Skills development: How to create a learning plan

In this second episode of a two-part FM podcast series on skills, Gary Cox, ACMA, CGMA, a coach for businesses and individuals, describes how to create a learning plan. He recommends conducting an audit of current skills and those needed over the next three years. Making incremental progress and finding someone to support or champion you from inside or outside the finance team — or outside your company — can also move you toward your goals.

In "Skills Development: Which Ones Will You Need?", the first of the two FM podcasts, Cox discusses the in-demand finance skills of effective use of data, insights, and "really good storytelling".

What you'll learn from this podcast:

  • How to carry out a personal skills audit.
  • The way to assess current skills strength and utilisation.
  • Ways to avoid common skills development pitfalls.
  • How to assess that your plan fits with organisational capability gaps.
  • Why incremental development is preferable to big steps.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Oliver Rowe, an
FM magazine senior editor, at

Oliver Rowe: Welcome, Gary.

Gary Cox: Nice to be here, Oliver.

Rowe: Today we're talking about skills and how you can improve them now and throughout your career. Are there some general principles that people should look to in order to create a plan for their future?

Cox: 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? 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.

Then what you're going to do is do a strength rating, which is very easy: It's a low, medium, and high of how you assess that. The second thing, which is something that I didn't do for a few years, and I realised the importance, is also do a utilisation rating. Where you actually have a strength, whatever rating it is, how you are utilising it in your role, and you're going to do that. The second thing, bear it in mind you'll have answered the question of what you'd like to achieve the next three years is put the same three headings: technical, business, and life. Then what you're going to do is write those skills down that are needed.

Now some of those you might have now, you might be in the low to medium area; some of them you might need going forward, especially around business skills. Now, the last thing you need to do before you create a plan is just do a quick analysis, which I think most accountants should be able to do. It's like, meat and drink, to be honest. What you're going to do is you're going to look at the current skillsets you've got where you're highly strong, but under-utilised. You're not utilising them in your roles — that's technical business, mainly.

Then going forward is you want to look at your future skills, especially ones that you're going to need in the next three years, and especially ones where you probably marked low because you don't possess those now, or maybe medium. Then from that you can start to develop a plan, and you can start to say, how do I gain knowledge in some of these areas? That might be some training, some coaching, some online activity. But the most important part is, how do you actually utilise and gain experience, which is where the skillsets really develop?

The first thing you need to be thinking about is under-utilised skills you have now. How can you use them? How can you plan to actually develop them more alongside the new skillsets? Then that can be, for example, looking at, I could go work on a project where I can build some new skills, utilise skills that I have. Maybe a great collaborator, great place to use it. Maybe it's a secondment. Maybe it's a one-off piece of work in finance. Wherever it is has to be a little step out of your comfort zone. It has to be related to using those skills. It's quite a simple thing to do. As you start to build on this, and you start to refine it, it starts to become more than a road map. It becomes a living, breathing document.

Rowe: Are there common mistakes that management accountants make in terms of when they're trying to improve their skills, do you have recommendations for how they can avoid making those pitfalls?

Cox: Yes, excellent question, Oliver. I think one of the things that you need to do is when your assess your baseline do it in a very honest way. It's easy to assess yourself as being high at everything, and then say, well what do I actually need? Where is the gap? But I'm actually been stood for two years in this role, so something is not quite right. I think you can do in this situation, you can ask colleagues, or you can actually go online — you can get some 360-degree feedback. I think it's either $90 (£60) and you can get nine people to feedback certain questions.

You can actually ask people who may be internal people or people you've worked with in other roles on those skill areas. It's a great objective way of doing it and getting feedback. The other danger, Oliver, which I have seen is people just go and seek knowledge, and they just try to fill these gaps by just doing too many courses, doing too much online activity. You really need to be using these. You need to get experienced. Your application is key on these because this will really develop.

