Are finance professionals limiting their potential by focusing on the wrong things?

Are finance professionals limiting their potential by focusing on the wrong things?

As accountants and finance professionals we’re expected to have great attention to detail and the numbers, in fact it’s a large part our training, but what if we’re paying attention to the wrong things and so limiting our ability to make a meaningful impact at work as well as holding us back from having a more rewarding and successful career in finance.

A couple recent conversations I’ve had with aspiring finance professionals got me thinking about an experiment that some of you might of heard of, the invisible gorilla. In summary, researchers played a video for some unsuspecting viewers and invited them to count how many times basketball players pass the ball to each other. But halfway through a person in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the players, and even gives a little dance.

In fact the researchers discovered that even though most people who watched the video were able to count how many times the basketball was passed 40 per cent of them failed to see the person in the gorilla suit.

Psychologists have termed this phenomenon, inattention blindness or perceptual bias, and this phenomenon has an important impact for finance professionals because we spend a lot of time focusing on the details and numbers which means that we’re at risk of failing to see something right in front of us because our ‘working memory capacity’, that is, our ability to focus attention when and where needed and on more than one thing at a time, becomes impaired.

I don’t wish to cause alarm, working memory capacity is not our long-term memory like remembering facts, dates, and our training. Instead it is the amount of information we can process in our working memory at once, the tasks we are dealing with right at that moment, like trying to solve issues like reconciling an account, call someone back or remembering to update a financial model.

However even though we should not be too alarmed the phenomenon is still important for us to be concerned about because we are so busy focusing on the details and numbers in front of us that many of us have failed to notice the broader implications of what we’re looking at to not only add value or reduce risk our organisations, but also our careers. And I’ve seen this pattern repeat in the number of bright and highly capable finance professionals who range from the more experienced who say they are frustrated that their careers aren’t progressing the way they would like anymore, they’re going sideways or perhaps you could say they’ve even stalled, to your analysts and associates who are worried about job and career security as cognitive computing technologies get ever better and more useful. So what can we do?

More Monkey Business

Well sometimes knowing what not to do is as powerful as knowing what to do. So first up don’t keep worrying about looking out for the unexpected. One, you’d drive yourself mad and two, there was a follow up experiment called Monkey Business, which found

that even when people know that they are doing a task in which an unexpected thing might happen, that doesn’t suddenly help them notice other unexpected things.

So instead take a bit of a Judo approach and turn this inattention weakness that a lot of us are susceptible to, because of the type of work we do, into a strength. By that I mean if we invest the time now, after reading this, to write out what our ideal job outcomes look like, and every day look at that list our attention will in fact tune into those things we are looking out for. I mean we know what to look out for in the numbers and details as part of doing our day-to-day tasks so why not then take some of our own advice and do it for our careers so we can work on the things we want to do and what will also sustainably add value to our organisations.

Find the win-win

If working late at period end or quarter end is a drag then be on the lookout for opportunities to reduce the time it takes or find a role you’d enjoy more. Focus on the outcomes you want from your career but which also offer a win-win for you and your organisation, whether that is a promotion, the ability to work in a new business area, an opportunity to get better at compliance or controllership activities, or get involved nearer the front lines with commercial deal-making. The thing is we’ve the skills to figure out and demonstrate financially what your organisation gets in return for the new salary, role, etc… that you’re looking to achieve, so put yourself out there and know what opportunities you need to be paying out your attention for. I give you some practical ideas to do this in the following YouTube video: #011 Monday Memo: Elevate Your Impact & Results with the Career Bone Diagram.

And this is also why we invite our finance guest mentors on the Strength in the Numbers Show, who share with you their stories and hard won lessons they’ve experienced when looking to help create value in their organisations and develop their careers, things that have worked or not, and they even break their stories down so we can also benefit by putting these into practice, becoming more influential, solving meaningful problems and helping their businesses, clients, other departments create more value for their organisations.

So do you think we focus too much attention on the numbers? Or how do you know you’re focusing on the right outcomes for your organisation and your career? Let’s add to the conversation.

The author Andrew Codd is the producer of the Strength in the Numbers Podcast which aims to create more influential finance professionals worldwide who solve meaningful problems for their organisations and in return have fun, rewarding and successful careers in finance.