Navigating Your Way to Career Success

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Don't leave your career on automatic pilot

By Tony Glennon, John Sicilia & Ray Pirre

ue Right is a 35-year-old accountant from New Jersey. Her palatial Georgian colonial home in Princeton provides her all the charm and prestige of a land baron. Her three car garage can barely accommodate her taste for the finest automobiles money can buy, which serve to transport her to and from the major financial services firm where she serves as senior partner.

Jim Dungeon is also 35 years old and is an accountant from Staten Island. He resides in a good neighborhood; he struggles to pay the mortgage and send his kids to private schools. Jim, an accounts payable manager for a small firm, takes a bus and subway to his office every day.
Both Sue and Jim have a bachelor's degree in accounting and both are CPAs and CMAs. The question, therefore, is what led to Right's success and Dungeon's lack of it?

The career success illustrated in Sue Right's story can be achieved through a well-planned, well-executed career management plan. Whether in the public or private sector, you, too, can develop this businesslike, planned approach to your career. And, by learning and applying the fundamentals of sound career management, you, too, can maximize the potential that the profession has traditionally offered.


STEERING YOUR CAREER

oo often accounting and financial professionals leave their career on automatic pilot: they graduate, land a solid entry level job, work long, hard hours, and casually catch the next opportunity whenever and however it comes along.

While this technique may work for the lucky few, today's sophisticated, complex business environment dictates a far more deliberate approach. Taking control of your career early enables you to better counteract the destructive effects of factors beyond your control such as corporate takeovers, leveraged buyouts, or a major industrial shift - all of which could eliminate your position altogether or set your career back indefinitely.

Taking control early enables you to avoid finding out too late that you're marooned on a reef of salary and skill stagnation, watching those who have effectively managed their careers sail blissfully by.

A tip to help accustom yourself to career management responsibility is to assess the job as objectively as if you were your own employer. Consult the professional in you by asking, "How can I maximize my success and job satisfaction?" Ask this question now, just to see how you would answer it.


CHART A SURE COURSE

s you may have found, answering the above question requires knowing the final destination and all the significant landmarks along the way. Only after you have established a concrete definition of where you're going can you chart a sure course. So, how do you know where you're going?

Taking control of your career early enables you to counteract factors beyond your control

To start, learn and understand the established positions of the accounting/financial career path. These positions, basically consistent and equivalent landmarks, indicate whether or not you are on the right skill mastery, responsibility and salary that must be attained before moving to the next level. These major positions in industry are: staff, senior, manager, controller, treasurer, up to CFO.

In public accounting the major stops are staff, senior, manager, partner and up through senior partner.

While each of these positions may be further divided into other various titles and responsibilities - depending on the company - the key is to keep sight of the big picture, constantly developing your skills to meet the requirements of the next major position. Once you have a clear overview of the profession, establish specific career goals. What brought you to the profession in the first place? What do you really want? Where do you see yourself five or ten years from now? Consider the fundamental job positions and determine which one appeals to you. With those all-important goals clarified, how are you going to reach them? Start by evaluating your current situation. Where are you now? What experience are you gaining that will help you advance to the next position? It's very important to keep developing your skills in line with where you want to go next. You can do this by making sure you┬╣re progressively building the essential accounting/financial transferable skills which are: general accounting, financial analysis, auditing, cash management, taxation, system design and implementation.


DON'T GET ANCHORED

ary Stay is an oil and gas refinery senior accountant who has worked her entire 10-year career with a Fortune 500 oil company. She started as a junior accountant in the oil and gas refinery accounting department and on several occasions opted not to seek transfers out of her department because she felt it would mean more hours, a longer commute, additional pressure, and working for a more demanding manager.

Stay is a perfect example of a professional who has overspecialized by remaining in her early position too long. She is likely to be earning a salary that could not be comparable outside her company, perhaps even within her industry.
At this point, Stay has not developed necessary project control and supervisory skills to qualify for the next step in the corporate ladder. Her career is as stationary as a boat at anchor.