It will also build trust, and it'll start to get you a reputation as well as somebody that can, not only do finance work but do work as well outside finance and be a good team player, be somebody who collaborates a lot better as well. The other thing to do, which I have seen people not do, is really share with your manager, is have a conversation, is sit down. Being in a manager role myself, it's great when somebody outside the normal HR development and assessment scheme comes and sits down and says, "I've really thought about it. This is what I'd like to do. This is how I would like to get there. I want to do a lot of this in my own time or if we could entwine some of this into the business role it'll be a massive benefit for the function, a massive benefit for the company." I think doing that is absolutely key.

The last thing that I've seen, which is, I think people really need to stay away from, is don't be impatient. Things don't happen overnight. If you've gone through, and you've gone into the work of doing this, of getting a plan is, don't be impatient at all. If others are going quicker than you, it doesn't matter — everybody goes at different paces. Go at your own pace. Some people might go a little bit quicker, get to a role, and then stop for five or ten years. Stick to your own plan. Don't be impatient. Just keep looking about what you need to refine, what you could do a little bit better maybe to accelerate it, and don't compare yourself to other people. You've got a set of good skills yourself — you can build on that. You've recognised that you need to do something. Just stick with the plan.

Rowe: Great, Gary. Great advice. Management accountants will need to look at the business requirements as well — how do they ensure their skills development fits with capacity building within the business? How did they do that?

Cox: When I've seen this done really well, Oliver, you see people really progress and really contribute to the wider business in a short period. What you've got to do is just look at the culture and look at some of the strengths, but also look at the gaps in the business; that's not looking at every area, just general gaps.

You might find, for example, that it's a business that is maybe product-based and there's a lot of selling techniques, etc. There may be a little decision-making around some data, there might be a little decision-making around benchmarking. The actual being able to translate what's going on in the world into something that could be a strategy or measure performance might be something missing.

You have to be curious, you have to start to talk to business people, you have to read materials about your own company and assess where could you contribute or what is the real gap. Then what you have to do is take it down a couple of levels to where you currently are to say, if there's a bigger gap that you can't get to now, that's fine and you can't expect that.

But there might be a smaller gap where it is around people really looking at performance measurements. It is around people looking at strategy and coming up with how do you measure strategy? It's linking into that. Then taking the plan you've developed and working out, how do you connect that? How do you link it in? How do you offer up development yourself but also trying to strengthen the company in a capability?

If you can do that, I've seen it done really well. Then you can accelerate. You'll get lots and lots of support not from your own manager, but you'll get people in other functions, especially heads of functions, championing you. As they see you go beyond finance, bring teams together, and problem-solve, and bring ideas to the table. These are very noticeable very quick.

Rowe: Thank you. Should people be making a big change or incremental progress? Which is more sustainable and why?

Cox: The way to do this for probably 99% of the people is incremental. It's really difficult and to get here's  a plan, I can get it done in six months, here's what I need to do. The first time you fail, it'll just switch you off straight away. It's incremental steps. You're going to have to build some resilience, you're going to have to build your self-belief.

You're going have to build credibility and trust because, if you've been stuck doing the same role, people aren't going to say overnight, "Wow, let's give him more projects to do, let's enrich his work." You got to be prepared to actually take people with you, small manageable chunks, a little stride out your comfort zone, a bigger step, and then maybe a little bit of a leap.

You can do those by building the skillsets, so aligning them to what needs to be done in the function and maybe beyond that in the company, and then building your reputation outside the function and getting champions. Then that'll be a good way of building those incremental steps, and having a very solid track record that people can see. For yourself, you can track that to say that, "I started here, and look where I'm now."

But as you do this, I'd say the one lookout is that any chance you might be given a bigger opportunity, you might be halfway through this going incrementally. Somebody might say, "Oliver, we've got an offer you can't refuse — we've got an acquisition we'd like you to lead the acquisition team." You have to be prepared as well that as you get noticed, as people have more trust and can see that capability, they might put in, here's the big step change. You've got to be willing to probably take that.

If you build up those capabilities, then you will be a great position to do it. Not a big change at first, but be prepared as you're going down that track that somebody might offer you something that is that big step out of your comfort zone.

