The biggest failure of my Finance career ā€“ and 4 lessons you can learn from it

By Andy Burrows

I had one of those lightbulb moments a few months ago. The sort that kind of catches your breath. Because in the space of a few seconds, something really helpful becomes clear to you that you never even considered before. And yet it was hiding there in plain sight. I could have seen it at any stage if I’d simply chosen a different perspective.

I’ll obviously come on to what that was in a minute. But first, I need to tell you a story.

It’s the story of my early Finance career.

I promise I’ll be brief. And it does have a point that will be relevant to you, especially if you have ambitions to progress into senior roles in Finance. I don’t (often) talk about myself just for the sake of it! So, please bear with me.

My success

You see, when I was 29 years and 5 months old, I got my first Finance Director job.

That’s a mere four years after I qualified as a chartered accountant and started putting the letters ACA after my name. And it was three years after I left public practice accounting and auditing to build my Finance skills in ‘industry and commerce’.


Many people are! I was! I hadn’t even set myself a career goal at that stage.

And just in case you’re wondering – no, it wasn’t a tiny company with a team of three. I wasn’t working for the family business (my family doesn’t have a business!). And it wasn’t a glorified accountant role in a small business.

I had a team of nearly 50 people, across three departments, covering accounting operations, financial reporting, management reporting, risk management, internal audit, treasury operations, and commercial decision support.

I was a member of the Board of Directors, sitting alongside the Chairman, COO and Group FD of the global $bn group we were a part of. I was the youngest subsidiary Board director in the group at the time.

And I don’t normally talk about this because it seems a bit big-headed... and that’s not me!

How did I do it?

That’s the question most people ask when I do mention it.

And my normal reply is that I was in the right place at the right time. Like, they didn’t really have much to choose from, so they chose me. Like, I was just lucky!

My failure

And that, right there, in that last paragraph, is my biggest failure. Plain and simple.

Self-deprecating claptrap!

And it’s my biggest failure because that’s the way I’ve described that promotion to every recruiter since I left the job. And that’s why I’ve not had a role with that title since then, even though I’ve got close.

The truth is that they probably would have preferred someone more experienced. But it’s stupid of me to think that they would have given the FD job to just whoever seemed to be next in line in Finance.

This was my lightbulb moment...

If I hadn’t been right for the job, I wouldn’t have got the job!

The thing is, I never bothered to ask myself why I was right for the job, because I was so convinced it was just luck (and was too busy getting on with doing the job!).

And because I didn’t know why I was right for that job, I wasn’t able to sell those attributes to recruiters in the future. I simply convinced myself that I wouldn’t be that lucky again!

Lesson 1: learn from success as well as failure

So, here’s the first learning I want to pass on:

Learning from success is just as important as learning from failure.

You do need some caution, though. Bill Gates also says that, “success is a lousy teacher!” What he means is that when you’re successful, it’s easy to get cocky. You can be lulled into thinking that your whole formula was what made you successful. And why would you want to analyse what elements gave you the success and which ones might drag you down under different circumstances? You’re too eager to just repeat the process and keep going.

On reflection, I guess that it might actually be failure that helps you to see what gave you success. I wonder whether I would have been able to see what got me an FD job at the age of 29 if I’d built a great CFO/FD career after that. I’m pretty sure I would just be getting on with doing the job. And I certainly wouldn’t have learnt a whole host of other things I now take for granted.

So, learn from success (it’s better than simply assuming you’re lucky!). But remember that failure is the dark contrast you need to make the success factors shine more brightly and clearly.

I’m going to move on now to outline the three main factors that made me the right person for the FD job when it came along, even though I was younger than average.

Lesson 2: Be solid in the accounting and finance fundamentals

Firstly, much as it may annoy those who choose to embark on a Finance career starting with an MBA, in FP&A, or management accounting, my training as a chartered accountant (ICAEW) certainly gave me an edge.

And before you write off that statement as elitism (which I’ve heard people do), this has nothing to do with the perceived status of one qualification over another.

What I found was that that grounding in financial accounting and reporting helped me to appreciate financial dynamics in a broader sense than simply profitability. From that, and from risk-based auditing, working with a large number and variety of clients, I learnt to interpret financial statements. Say what you like about published accounts, but with experience of putting them together, you can get a good picture of the financial health and performance of an organisation from them.

Two things stand out in my memory as I look back on my first three years in business, more than 25 years ago, in the run up to getting that great promotion.

