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  • Writer's pictureBrett Hampson

How to Become a Successful Finance Professional

Updated: May 29

There is no perfect path to becoming a successful finance professional.


But there is a well-worn path that has been traveled by every great finance professional.


And as I reflect on my journey, there are some key moments that stand out:


How to Become a Successful Finance Professional

  • Get any job close to finance

  • Be proficient at Excel

  • Create my process flow for reporting

  • Build analytical muscle

  • Learn financial forecasting

  • Learn the business

  • Create lots of advocates

  • Aggressively prioritize work




0. Get any job close to finance


Something that didn’t make it in the original post but is the most common question I get: “how do I break into finance/FP&A?”


It’s a competitive discipline.


It’s common for finance professionals to be in the room with senior leaders early in their career. And for good finance talent to make $200k or more within 8-10 years.


My best advice for getting in the door: take a job in accounting at the company you want to work at.


Accounting jobs are a dime a dozen. And it’s easy to stand out.


Your plan:

  • Get a job in accounting

  • Network with the finance/FP&A team

  • Do a great job in accounting

  • Let your manager and the finance manager know you want to rotate into finance/FP&A

  • Take on some finance work in addition to your accounting job

  • Rotate into finance when a role opens up


It’s what I did and a lot of others swear by.



1. Be proficient at Excel


Before I landed my first finance job, I was spending an hour per day learning a new Excel skill on the free Excel Is Fun YouTube channel.


And once I was in my job, I quickly found my Excel skills created opportunities to add value: building intermediate reports, automating processes in Excel and PowerPoint, taking on more reporting than my peers with increased accuracy.


We used to have keyboard-only days (no mouse!), challenge ourselves to learn 1 shortcut each week, and co-build advanced Excel models when we needed a second set of eyes.


Then when we’d rotate roles or someone would leave, I would almost always rebuild the reports and models I inherited to be more efficient.



2. Create a process flow for reporting


Reporting is the first thing you’ll do in almost any finance role.


So having a plan to be excellent at reporting makes sense to focus on early.


Every report in the world follows a common path: data > transform > summary. See this pattern and focus on every reporting having 1 job for 1 stakeholder.


It took me too long in my career to come across agile development methodologies (google it). It’s an excellent framework for how to think about building and improving your current reporting.


But a number of years into my career I was challenged with rebuilding an executive reporting package from scratch after a large reorg. It was trial by fire, but I quickly learned what executives want to see and how to display it.



3. Build analytical muscle


Analysis is maybe the most misunderstood and incorrectly applied words in finance.


At its core, a great analysis answers three questions: What happened? Why it happened? So What?


And there are a million ways to execute that. But building your analytical process by leveraging the common framework of descriptive (explain what you see), exploratory (look for causes), explanatory (communicate what you found) is a great place to start.


I make it a goal for everyone on my team to bring me one ‘juicy analysis’ each month. These are typically simple 1-pagers that help drive the business forward.


After a few years, you’ll want to develop a few tricks up your sleeve:

  • Price-volume-mix to attribute changes in the business to changes in financials

  • CBA (cost benefit analysis) template to help leaders understand pros and cons

  • Break-even template for quick decision making

  • Quasi experiments to prove causation

  • PowerBI to build analytical models


And if all else fails, befriend a data scientist.



4. Learn financial forecasting


In some roles, a 3-statement model is critical. In others, it’s useless.


Screenshot of LinkedIn Post

Regardless, knowing how accounting works is critical to forecasting things like Revenue, Expenses, Cash [Flow], etc.


But most finance roles will spend their time forecasting the P&L and/or non-financial metrics.


Learning how to so a simple trend pick based on your analysis, add seasonality to the trend to account for normal business fluctuations, then sensitivity testing your forecast will take you very far.


What’s the single biggest piece of advice I give finance professionals who want to improve their skills?


Measure your forecast accuracy!



5. Learn the business


As an introvert, I’d rather sit at my desk and study my reports or read the MD&A to learn the business (which are both great).


But the single biggest thing that helped my career that I hated doing?


Pick up the phone and talk to my business partners.


Even better was making the rounds in the office and small talking the sales folks (who love to talk).


But as I keep moving up the ladder I see 1 thing that holds my peers back: they are afraid to ask questions.


The best leaders I know ask tons of [dumb] questions without hesitation.



6. Create lots of advocates


If you are looking for hacks and shortcuts, I’m not your friend.


The 1 thing that I did different than anybody else was make sure I did better work, and more of it.


Forget networking. Doing great work is the best way to build advocates. Also committing to reasonable deadlines then beating them is a pro move.


Advocacy > Network



7. Aggressively prioritize work


I remember when my task list got too long to keep in my head.


And again when it got too long to fit on a white board (I wish I was kidding).


The secret to surviving (and thriving) in high-volume finance roles?


Being ruthless with your prioritization.


Only work on the most value added stuff for the business, period.


That requires the following operating structure:

  • Dumping-ground for all requests - so you never miss a single to-do

  • Annual goals - to ensure you are pre-aligned on the most important stuff

  • Quarterly focus - it’s your chance to make sure the right work is queued up since good analysis can take months to complete

  • Monthly strategy - each month has a vibe and priority, make sure you save room

  • Weekly plan - what exactly are you going to get done this week?

  • Daily check-ins - I try to reach out to 1 key stakeholder (boss, business partner, etc.) with 1 piece of value every day

  • Proactive communication - if someone asks ‘where is that thing I asked for’, you’ve already missed it


Your next steps:


Starting or growing your finance career isn’t linear.


And the steps I laid out are likely not how your career has played our or will play out.


But there are tips, tricks, and common wisdom found by studying great finance leaders ahead of you and simply following their path.


In fact, for most of my career I simply followed managers and leaders who I deeply respected and wanted to become more like. It meant I didn’t have to have everything together myself.


If you find yourself without the mentorship and resources you need to grow, consider a few options:

  • Switching jobs to find that mentorship and advocacy

  • Find someone your trust and respect to study from afar


That’s why I teach what I teach, to help those who need a small boost to help them accelerate their development and career.



 


Whenever you are ready, check out the Finance Leadership Lab. It's the place where 500+ finance professional

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