4 ways to think outside the career development box

Skills-based activities can open unforeseen career pathways for professionals seeking new opportunities.

Faced with the day-to-day pressures of highly demanding jobs, many finance professionals may be tempted to put career and skills development on the back burner. Yet in today's highly competitive and fast changing workplace, ignoring career development could prove to be extremely costly in the long run, cautioned David Stevens, FCMA, CGMA, director at Jammy Recruitment based in Wales, UK.

"We live in a world which can be described as VUCA: volatile, uncertain, [complex,] and ambiguous, and the pace of change is only getting faster," Stevens said. "Today, if you're not constantly learning and developing, you will quickly find yourself with skills that are no longer relevant to the needs of the market."

Within finance, the increasing role of data, machine learning, and other forms of artificial intelligence is prompting a major shift in the skills and attributes that finance leaders are looking for. Major emphasis is being placed on innovation, on the ability to problem-solve for complex issues, and on human, "soft" skills such as communication, relationship-building, and emotional intelligence. Another increasingly important aspect is the demonstrated ability to lead and to inspire others to do their best work.

"Leadership is the most important skill that needs to be developed by finance professionals as they progress in their careers today," said Ontario, Canada-based Jenny Okonkwo, FCMA, CGMA, CPA (Canada), a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioner and founder of Black Female Accountants Network, an award-winning grassroots initiative.

Given that most finance professionals are used to prioritising their technical prowess and knowledge, finding career development pathways that strengthen leadership abilities and soft skills in particular can prove to be a challenge. FM magazine spoke to Stevens, Okonkwo, and Julie Pennells, a career and professional development coach based in Maidstone, UK, to explore pathways that can enhance these key skills and broaden career opportunities for finance professionals. Their advice included the following:

Pursue skills-based volunteering. "Skills-based volunteering is among the most effective ways to enhance one's career development, as it can expose finance professionals to alternative and nontraditional career development pathways that may not otherwise be uncovered through their regular nine-to-five role," Okonkwo said. Skills-based volunteering refers to the practice of individuals using their professional experience and expertise on a pro bono basis to help a community and/or nonprofit organisation.

"This type of volunteering creates situations in which you are connecting with professionals outside of your own network and hence gaining increased awareness of other career pathways that enable you to capitalise on your existing skillset … and also utilise additional skills and competencies gained through volunteering projects," she explained.

For instance, by volunteering to create, launch, and lead the Black Female Accountants Network, Okonkwo was exposed to an unforeseen career pathway within DEI. She has recently been recognised as a DEI leader, having been named one of the 2022 Canadian Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Award winners by the Women's Executive Network in Canada.

Establish a charity/nonprofit venture. The process of setting up a charity has many benefits for finance professionals, not to mention potentially improving the world around you, explained Stevens. In his work within financial recruitment, Stevens has seen finance candidates set up charities and greatly enhance their knowledge of important business, statutory, and marketing processes — thereby expanding their skillset and offering to potential employers.

For instance, one of Stevens's candidates set up Oxon Bikes for Africa, a UK-based charity that sends unwanted bikes from the UK to Sierra Leone.

"This kind of undertaking develops one's ability to forge strong connections, enhance leadership skills, and build productive working relationships … sometimes even with professionals and companies abroad," he added.

According to Stevens, if you are considering starting your own not-for-profit venture, it's important to begin with the end in mind. This can include asking yourself: What do you want to improve? What skills do you want to develop? These questions can steer you into a project that aligns with your career development goals.

Lead a project in your department. As an alternative to volunteering or setting up a new venture, Pennells recommended looking for an opportunity to spearhead a project within your department or division. This project could sit outside your normal sphere of work, such as planning an event or conference, coordinating a team-building day, or overseeing a marketing initiative.

"This can be an excellent way to develop new skills, particularly if you work with a strong mentor along the way," she said. By galvanising your line manager or team leader to work with you, you will be able to gain valuable feedback.

"The key to learning is not only in the new skills you acquire, but in reflecting on the impact of the project: what went well and what would have made the project even more successful," Pennells added. For instance, by working with your mentor to identify an action or learning to take forward into your daily tasks, you will ensure that the learning cycle evolves and continues.

"Learning through a hands-on experience such as managing a project will utilise a whole range of skills including planning, setting goals, motivating a team, managing risk, and more," she said.

Develop your personal brand. Given the complexity of many of the problems facing today's organisations, finance leaders are increasingly looking for candidates who have demonstrated an ability to specialise within certain fields or disciplines — and who have clearly invested their time and effort into developing their ideas on important topics or challenges. According to Okonkwo, proactively sharing your ideas and expertise through virtual platforms is proving to be an important career development tool. By sharpening and amplifying your personal brand, you increase the chances of being invited to networking opportunities and events that expose you to leaders and subject matter experts.  

"When you are invited to share your thoughts through public speaking, article features, interviews, etc., accept them and make these opportunities count," Okonkwo said. "Many of these activities are now being done virtually, allowing you to become known in your field of expertise far beyond geographical boundaries — thus accelerating opportunities to expand your networks and reach."

She added: "Over the years we have seen numerous members from Black Female Accountants Network build their personal profile and brand through volunteer leadership opportunities, which have led to speaking engagements, new career opportunities, promotions, and high-profile projects at their workplaces."

To ensure that you don't fall behind in your professional development, think outside of your existing activities and networks, and invest time in ventures that deepen and enhance your soft skills and ability to lead.

— Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in France. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at