and life coach and founder of Corporate Escape Artist who is based in Austin, Texas, in the US said. "Explore the areas you're interested in in a way that you can see the good, the bad, and the ugly from people who are in it."

Tap into your network, leverage platforms like LinkedIn, set up informal virtual chats, shadow someone on the job, and devour any free online content like podcasts, articles, and videos that can help give you an idea of what the day-to-day life would be like if you shifted into your desired role.

By speaking with people who do the work you want to do, you can also figure out what skills are worth acquiring in advance and what knowledge you will learn on the job. Then you might consider enrolling in an intensive online study programme, completing some self-guided learning, or perhaps even going back to school. And as you begin to make that shift, be prepared for potential rejection.

From "4 Tips for Finance Professionals Looking to Make a Career Pivot", by Hannah Pitstick, 28 September 2021

Consider intrapreneurship to gain skills while helping your organisation

To try your hand at something new while keeping your gainful employment, consider intrapreneurship.

Like entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship is the practice of rapidly spinning up novel solutions to complex problems. But while entrepreneurs launch new ventures to solve external problems in society and the business world at large, the focus of the intrapreneur is internal, exploring opportunities to improve things inside the organisation they work for. These employees prepare compelling business cases and sometimes assemble strike teams to experiment with new approaches to "business as usual". They are given the resources and autonomy to build and test these processes, products, services, and systems for the benefit of their employer.

A good way to come up with ideas for internal skunkworks is to list what you already dislike or find inefficient about your company. Even better is involving others in your brainstorming by asking your colleagues what they wish they could change. For example, are you annoyed by your company's outdated human resources software? Does a business process add too much unnecessary time and not enough value?

Talk to others, determine if the sentiment is shared, explore alternate ideas from adjacent teams, and propose solutions by testing innovations to research and implement.

From "Boost Your Career With Intrapreneurship", by Anastasia Uglova, 1 September 2021

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 at