Whether you’re a financial manager or staff accountant, chances are good that you spend your days in meetings, with clients and on daily tasks. That’s all well and good, but your packed schedule doesn’t leave you much time to reflect and build strategic-thinking skills. Concentrating on immediate business needs can be a bit like working with blinders on. You’re so focused on your to-do list and putting out fires that you may be neglecting the big picture.
If this sounds like you, it’s time to take off those blinders. Accounting and finance executives need to have a master plan to grow their business, and employers prize accountants and analysts who possess strategic-thinking skills. According to a recent Robert Half survey, 30 percent of CFOs interviewed said such abilities are mandatory, and a further 56 percent consider it a nice-to-have quality.
Get the report, Beyond the Numbers: CFOs Want More Strategy.
Even if professional development programs are not available at your workplace, you can still hone these abilities.
But strategic thinking doesn’t always come naturally, and both managers and staff may need help to go beyond just “getting the job done.” The same survey found that 46 percent of respondents said their companies don’t offer their accountants any training to hone strategic-thinking skills. Even if professional development programs are not available at your workplace, you can still hone these abilities.
Here are five ways for you, your staff and coworkers to become more innovative and forward thinking.
1. Forge new relationships
Innovation requires different perspectives and new ideas. Strategic thinking is hard when you or your staff work in a silo, which reduces the supply of fresh input. To shake things up, find opportunities to learn from colleagues outside of finance. For example, volunteer to collaborate with IT when upgrading your enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. To prepare for the rollout of a new financial service, work with the creative department to design the marketing campaign. The more you know about other aspects of the business, the better you’ll be able to connect the dots and think strategically.
2. Always question and think deeper
As you go through your workday, make it a habit to consider whether something could be done smarter. Don’t get comfortable with the status quo. Questioning yourself forces you to think deeper and possibly come up with better strategies. Asking others questions helps you consider and realize different perspectives. Pick coworkers’ brains about what they do, how they do it, their best practices, the mistakes they’ve made and what they’ve learned from them. Digging deeper can uncover new opportunities and keep your strategic-thinking skills sharp.
3. Never stop learning and building skills
There’s no need to wait for your boss to hand you learning opportunities. Seek them out yourself by reading trade publications and networking with other industry professionals.
The accounting and finance fields are constantly changing, and old tactics may not be as effective in light of new developments. Your strategic-thinking skills remain relevant when you’re well versed in compliance issues, human resources trends and the latest technologies. So, if you’re a manager, help your staff stay up to date with regular training in key areas such as SOX compliance. (No, it’s not old news; due to the dynamic nature of the legislation, many organizations still have much work to do before they achieve adherence to SOX.) If you’re a staff-level finance professional, be proactive and ask for training. There’s no need to wait for your boss to hand you learning opportunities. Seek them out yourself by reading trade publications and networking with other industry professionals.
4. Make decisions and take risks
As with any expertise, the best way to hone your strategic-thinking skills is by doing. Don’t let yourself fall into a state of “analysis paralysis” for fear of making missteps, but don’t overthink it, either. Balance the pros and cons, the benefits and risks, and then make a decision.
An important note to finance executives: Don’t punish employees for taking calculated risks. While you shouldn’t advocate for recklessness, you do want to encourage your staff to innovate. A wrong decision isn’t a failure if employees become more discerning and aware as a result of it.
5. Take time to recharge
Periods of inactivity are essential not only for avoiding burnout, but for being more enterprising. Strategic-thinking skills flourish during downtime, when the brain has a chance to decompress, wander and visualize different outcomes. So don’t feel guilty about taking short breaks during the workday, making time for a real lunch and going on long vacations. When you give yourself permission to get away from the office, you’ll come back to your job sharper than before.
Another note to managers: You play a big role in helping staff recharge. This may require a shift in your corporate culture, as some businesses have the false mentality that 50- or 60-hour workweeks are laudable and the occasional long weekend is sufficient downtime. So persuade your workaholics to use their paid time off instead of rolling them over, and set the example by taking time off and unplugging.
Strategic-thinking skills don’t appear overnight. In fact, they don’t develop after a single seminar, either. Becoming a more visionary finance professional is a life-long process, requiring time, personal initiative and perseverance. But the rewards — career advancement, greater job satisfaction, happy clients and stakeholders — are more than worth the effort.
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