To be a high performer in Finance you need to avoid these 4 mistakes

By Andy Burrows

I wonder if this is you?

  • You feel like you’re one of the people who works the hardest in the Finance department;
  • You feel like you’re very busy all that time, and you hardly ever have time to take breaks or holidays;
  • And yet people don’t seem to appreciate your work, they don’t talk about you as a high performer;
  • But they’re pretty quick to point out your errors and mistakes;
  • No-one is mentioning promotion opportunities to you, but other people seem to get the fast track;
  • You’re either stressed and at risk of burnout, or you’ve given up trying to impress people.

Well, have no fear! I am here to put a few ideas in front of you that may just hold the answers you’ve been looking for!

No guarantees! You may indeed be in a situation where you’ve been asked to do the impossible, and you genuinely have too much work on your plate.

But, from what I’ve seen in my 25-year+ career in Finance, there are a few thoughts that I can share that will very probably help you.

So, let me start by outlining four mistakes I commonly see. These are mistakes that actually prevent you from working at your best.

Then I’m going to show you what high performing people do instead, and, most importantly, the stark difference in the way they think about things.

So, here goes:

Mistake 1: Trying to do everything

Some people get so caught up with the idea that they have to do everything they’ve been asked to do that they don’t do a good job of any of them. Everything is rushed. Mistakes are made, and not caught and corrected.

Even if they get everything done that is on the list, they get a reputation for disappointing work.

Mistake 2: Not thinking about ‘what good looks like’

Many struggling Finance professionals are so keen to get each task finished that they don’t think, or ask, what good looks like.

For instance, I’ve seen analysts quickly pull together large tables of figures, and then hand them over with little context, leaving the end user struggling to understand what they’re looking at.

And, conversely, I’ve seen very colourful reports, converted into multiple-page Powerpoint slides, taking a lot of effort, when a simple table and an email with three bullet points would have done the job better.

Consequently, they’re either causing frustration and rework, or wasting effort for no extra credit.

Mistake 3: Not thinking who it’s for and why it’s needed

Similarly, some people fail to impress because they don’t consider who their output will be serving, and why they need it.

This can lead to using language the audience doesn’t understand, or could easily misunderstand. Or you may waste time giving unnecessary background and context that they already know.

And if you don’t take time to fully understand what they’re using your output for, you could easily give them something they don’t need or don’t understand. For instance, your ‘customer’ may use incorrect terminology. They may say they want you to put together a “business case”, and you produce a big, thorough, document, when actually all they wanted was a basic cost-benefit table in a spreadsheet.

Mistake 4: Making a habit of taking shortcuts

Most of the shabby work I’ve seen, to be honest, has been down to taking shortcuts that may have been ok one time, but undermined the person’s credibility after the twentieth! There’s a time and place for ‘quick and dirty’. If it becomes a habit, and everything is produced ‘quick and dirty’, you start to get a ‘quick and dirty’ (and lazy) reputation, and you never show any evidence that you know how to do it properly.

What are you thinking?

All these mistakes stem, I believe, from a fear of letting people down, or rather a desperate desire to please everyone all the time! Finance professionals who feel like they’re struggling actually have great intentions. That’s why it’s so painful to see.

The problem is that those great intentions are based on somewhat weak assumptions, such as:

  1. That meeting deadlines is more important than anything;
  2. That doing more things is the definition of hard work, and hard work is what gets you noticed;
  3. That all work is equally important.

In contrast, what do the high performers believe? What is their mindset?

High performers work from different assumptions, including:

  1. Doing a great job, consistently, is what makes you stand out;
  2. Not all work is equal, so put first things first;
  3. Urgent things are not always the most important;
  4. The definition of performance is meeting an objective, so understanding the reasons for your work, and the quality requirements, is crucial;
  5. Time spent planning and prioritising is time well-spent.

What high performers and promotable people do

So, let me finish with how that makes a difference. What do high performers do differently because of those assumptions?

  1. They work from their role purpose and their personal goals to know what’s important, and they focus relentlessly on that, making sure that they schedule time to get those things done. They will delegate or ignore things, even seemingly urgent things, that detract from their focus on the important.
  2. They start from a clear understanding of who they are providing their output to, why those people need it, and they work out what good looks like from that. Not only do they plan their work with that end in mind, but they develop insight into where they could potentially over-deliver, or whether ‘quick and dirty’ will be a good approach.
  3. They only take shortcuts to eliminate valueless steps, because they know what good looks like;
  4. They think broadly to connect their work with other business concerns they’re aware of, so they can futureproof what they do by anticipating future developments.

What are your takeaway actions?

So, can you use any of the above points to improve the standard of your work, and to cut down on the stress?

Are you going to continue struggling on, overworking without getting credit?

Or are you going to act with discernment about audience, quality, purpose and objectives, and align your work to consistently deliver high quality in everything important?

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About the Author – Andy Burrows

Qualified as a chartered accountant in the UK, Andy Burrows has worked for more than 25 years as a senior Finance professional in a variety of businesses of different sizes and sectors. He is now a popular writer in Finance and Accounting, and provides online learning and coaching to help Finance people become better at helping the businesses they work for. In 2019 he was described as one of the "Top voices on LinkedIn for Finance, accounting and FP&A".

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