More than a year into the pandemic that altered lives, collapsed entire industries, and fundamentally shifted how the world conducts business, finding time for professional development can seem like a luxury. How are we supposed to build good career habits when we’re barely coping with our workload, personal lives, loneliness, and a persistent low-grade headache from too many Zoom calls? And what does advice such as “networking” and “taking initiative” even mean in the context of a late-stage global pandemic?
The secret about sound advice is to take very little of it at a time. Improvements that result in lasting change are best attempted in small increments, because good habits require persistent repetition and practice before they turn into ritual. Attempting an ambitious ten-point plan for career improvement introduces too much change too suddenly, leading to overwhelm and creating a stagnation spiral: at first, resistance, then noncompliance, and eventually failure. This is why top behavioural scientists and motivational authors like BJ Fogg and James Clear recommend very small, incremental changes in order to give our desired behaviour patterns the chance to form a habit.
So let’s be smart about it: To build good, sticky career habits in stressful and uncertain times, commit to incrementalism rather than a long to-do list. Try picking just one of the five ideas below to implement in your life. Start with the one that resonates deepest and try it out for a couple of weeks. If it brings you joy and sticks with you, keep going and redirect the newfound enthusiasm from your success into building another great career habit. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t waste time feeling bad about it. Chuck it and try something that works better for you. But always remember to start small and build new habits in moderation.
Go on loan. Want to try your hand at something new and exciting without leaving the safety of your current job? Try a secondment with another team for all or even just a portion of your work time.
If this sounds like something your manager would never go for, ask yourself: When is the last time you requested your manager’s help with your career or had an open and honest conversation about your ambitions? If the answer is never, this habit is long overdue.
Many companies tie performance evaluations to goals such as external focus and industry curiosity, to break down functional silos and encourage employees to take a broader view of their roles. Even if your workplace does not have such professional development goals, asking to go on loan demonstrates your enthusiasm and drive, which are positive signals to convey to your boss.
It’s a win-win for both you and the company, because as you work alongside new colleagues, build relationships, and explore new avenues for growth and advancement, the company forestalls employee attrition and invests in internal succession.
To make it extra sticky, consider making this conversation a regular habit with your manager by checking in quarterly on where you are, where you still want to go, and what help you need to get there.
“Attend” events. Events never stopped in 2020; they just went online, and that’s where a lot of them are going to stay. The rise of webinars, or seminars conducted online, is one of the breakout features of modern work life. Webinars and online conferences often offer “breakout” rooms between sessions for attendees to meet other professionals. The contact information exchanged after a shared experience is alone worth the price of time and admission.
AICPA & CIMA offer learning and development events throughout the year, including ENGAGE 2021 in the US and ENGAGE EUROPE 2021. You can find events by searching through online conference directories, as well as Eventbrite and LinkedIn. Even better for staying on top of your career game is reading and following industry journals and magazines. Pick one or two that you love and subscribe to their email list so you never miss an interesting opportunity to connect with others.
Of course, the best way to find online events relevant to your industry is to put your networking and relationship building skills to work. Ask your manager and colleagues for suggestions and let your co-workers know that you’re looking for great webinars, conferences, and panels to attend. Tell them what skills and industries interest you and ask them to forward you anything they hear of that might be relevant.
Robot-proof yourself. Artificial intelligence (AI) is disrupting every industry, and finance is at the top of the list. The market for fintech AI is expected to grow almost 240% by 2026 according to a report by Mordor Intelligence. AI-driven improvement and automation will impact every financial service, including risk management and fraud prevention, insurance underwriting, investment advisory and wealth management, business intelligence analytics, and trading. The key is to learn how to stay relevant and indispensable by targeting the gaps left behind by the AI revolution.
Although AI replaces many repeatable human processes, it does not obviate human insight. Automation leaves plenty of room for human-led vendor analysis and selection, project management and implementation, platform administration, and data storytelling and visualisation of insights to assist in business decision-making.
Even more pressing are the gaps created by new challenges in security, privacy, algorithmic bias, and regulatory compliance. A 2019 PwC survey as reported in Barron’s shows that “the greatest challenge may be the need to win customer trust: ensuring that AI systems are trustworthy is the top challenge of 40% of the financial industry executives”. Adding cybersecurity expertise, especially from a managerial, policy, or corporate governance perspective, is perhaps the single most advantageous way to robot-proof a finance résumé.
But the easiest way to make yourself indispensable? Address the skills gap in your own workplace! The same Barron’s survey reports that almost 30% of finance executives do not believe their staff are ready to meet their company’s demand for AI skills, and 60% plan to invest in professional development training to upskill their workforce. Make the business case to roll out an AI learning initiative in your own organisation and volunteer yourself as project sponsor. You’ll be able to add change management and organisational development to your résumé or CV while you’re at it.
Practise “adjacent” networking. Most people only network within their own field. By reaching out to people in complementary functions and industries, you de-silo your knowledge base and gain exposure to contacts and skillsets that keep you relevant. You can easily use LinkedIn to connect with people in finance-adjacent sectors such as risk management, go-to-market operations, and cybersecurity. Pick the one that fascinates you the most — or the one most likely to replace your current job function — and find professionals who work in that field. Then, write a message introducing yourself and asking for 30 minutes to learn about what they do. Keep this short and to the point — it shouldn’t be an opus. If you make a habit of doing this for 20 minutes every day, you’re bound to fill your diary with new contacts and learning opportunities. You might even spark a new passion and find yourself with a fresh job offer in hand.
Tiny lessons offer big gains: Boot camps, immersives, and university continuing education certificates can take months to complete. While that may be daunting, have you considered the thousands of short courses — many under 90 minutes — that are available online from Udemy, Coursera, edX, and LinkedIn Learning, to name just a few providers? These inexpensive and succinct overview courses offer low entry barriers and high payoffs, teaching you the ins and outs of many finance-adjacent functions without the long commitment.
Here are just five areas for you to explore and learn about while you sit down for your daily lunch: (1) machine learning, deep learning, and natural language processing; (2) customer segmentation; (3) blockchain and distributed ledger technology; (4) cybersecurity risk management; and (5) data storytelling and visualisation.
Taking the best path
Good habits, whether they’re related to work, fitness, diet, or your personal life, should never be overwhelming — but they should be strategic. To succeed, seek to identify the low-hanging fruit of incremental changes you can incorporate into your life in the most natural and least invasive way possible. Whether you take on a project with a different team, fill your diary, become irreplaceable, network outside your field, or add skill-building to your ritual, the most important thing to remember is to start small with one habit at a time. Ambition is a character trait best left to your career, not your habit-forming strategy.
Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.
— Anastasia Uglova is a communications and personal branding consultant 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 Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.