Rowe: It's not just down to the individual is it? For finance professionals, who else can they involve within creating a plan for their skills development?

Cox: There's a few people. I'd look internally, probably an internal mentor. I know a lot of companies have official mentor schemes — that's good — or maybe an informal mentor or a champion. Back in 2009, I got an informal mentor who was absolutely fantastic who headed up the commercial world. I learned so much not about the commercial world, I built that rather quick, it was about how people think in the commercial world. That really brought home the emotional intelligence piece to me of the outstanding data doesn't actually take people with you. It's the way you interact.

Finding somebody who can do that with you whether it's official, unofficial, and maybe going outside the company. There's a lot of mentors on the market, some real good ones who don't need to spend that much time with you, who can just give you one or two guiding steps that make a lot of difference. Also it builds confidence knowing that somebody's there if things aren't going well you're frustrated, you can get somebody very experienced who's probably been there and get some sound advice.

Rowe: Great. Thank you. Measurement's obviously important. How do you measure the progress that you're making, the progress of your plan?

Cox: Well, what you've got to do is go back to the start of your plan, and see how far you've come at any given time. Again, you have to be careful of not putting it in, "April 2022, I want to be a financial controller," that would be wrong. But what you want to do is say, "I want to build skills where I am more influential, where I can collaborate," and you're actually doing that. You've got some knowledge, and you may be on a project, or you're being given extra responsibilities where you are actually applying those. That is good progress.

You've got to be objective and reasonable with yourself on progress. You do need to have the plan though, it has to be realistic, built up well. Always go back and look how far you've come, because it's easy to give yourself targets, not actually meet them straight away, and then probably take a step back from the development cycle and process. The thing is to trust the plan, trust yourself, but obviously make it more than a document that sits on your desk or in your iPhone, make it a living document that actually guides you probably on a quarterly basis.

Rowe: Thank you, Gary. What would be your tips for making skills improvement a habit throughout your career?

Cox: I'd start off by, first of all, saying to yourself that you are responsible for your own development. There's a danger again and I fall into this trap. You go into a big cooperation and there's lots of utilities, there's lots of information and processes around developing skills. It's easy to think that your manager is going to sit down and tell you what he needs of you and the corporation will.

What you've got to do is reverse that and say a lot of people will give you guidance, but the expectations should be on you. Managers change, people in those organisations will move out of the organisation, it's up to you. You've worked so hard to become qualified. The amount of pressure that you had to cope with, the amount of effort you put in, and that's great skill itself. Why not then start to use that and say, it is down to you, you don't get coached or mentored through that process, you have that appetite to do it. You've got to keep that appetite going post-qualification.

When you're in a role, whether you're just two years into it or five years into it, it's up to you. It's your plan. It's your career. You're the one that can change that. If it's not going in the right way, it's down to you to do that development, and there's lots of resources available to help you do it, but you need that energy and passion to do it. It won't be there every day, but at least acknowledge that it's your responsibility.

Rowe: Finally, Gary, what would be your three top takeaways from our conversation today?

Cox: Three top takeaways would be: I would conduct a personal skills audit and growth plan, definitely that's the first one. The second one is, I would always work on your self-management because this underpins it. You've got the plan, you put the effort into doing that is you need to be resilient, you need to believe in yourself. You need to regulate yourself emotionally so, when you have periods of frustration and impatience, channel that into something positive if some of that's within the plan, something that might be learning a new skill or utilising something. The self-management is key. That is the building block for me.

The third thing through that is to get a support or get a champion, whether it's an official, unofficial mentor, a peer who you trust who maybe is a different level in a different function even — that works really well — or maybe somebody from the outside who can be there when you get a little stuck or you need pointing in the right direction and is going to give you good support as well and good advice. Those three I'd definitely recommend, Oliver.

Rowe: Gary, thank you for sharing your advice.

Cox: Excellent. Thank you very much, Oliver.