FULL STEAM AHEAD

ow let's look at a positive example of progressive skills development. Peter Planner is an assertive and ambitious person who holds a CPA and an MBA with an undergraduate in accounting and a master's degree in executive management. He works for an international CPA firm. Peter started out on the audit staff and after several busy seasons in this capacity attained higher responsibility, which then enabled him to request a transfer into the firm's tax department. There, after a year of valuable tax experience, he was able to leverage himself into the firm's consulting practice and subsequently was promoted to partner.This principle of internal transfer and promotion applies to the private accounting sector as well where most companies specialize according to industry, such as banking, insurance, manufacturing and so on.
In order to build transferable skills in the private sector, your objective should be to target organizational departments or divisions. For instance, a large multinational, multi-site organization may have a separate insurance - or other related - operation that offers new skills development opportunities.
While you're working toward that transfer or promotion to a new division, determine if you need additional training or education to enhance your skills portfolio. If so, use your time wisely, especially if your current position has become easy.

chart.gif (5991 bytes)An individual transferring from public to private accounting also has some additional training and education to be concerned about.
For example, Joe B. Groom, CMA, CPA, had worked in a Big 5 public accounting firm and wanted to be a controller in a private company. Having been groomed as an auditor, and without the necessary skills - such as budgeting, managing numerous departments and large staffs, financial planning and acquisition experience - he developed a well-planned strategy to get aligned with a controller position in the organizational structure. He chose to start in an internal audit position where he learned the entire organization worldwide. From that vantage point the company recognized his talent and contribution and began to challenge him with various management opportunities leading up to his controllership position, thereby rewarding his ability to make large-scale decisions.


STEER CLEAR OF OTHER MAJOR OBSTACLES

nother factor vital to managing your career is: stay in the career mainstream. In other words, make sure you're always in or heading for positions along the profession's structure and preparing for the next step while in your current position.
Once you've acquired certain transferable skills, the right experience, and you've hit the compensation ceiling, move on - don't linger. It's easy to stay in an outgrown position because of a light commute, complacency, or convenient hours. Ask yourself if you should be looking to the horizon if this is the case.
Other obstacles to steer clear of include certain salary traps. Guard against attaining a current income level greater than your value in the job marketplace at large. A professional is most vulnerable to this trap during the first three years when an opportunity to move up is passed by.
The result is that by remaining in one position too long, an individual continues to refine skills developed only for that position in that industry.

While this overspecialization benefits the present employer, and may benefit you salary-wise, your potential to a prospective employer, particularly in a different industry, is limited.
An important rule-of-thumb is that a person's overall net worth is best served by seeking exposure to a variety of industries such as insurance, banking, manufacturing, and service as well as an exposure to a variety of skills particularly early in one's career.
Salary rewards go hand-in-hand with keeping your skills and industry exposure as broad as possible. Recent salary studies (Figure 1) shows that accounting professionals achieved a 10.4% increase when changing jobs, compared to salary increases resulting from promotions of 8.8%, and those resulting from an annual review, of 6.4%.
The higher salary increase for changing jobs would reflect the greater premium placed on those whose skills are readily transferable to other companies or industries, where versatility means greater professional capability and career opportunity.


FINDING A HIDDEN TREASURE

e wary of what seems like a "hidden treasure" handed to you. Some companies may pay employees inflated "insurance money" to attract those who might otherwise not remain: or they may pay "golden handcuffs" - top pay to highly specialized, valued employees whose commitment to the company is critical. How many of your colleagues do you know who think they have found a "sunken treasure" in an over-generous firm, only to find later their careers may be seriously jeopardized?
Other pointers to steer clear of are environments and industries where growth is limited or declining, regardless of how attractive the salary is that is dangled before you.


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While those higher-than-average salary situations may seem appealing, they pose a serious risk to a dedicated career plan.


Glitzy offers masking troubled areas rarely yield the real advancement opportunities for a truly viable career.

Stay alert to all these skill and salary pitfalls throughout your career. Monitor your progress regularly, and judge yourself against your peers and others in the workplace. Make sure you have regular sessions with superiors to assess your goals and strengths, and identify areas needing improvement. Ask yourself and your superiors, "How can I be better?" If you're "perfect", it may be time to consider aiming for the next step.


SMOOTH SAILING

he key to professional success and satisfaction is a well-designed, carefully monitored career plan that you can develop and manage effectively. True, there may be those who seem to be lucky in attaining job satisfaction, but today's increasingly competitive environment, calls for greater individual responsibility and strategic career planning to help counteract the uncertainty of just plain luck.
By following the basis guidelines presented here - and carefully steering clear of the reefs that can lure you out of the career mainstream - you can enjoy smooth sailing all the way to your career goals.


Tony Glennon, John Sicilia & Ray Pirre are the founding partners of GSP International. They are members of the IMA through which this article was submitted.