But that’s not the end of the story. With the weight of this new prominence also came burnout, questions of confidence and worth, and strained mental health. Today, financial professionals face a different challenge: transforming this breakthrough performance into a sustainable, fulfilling career.
Finding Joy in the Moment
How can finance professionals love our jobs in 2023? I believe we need to be well rounded, with “soft skills” that thrive through the challenges of a pandemic, recession, digital transformation, and whatever comes next.
There are a few techniques I recommend to derive more joy from your day-to-day work: Elevate your value to the company (and yourself) by forging an invaluable partnership with the business. Command a sense of advocacy: stand up for yourself and your investments. And develop your self-care skills. Start prioritizing mental and emotional health by setting firm boundaries.
Raising Your Value
Many finance professionals still spend the bulk of their time on data entry rather than analysis. But if you can flip that script, you can become an indispensable partner to the business and vastly improve the quality of day-to-day work.
You already have many of the ingredients you need. Business leaders are always looking to improve their decision making. What finance professionals can provide is a way to forecast returns via predictive analytics. Financial data becomes much more useful when married with other operational data; it then becomes an engine for reporting the future and the here and now. Instead of cranking out financial reports and building income statements all day, finance professionals finally have the chance to provide truly meaningful analysis.
The pandemic launched a desperate search for finance professionals who can apply higher-level critical thinking to data sets. At the least, that means understanding how data flows, how to parse it, and how to apply it in different capacities. The volatility and unpredictability of market conditions required real-time cash reporting. Suddenly, companies needed to delineate their cash flows and “worst case scenarios”—including what might happen if their top line dropped 20% or 50%. Finance departments had to focus almost exclusively on cash and how not to run out of it. (Of course, the pandemic also highlighted how many organizations didn’t have real-time cash reporting.)
This lesson ultimately underscores the necessity of automation. Automation is what gives finance professionals the ability to access and interpret data more easily at scale, so they can provide that real-time reporting needed to manage the business.
The good news is that the barriers to automation have never been lower. Companies can capture real results quickly and inexpensively. For example, think about automation’s impact on one of the most dreaded finance activities: expense reports. General employees can manage their expenses on the go, and finance professionals can approve those expenses without raising a finger.
Once the finance department has eliminated manual processes, freed up time, minimized errors, and enhanced productivity, the benefits continue to compound. Automation can then enable businesses to complete digital transformation journeys quicker, accelerating the finance department’s ability to provide real returns. Finance professionals will be able to spend more time working on valuable strategic endeavors, including analyzing and providing actionable data to decision makers.
Be Your Own Greatest Advocate
To deliver the highest value to a business, a finance professional must be able to work with a business partner to paint the story of what will be delivered. Clearly explain the steps the business will take, the desired outcomes, and any expectations of top line growth.
The ability to advocate for a vision is how you win support and, later, achieve those outcomes. When teammates and stakeholders understand the project and its goals, they will believe in the investment. When they believe in the investment, they will be aligned on deliverables, know how to execute, and know which key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure.
A finance professional who cannot recruit help is one who cannot articulate how an initiative will benefit the company. Potential allies do not understand the project, do not listen, or do not care. Opportunity will pass them by.
The future of strategic finance needs leaders and individuals who are not afraid to dissent. We have all been in meetings where we know people disagree with what’s being said. But no one wants to speak up and be the reason a project gets delayed or canceled.
Not speaking up, however, often just leads to worse outcomes. You get looped into an inoperable project. You spend thousands on wasted products. You get overworked. The next time you are struggling to find the courage to speak up, ask yourself: do the irreparable effects of a bad investment really outweigh a few moments of discomfort?
Remember that finance has a place in the room for a reason. Finance is called upon to represent an unparalleled perspective. Voice your doubts. Ask questions when things don’t make sense. Offer the dissenting opinion if only to ensure colleagues think through everything. Groupthink arrests innovation.
To that point, diversity—whether by race, age, gender, or even role—can energize old functions that are no longer serving the company. In 2023, consider joining other department meetings, or inviting engineers, marketers, or general counsel to have a seat at the finance table. Diversity also brings greater context; the more context you have around the end-to-end business, the more you’ll be able to elevate your value to the company.
Honing Self-care Skills
Strategic finance professionals must be able to advocate for their personal boundaries as strongly as their business interests.
It’s not a popular topic, but many finance professionals struggle with anxiety, often driven by an inability to put up boundaries between personal life and work. In my experience, professionals at the beginning of their careers seem to have a harder time turning down projects when busy, having a defined start and stop time to the day, and unplugging mentally from work.
Nevertheless, the fact that employees increasingly feel safe enough to share their emotions marks progress. I think this openness to mental health issues began with COVID-19. The global trauma of the pandemic and the catastrophic shift to remote work spurred many organizations to improve their employee mental health resources and benefits (see Tim Allen, “The Pandemic is Changing Employee Benefits,” Harvard Business Review, April 7, 2021, https://bit.ly/3tRNvLo). Some finance professionals took mental health breaks and realized they needed to change careers to fully heal themselves. This should be a wake-up call: Are we creating conditions so unbearable that employees are forced to choose between their health and their careers? Finance departments need to foster environments where mental health is discussed like any other health problem.
Finance will become a sustainable, fulfilling career when professionals work as hard at self-care skills as they do cost analysis. The problem is that many professionals don’t really know what self-care looks like. My advice is to start small: Turn off your laptop for the night. Block off your calendar at lunch to take a walk. Use your sick days (especially when ill).
Deliberately articulate your boundaries. If you need to log off at 5 p.m., make it known. If your manager assigns two weeks’ worth of work and wants it done in one, ask them to prioritize. If you agree to work late one night, wrap up early the next day.
Managers should not only keep an eye out for boundary-setting language like this; they should encourage it whenever possible. Check in regularly on how your reports are feeling in life outside of the job. Ask them if they are feeling inspired by the work they are doing, or if they are feeling blocked or overwhelmed.
I think many professionals are afraid that prioritizing their personal lives will always happen at the sake of their careers. In reality, the opposite is true; when you do not honor what is important to you, it creates guilt, resentment, and exhaustion towards the thing that is holding you back—work.
Don’t Overlook Soft Skills
With openings at a record high, employees have had unusual leverage (see Jon Hilsenrath and Sarah Chaney Cambon, “Job Openings Are at Record Highs. Why Aren’t Unemployed Americans Filling Them?” Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2021, https://on.wsj.com/3ADO4Mo, and Alyssa Fowers and Andrew Van Dam, “The most unusual job market in modern American history, explained,” Washington Post, December 29, 2021, https://wapo.st/3gt7YD2). There is no question that finance professionals can find or hold a job in this market. The question is: how do you make work meaningful?
For too long, finance professionals have overlooked the “soft skills” in career advancement. Smart analysis, resourcefulness, and savvy projections have always been important in driving long-term strategy, and they will continue to be important.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career in finance, it is this: create value for the business, be authoritative, and set boundaries—and in 2023, you just might love your job.