The financial sector occupies a special place in the business world. No matter what issues arise to challenge or outright derail other fields, there’s always a substantial demand for skilled professionals who can handle finances.
Money might accrue in different places, but it continues to move around. If it doesn’t, economies don’t slow: they grind to a halt. Carve out a niche with your financial skills, and you’ll always be able to find work.
This is of particular significance at the moment due to the general upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some fields (tourism and hospitality, most notably) have been devastated by lockdown restrictions, while others (like ecommerce) have entered boom periods — but finance has stayed at an even keel. This makes it highly attractive as a career destination, especially if you can make it all the way to financial controller level or CFO.
Unfortunately, demand is higher than ever. With so many promising candidates battling over internships, let alone entry-level positions, the path ahead is complicated. Those determined to set themselves apart must pull out all the stops to demonstrate their skill and expertise.
In this piece, we’re going to set out some advice for managing this. Along the way, we’ll consider which qualifications employers in the finance world tend to look for, which skills are particularly worthy of your focus, and how you can use the means at your disposal to demonstrate those skills as gracefully as possible. Let’s get started.
Financial qualifications worth pursuing and emphasizing
Every substantial education institute will have various courses covering financial matters, making it tricky to know where to start. In general, though, it’s most practical to stick to the core assortment of qualifications and certifications that employers rate the most highly.
When you put years of work into something, you shouldn’t need to justify that in applications.
So what does that core assortment include? Before we get to that, we should delineate it by two factors: what exactly you’re hoping to do, and where you’re trying to work.
- If you want to work in accountancy in Europe (or abroad in general), your strongest options are the certification courses offered by the ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) and the CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants), referred to by the names of their providers (the ACCA and the CIMA).
- The ACCA covers a broad range of skills, making it a flexible foundation that suits those unsure about where exactly they want their careers to go. The course requirements vary by country, but it generally calls for a range of formal education qualifications. Students are tasked with passing various exams and producing coursework based on 36 months of relevant supervised work experience in a relevant role (started before or during the study process).
- The CIMA is much more specialized, concentrating on core technical and business skills that are sure to be useful in managerial scenarios: someone who wants to be a CFO, for instance, might take this route. This course requires students to choose four relevant knowledge areas and demonstrate between 36 and 60 months of associated work experience.
- If you want to work in accountancy in the US, you should aim to take the CPA exam to become a certified public accountant. The requirements will depend on the state in which you pursue the certification, but you’ll generally need an accounting or business degree to take the exam.
The exam portion is the main focus, with four sections you need to pass (and four test windows per year): it’s typical to do one section per window, though you can schedule it however you’d prefer. Once you’ve passed, you may need to take a state-mandated ethics exam online (this isn’t obligatory nationally).
Before you can get your certificate, though, you need to fulfil the work experience requirement, and this again depends on the state. It can be as little as 6 months and as much as 24 months under direct CPA supervision, and there may even be certain types of experience you need to demonstrate. With that done, you can get your certificate.
- If you want to work elsewhere in finance (perhaps you want to be an investment banker), then certifications immediately mean much less — though there are certain strong correlations that hold sway, such as that between investment banking and studies of hard sciences like mathematics and physics. Look into the job postings that interest you, and you’ll quickly form a solid idea of what’s considered desirable.
Overall, anyone with a desire to work in accountancy needs to concentrate on earning the ACCA, the CIMA, or even both (there’s value to that approach, certainly). Which one they should pick will depend on the route they want to take with their career, but either will make them a candidate worthy of consideration.
Skills that every finance candidate should hone
Qualifications aside, what skills should finance candidates possess and be able to showcase? There are several categories worth mentioning here, so let’s get into them:
Money is a pressing issue for most businesses, and financial concerns and arrangements can generate a lot of damaging conflict. Top finance professionals are also strong communicators. They know how to ask the right questions, read between the lines, pursue their hunches, and explain complicated problems to people lacking their technical expertise.
Self-governance and discipline are skills: you need to work on them, and they develop (slowly but surely) if you do. Given that the finance world can demand long hours and generate a lot of stress, having a strong will and clear resiliency will show that you can take the heat when things get particularly difficult — making you a decent investment.
