A few years ago I was asked to sit on a panel assessing internal applicants to a graduate finance training program and what I found was concerning for their future success and their ability to fully reach their potential.
I deconstructed the successful submissions in a Wordcloud like the one above and found the most common word used was ‘Skills,’ 47 times (followed by ‘Knowledge,’ 38) with the phrase ‘leadership skills’ being the most common one appearing on no less than 17 occasions. This concerned me because a disproportionate emphasis was being placed on acquiring Skills & Knowledge, even though the main type of skill being sought was Leadership, something that’s only really developed through ‘Experience’ (which itself hardly registers in the wordcloud analysis, if you struggle to see it, it’s just to the left of knowledge) and I previously explored the reasons why experience trumps knowledge in a prior article.
What’s really odd?
What I find really odd though about it all is that when we hire for mid- to senior- level finance positions we tend to look for experience, what has someone done or can do (how they apply their knowledge) more so than the certificates and bits of paper they can wave about (which I do agree is probably a more important consideration at the start of our careers to get in the door). So whilst such graduate programs will provide some element of gaining experience via mentoring from increased access to higher level executives there will still be many days spent in classrooms on theoretical skills which may or may not have any practical advantage (notice how the word practical is also rarely seen in the word cloud) in the real work place.
I recall one of my mentees who had great potential, when we first met she wanted help in understanding how to get promoted to a manager role (good move) however she felt that doing a Mastercourse (not so good move) would be the next thing she should do. It took me a bit of work to convince her that in order to become a line manager in an organisation with a span of control of 7:1, what would the hiring leader be looking for in a candidate? How well would a piece of paper stack up against someone else with prior management experience or even demonstrated experience of a potential/willingness to lead (i.e. from volunteering)? Then I thought why all the fascination with knowledge over experience, so I hazarded a couple guesses:
- It’s how they’ve been schooled: Our schools have developed into being effective at teaching how to “do school,” acquiring facts to pass exams as opposed to being able to reflect on and synthesise that knowledge into understanding & insights given the information & facts they’ve being exposed to and applying this to solving valuable problems. We’re simply not teaching our finance professionals of tomorrow how to gain experience.
- Profit Driver Bias of Accountancy & Education Providers’: 44%* of fee income of top accountancy bodies is from Education, Exam Fees and Commercial activities so there’s an understandable vested interest to promote continued knowledge & skills acquisition over reflecting on how beneficial & relevant that knowledge is and if it’s really what up and coming finance professionals need. (No wonder why in the last 30 days I’ve received 17 generic emails promoting training products from a well-known accounting body, that’s more than one every other day).
What to do about it.
I was in a similar position earlier in my career, continually seeking out knowledge, which I thought was the right way to go. It wasn’t until a mentor showed me if I wanted to reach my career potential I’d also have to go about gaining the necessary experiences & influences to become a better finance leader and contributor.
So if you want to be better at finance, to be judged on results not time spent, and reach your potential faster there’s one thing you need to do, find yourself a mentor. Someone who can complement your recently acquired knowledge by sharing with you real stories and their hard won lessons to give you some practical advice of what might or might not work for you in your careers. Going on a four-day offsite training course might be 32 hours of skills development and a certificate saying you completed the course. But if you think about it another way, this is the equivalent to 64 half-hour sessions with an experienced mentor who has advice not typically found in textbooks and who might also turn out to be a potential sponsor and ongoing guide for you. I’m not saying give up acquiring new skills & certificates, just balance this with appropriate mentoring too.
And that’s why we’re trying to put right where we’ve been going wrong with the next generation of finance professionals by building up the Strength in the Numbers podcasts and why the various guest mentors show up each week to record their 30 minute episodes, where you can listen in to for free, since they and I know we have benefited enormously in our careers because of the free advice we’ve received and had in moving and growing nearer our potential. And whilst not all the mentors on our show may be relevant to you, you can decide for yourself by visiting the detailed show notes with each guest mentor’s bio, how to connect with them, key quotes from the episode, and time stamps of where the various topics were covered.