First, the look of confusion from the management accountants and accounts assistants when I asked a simple question like, “what’s the other side of that entry?”

Confusion would turn to amazement when I would follow that up by reviewing ledger statements, finding entries that had gone astray – often entries in the balance sheet which should have been in the P&L. And sometimes they gave the answers as to why there were weird variances in the P&L.

It appeared to me that management accountants, at least in those days, were entirely focused on the P&L – actuals, budget, forecast. I knew, as a financial accountant and former auditor, that bad things can hide in the balance sheet. In fact, the balance sheet is often the key to a lot of interesting things.

Second, I could sit and review the monthly P&L produced by the team and tell them within five minutes where there were anomalies to look into. They’d look at me first of all like I was crazy, and then like I was a magician. And I realised I was doing what the partners at my firm used to do while I was training. They’d take literally one look at a set of accounts and tell me where I’d made mistakes. All of that accounting experience meant that I’d developed a sixth sense for the financial dynamics of the business. And that meant I could spot immediately when things looked odd.

Sure, I had to learn budgeting, forecasting, analysis, and modelling, and become proficient with Excel. But that didn’t take long. And my training meant I did that with controls and crosschecks that made my work more reliable.

The upshot is this – that reliability with accounting questions, and the robustness of my FP&A work, gave me great technical credibility.

We must move on...

... because technical skills are only the beginning...

Lesson 3: Be known for knowing the business, and caring about it

The second thing that made me ‘CFO-ready’ – ready for when that FD job opportunity came along – was my reputation in the business, outside of Finance.

I believe by that stage I’d gained a reputation for understanding the business, and for helping non-Finance colleagues.

I don’t think I would have been selected as an FD if I didn’t have the respect and confidence of my senior non-Finance colleagues.

I’d had the privilege of working with colleagues in Operations on a business automation project. Ostensibly, my role was to help build the business case. But to do that I had to understand the cost dynamics, and work out how those dynamics would change with automation. So, I had to understand the business process and how that would change.

Other Finance people may have approached that as simply a number-crunching, model-building, exercise. I approached it as a way of helping the business, so I sought to understand the decision-making process and the ultimate goal too.

My curiosity and interest ultimately got me involved in discussions about selling the business. And my knowledge of business drivers and processes (and my attention to detail) meant that I asked a load – and I mean a load – of important, detailed, questions that people didn’t know the answers to, many of which were technically outside of Finance. So, I became the one to chase down the answers from all sorts of experts around the group.

And that made me the one who knew the most about how the business worked, technically. So, I got to sit in the project meetings and the legal negotiations.

I can imagine the team from the acquirer thinking, “who’s this young Finance guy who seems to know so much about the business, and holds his own alongside his senior Marketing, HR, IT and Operations colleagues?”

If you were appointing a new FD for an acquired company, you’d want someone with that kind of knowledge and understanding of the business, and that kind of reputation with colleagues.

Lesson 4: Be a leader

The third thing that I think was critical in my selection as FD was my leadership reputation. Being Finance Director would mean leading a team of around 50 people (most of whom were older and more experienced than me). I don’t think I would have been given that responsibility if my previous team of 30+ hadn’t been delivering great service to the business.

Three years earlier, I’d come into the business as a first-time manager, lapping up training in feedback, coaching and performance management. That training was definitely crucial for me, and helped me a lot.

But I think the most important thing was that I recognised very quickly that my role was not to boss the team around, but to support them. My role was to provide them the resources, the coaching, the encouragement and empowerment, such that together we would be more than the sum of the parts.

And therefore, I listened to my team, and I learnt from them. And as I did so I gained their respect, and they listened to me and learnt from me. We were a team learning together, and working out together how to perform well together.

Now, I’m not saying I was a great leader at the age of 29. I definitely made a lot of mistakes. I’ve made more mistakes in leadership than in any technical Finance work! I’ve let people down, failed people I should have supported, and dealt badly with some difficult situations.

But I’d like to think that my people-focused mindset and authenticity gave showed I could be given the big responsibility of leading a big team.

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About the Author

Andy Burrows is a popular writer and speaker on a wide range of topics in Business Finance and Accounting. He provides online training and coaching, so that business-focused Finance professionals can grow in impact and business leadership.

He was named as one of the top voices on LinkedIn in 2019 in Finance, Accounting and FP&A.

Qualified as a chartered accountant, Andy has worked in many senior Finance roles over the last 20 years, including Finance Director at one stage, across many different sectors in a variety of companies.

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