Scattergun insight isn’t what the best accountants are known for. Professionalism is obviously a must-have trait, and the product of a financial assessment should be a well-structured report that proves useful at the time and as a historical document that can make future projects easier. If you know how to create an efficient report, you’ll fare well.
Gathering information is only one part of the puzzle. You also need to know what it means, and that requires you to filter and parse huge quantities of data.
A glance at a sheet of financial reports should allow you to pick out inconsistencies and build up some thoughts about overall performance (what’s going well, and what could be improved).
The days of financial reports being kept in actual ledgers are done. Everything’s handled in the digital realm now, and while it’s perfectly fine to take handwritten notes on a regular basis, everything significant must ultimately find its way into finance tools that can track and regulate spending.
So you need to know how to use that software.
How to showcase relevant skills neatly and effectively
Now that we’ve covered some skills that finance candidates should hone, we can get into the thorny issue of how those skills can be showcased. Interviewers can’t form representative views of candidates, after all.
The best they can do is go by the provided evidence and try to reach reasonable conclusions. Here are some things to mention on an application:
We covered how personal strengths can play well, and this is particularly relevant after more than a year of lockdown life in the pandemic era. Left unable to continue life as usual, people reacted differently to the new circumstances. Some essentially stopped trying, opting to wait (and vegetate) until things got better — but others knuckled down and tried new things.
The question, then, is what you’ve done — or could do — to show your financial skills? Personal projects are easy to run these days due to overwhelming accessibility. Creative software abounds (often free to try, or simply free overall as is the case with the GIMP), ecommerce is open to anyone (a drag-and-drop builder like Yola might not be very sophisticated, but it will let you cobble together a store in mere minutes), and the online world is saturated with resources covering everything you could ever want to know about business.
A personal project like that makes an excellent case study, allowing the candidate to list their financial concerns and decisions. Why did they stock certain items? How did they calculate their predicted profits? It’s all useful information.
Financial internships came up in the introduction. Of course, there's the frustrating truth that using an internship to get a foot in the door isn’t ideal when you may need a foot in the door to get an internship — but it’s all relative. Going for an internship may not be easy, but it’s easier than the alternative of going for an entry-level position.
If you’ve been through an internship, document how it went. What did you learn? What holes in your knowledge did it expose? How did you get on with people? And if you’ve yet to go through an internship, remember that requirements vary massively. If you can’t get one particular internship, look elsewhere for a program with lower requirements.
The point is to gather some valuable information and show that you’re committed to your career path. Being part of a prestigious program is a great thing, but not outright necessary to get where you want to go.
Bide your time, do what you can, and steadily build up your case until the strength of your candidacy is undeniable.
Lastly, we need to touch upon the unstructured elements of interviews, because the conversations that inevitably result are significant. A candidate who looks great on paper can sabotage their efforts by seeming dull, while a rival candidate with a mediocre array of accomplishments can show sparkling insight and earn pole position.
While you shouldn’t overthink free-flowing conversation (this can lead you to clam up), you should look for opportunities to use conversational touchpoints to highlight your skills. If a financial matter comes up naturally, look for a graceful way in which you can show what you know about it. Discuss a particular element you find interesting, and show your passion.
This is difficult to manage, because you need to maintain an awkward balance between trying too much and trying too little. Practice through everyday conversation with friends and family members. Imagine that you’re always stating your case as a candidate for a finance position, and steer conversation accordingly. It’s a good way to stay sharp.
Landing the perfect finance job
Job hunting in any discipline is difficult, frustrating, and often disappointing. You can have the ideal CV, but trip up in the interviews. You can know all the right people, but the timing might be off.
It's important to remember that there's no one path to a finance role. Every hiring manager has their own priorities, and every candidate has their own strengths and weaknesses.
Understand what makes you a strong and desirable employee. If that's your grades, emphasize them. If it's previous experience or entrepreneurial spirit, then focus on them in interviews.
And while this is just the first step, it pays to understand what's important to senior finance professionals. They're the ones you need to impress, and you may be in their shoes sooner or later. This ebook should help: