Help! My Finance career has stalled!

By Andy Burrows

Careers these days are bloomin’ difficult to put together and keep on track. No need to talk about the reasons for that. The point is that it takes a lot of intentionality. It takes thought, guts, perseverance, and confidence.

I’m talking about Finance and Accountancy career progression, because that’s what I have experience of. But, gone are the days (did they ever really exist?) when you could just keep doing a solid job and some day you would get called into the higher level job.

And so, when I received the following question in a Finance careers event, it was not a surprise:

“I have been in the same organisation at the same level for 10 years. My main concern is I feel like I am stuck and unable to get the breakthrough to the next level, in spite of my vast experience across industries in various Finance roles.”

This article is aimed at helping you if you can relate to that situation. You feel like your career has stalled. You’re stuck. You feel capable of the next level. You’re bored because your job is well within your capabilities. But no one is recognising that when it comes to deciding promotions.

What can you do?

Here are a few of my ideas, from 25 years of experience. Let me know your thoughts, especially if you’ve been in this situation and found a way out.

First, assess the situation

First, you need to assess the situation. Why are you in this position? What is it that is holding you back? Honestly.

Here are a few common reasons:

Unrealistic expectations – Sometimes we’re not always the best at judging our own capabilities, especially against a job we don’t have experience of, and especially when we’re not factoring in the competition.

Giving the wrong impression – Sometimes perceptions senior people have of us are not doing us justice. They think we wouldn’t want the higher job or wouldn’t be good at it, but they are not taking into account things they haven’t seen.

Being pigeonholed – I was once in a situation where I did a really good job at researching and fixing a financial reporting problem with regard to a very technical accounting policy. That led to being asked to prepare an accounting manual, and then some internal training for accountants across the group. Then IFRS came along and I was asked to assess the impact and rewrite the accounting manual and come up with a transition plan. By the end of all that, I was seen as a technical financial accountant, and was not considered for juicy FP&A roles. The fact that I’d been a Finance Director with a team of 50 people before that was never considered.

Broken progression promises – Sometimes when you’re hired into a company, they entice you with promises of progression either upwards or sideways. They tell you that within 18 months you’ll be into the next level or working closer to the business, if you just accept this sideways move or slight demotion now. So, you do a good job and 18 months comes and goes, and you keep going, and 18 months turns to 2 years, then 3 years. And then disillusionment sets in.

Assess yourself honestly

After you’ve thought about what is really holding you back, you need to take an honest and hard look at yourself. Here are two different ways you could do this:

Consider your credibility. Credibility (per Stephen M.R. Covey, The Speed of Trust) is built on character and competence.

Character consists of integrity and intent. In other words, you’re a good person and you want to do well.

Competence is a combination of capabilities and results. Or, you can do the job, and you consistently do a good job.

I haven’t space to go into detail here, but if you display those four things you will improve your credibility.

Consider what gets you promoted. I’ve identified five things that bump you up the levels in Finance. I call them promotion triggers – find out more about them in my Finance Career Growth ebook and mini course. They are:

At any level, be good at what you do (that’s the capability and results part of credibility) and be eager to learn.

Once you get further on, it’s about delivering results through the team and having a good reputation with non-Finance colleagues.

After that, in addition, to be ready for CFO/FD level you also need strategic insight/thinking.

If you think about the four factors of credibility and the five promotion triggers, you can do an honest self-assessment and gap analysis. And from that you can identify where you need to change to get yourself unstuck.

Here are a few actions you could think about from your analysis of the situation and yourself.

Do better work

The first thing you can consider is improving the work you do.

Do you get good feedback on what you produce? Or are your managers regularly pointing out errors?

Is your work presented well? Do people get the message you’re trying to present quickly, such that a useful discussion ensues? Or are people always getting muddled by your rows and columns and trying to work out what you’re telling them? Are your written documents sloppy, disjointed and incomplete?

You may not be able to make all the necessary improvements all at once. But can you improve at least something, however small, every week or every month, such that as time goes on you can tell the difference?

Learn more and share it

Another thing you can do is to keep learning.

The fact you’re reading this article is an example of that. Keep reading articles and books. Go on courses. Make plans to put your learning into practice, and then carry them out.

What you find is that as you do that you will naturally share your learning with others around you, and you’ll want to apply it. When you look back over 6 months or more, you’ll be able to see how you’ve progressed and improved.

Be a leader for your team

The next thing you can do is to learn how to be a leader in your team.

And that doesn’t mean you have to be formally the manager.

You can be the coach. The person that people turn to for help and advice, because you’re so willing to help, and you care about team performance so much.

That makes you a leader.

You’re the person people want to follow, because you believe in them, because you make time for them, you encourage them and inspire them and help them.

Don’t be shy

Another thing to learn is not to be shy.

I’ll explain by way of my own example. Remember earlier I mentioned that at one stage I was pigeonholed, typecast as the technical accountant?

What I didn’t do in those years was to go and talk to the people who were doing the FP&A jobs I would have liked. I was too shy. I didn’t like being a pain, or seeming to waste people’s time. But I didn’t realise that people actually love it when you show an interest in what they do. We all love to talk about the jobs we do.

If I’d just made time to go and chat with Finance people in the business units, to find out what their jobs were like. If I’d asked questions I was interested in, because I wanted to find out how the business worked. Then I would have become known for having an interest outside the accounting realm.

(I did do this to an extent, and I learnt a lot. But, in retrospect, if I’d been thinking more about my career, I would have probably built relationships with other people as well.)

Act like you’re in the job you want

Something else you could try is to think yourself into the job you want.

I’m a little tentative in saying this, because there are pitfalls. Mainly, you don’t want to come across too cocky.

But my point is this: Sometimes senior managers don’t pick you for promotion because they can’t picture you doing the job. Simple as that.

It’s kind of a similar problem to being pigeonholed or typecast.

So, for instance, if you’re the person who knows everything about processes, policies and procedures and systems because you’ve been in the company for donkey’s years, it’s great that you can be really helpful when anyone asks you a question. It gets you a great reputation in the business... as someone who’s helpful and great with policies and systems.

But then all they see is someone who is fantastic at rolling up their sleeves and tinkering with the systems, and someone who’s great to have on a cross-functional project.

What they don’t see is the next FP&A Director, VP Finance or CFO.

How do you get over that?

Stop being the doer. Stop volunteering for stuff because you know you’re the only one who would be able to do it, because you’re the only one who’s been around long enough to know everything.

Be a leader: Let someone else learn it by doing it, while you point in the right direction if they ask, and while you take more of a coaching approach.

Now, to do that sometimes you will have to fall out with your bosses and dig your heels in. You may have to say, no, it’s time for someone else to gain a knowledge of this stuff besides me, because I want to progress further. And that is difficult to do nicely – but not impossible.

You may have to leave, or threaten to

Sometimes, the right thing to do is to leave and get a new job somewhere where you can position yourself better from the start.

Leave the broken progression promises behind.

Leave the pigeonhole behind.

Think of yourself and your career, and stop believing that anyone else is going to look after your best interests! Cynical, I know! But, I’ve seen it time and time again where people are held back because of what they are most useful for in the business. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, unless there’s a broken progression promise. It’s just reality.

When Stephen R. Covey wrote about “win-win agreements” in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he said that the ultimate negotiating stance was “win-win or no deal”. That means you always want there to be a win in it for everyone, but if that’s not possible, you can walk away with no hard feelings. ‘No deal’ is better than either side winning at the expense of the other.

So, if you can’t help the company in a way that helps you, you don’t have to stick around and lose out. And that can be said honestly in a nice way. Whether they accept your resignation nicely or not is not your problem.

Beware of your language

Two final things to watch out for in the way that you talk about your stuck situation. These are things that should ring alarm bells when you listen to yourself and the examine the way you think.

Firstly, reactive language.

You might hear yourself saying, when you feel stuck or stalled in your career, things like:

  • It’s not my nature
  • My boss won’t let me
  • My company did this
  • I’m in this position because of things in the past
  • Other people are blocking me

That’s reactive language. That is placing the emphasis on externals, things you can’t control. And you convince yourself that things have to be this way. It’s inevitable, and you’re stuck, and there’s nothing you can do, because other things are in the way.

Proactive language places the emphasis on what you can do, things in your “circle of influence”. Using this kind of language may not change the situation immediately, but it changes your mindset such that it frees you to look for things you can do.

  • I choose to
  • I have options
  • I will decide
  • My priority is, etc

Secondly, a fixed mindset.

A fixed mindset is one in which you believe you have a fixed amount of ability or intelligence or capacity. So, you spend your life trying to prove how much it is. Failures, snags, challenges and dead ends are, in a fixed mindset, proof that you’ve reached your potential, and you needn’t bother trying any more. One phrase that encapsulates the thinking is, “if I was talented at this, it would be easy; the fact I’m stuck and finding it difficult shows it’s not meant to be.”

A growth mindset, on the other hand, looks at a challenge as just that, and only that – a challenge. It doesn’t have anything to do with your potential. It doesn’t prove anything about you. You don’t even think of your limits. You just want to learn more and grow. If you want to reach some goal, you will work out what it takes to get there.

Your career is your responsibility

So, on that note, it only remains to say that your career is yours. It’s your responsibility. It’s not your employer’s, your manager’s, your professional body’s, your national government’s, or your parents’.

You get to choose what to do next. You’re not as stuck as you think. There are many things you could do... starting with changing your attitude to the situation.

So, what’s your next step going to be?



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