Finance grads: This is not your parents’ workplace


Danielle Dahlstrom

Director of Product Marketing, Finance Solutions

woman working in an office

Corporate finance is a more dynamic, influential career choice than in past decades. To thrive there, you need to be flexible, adaptable, and comfortable with ambiguity.

What do employers want? That’s the question new graduates always ask themselves as they embark on careers in corporate finance. Beyond everything you can put on paper – grades, course curriculums, undergraduate job experience, or connections – what knowledge and skills will help me succeed?

In normal years, answers from employers and experts would probably start with mastering the latest FP&A (financial planning and analysis) technology, from spreadsheets in the 1970s and KPI-tracking dashboards in the 1990s to advanced analytics in recent years.

But 2020 was hardly a typical year. Its consequences of pandemic restrictions, unemployment, roller-coaster swings in supply and demand, and social upheaval are still reverberating during the new decade. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are more than just the topic of business-school readings; they’re the “next normal” environment we live in.

That means that some of the most important skills these days for recent corporate finance graduates involve agility. Everything is changing – where we work, where we live (especially if your commute is now just walking to the kitchen table), the hardware and software tools we use, the predictability of key figures such as oil prices or unemployment rates, even which key figures we’re tracking. (Who knew in 2019 that case rates and R-naught figures would have so much to do with whether your business can stay open?)

The focus on agility and adapting to new information and technology may not be what some new grads expected, given that the corporate finance field tends to attract analytical, logical, risk-averse types who are comfortable with structure and predictability.

For recent college graduates in the field of corporate finance, these new tools help equip them for FP&A careers that are not only focused on data-driven, actionable insights but also reflect a fast-changing world.

Five valuable proficiencies for today’s FP&A professionals

The perception of corporate finance as a mundane, number-crunching role, keeping records using manual, spreadsheet, and legacy IT systems, is a thing of the past. The FP&A function is now at the center of organizational and technological transformation because it coordinates the needs and performance of all the other departments as it issues forecasts, creates scenarios for long-range planning, and guides the annual budget process. It’s a dynamic place!

To stay ready for the future, here’s a short list of skills and traits we think are paramount for new graduates and FP&A professionals looking to advance their careers:

  • A growth mindset. Be open to trying new things and taking risks. Be ready to learn from your mistakes. Accept feedback not as personal criticism, but something you can improve from. Show that you’re curious and open to information and perspectives that may not match your prior assumptions. There’s a lot we don’t know, and we need to spend some time and energy exploring that.
  • Comfort with ambiguity. At its most basic, finance is about making your numbers add up, and many finance professionals appreciate that clarity. Yet our world doesn’t always offer open-and-shut answers. There often isn’t time to sit and wait until you get clarity; you have to act on the information you have. That brings us to the next proficiency:
  • A sense of urgency, putting a priority on short time-to-value. As noted before, the world is changing fast. Effective finance professionals act accordingly. They also show an entrepreneurial, can-do spirit and look for ways they can proactively add value.
  • The ability to distinguish “signal” from “noise.” More particularly, to spot operational drivers that move the needle. Analytic applications can help you pick out the important signals within financial, operational, internal, and external data, but they can’t take the place of judgment.
  • Storytelling. Once you’ve identified what’s going on, you need to be able to communicate your insights effectively. Conveying facts crisply and accurately is only the first step; in order to foster collaboration and influence management decisions, you need to be able to form them into a narrative that appeals to and persuades your audience. Developing this skill set can enable aspiring finance leaders to help drive profitable growth, address risk, and adapt to uncertain market conditions.

The shift from hindsight to foresight

This emphasis on soft skills doesn’t mean that analytic skills are any less important. In the 2020s, we have unprecedented access to vast quantities of data. Successful organizations know how to use data effectively, not just to track historical performance but to spot trends and develop insights that help them plan better for the future. Advanced analytical tools enable finance teams to incorporate timely, reliable analytic insights into their core FP&A processes.

These tools enable best practices such as incorporating leading indicators into scorecards, integrating external and non-financial data into dashboards, focusing on relative targets rather than only on fixed targets, and incorporating business drivers quickly into plans and analyses.

And technology keeps advancing. Here are some other advanced techniques that are giving finance teams better foresight for strategic decision-making:

  • Predictive analytics sift through large data sets to offer statistically validated predictions of demand, pricing levels, and many other variables.
  • Multi-dimensional analysis of data, to help recognize trends in complex data sets with multiple variables that might not show up in spreadsheet analysis. For example, this kind of analysis might show that over a 12-month period, pink golf shirts sold best in Atlanta, whereas gray T-shirts sold best in Phoenix.
  • AI and machine learning can help uncover revenue drivers from external and internal data. For instance, these technologies can quickly analyze the impact of weather, social media, interest rates, or other variables on sales. Finance can incorporate this information to create more reliable forecasts.
  • Scenario planning helps envision and plan for whole new environments, rather than simply cranking last year’s data up or down by a set percentage to generate this year’s forecast.
  • Rolling forecasting. Business doesn’t stop when the calendar approaches the end of the year, and organizations are more frequently looking at how to take longer looks toward the future. Looking out 18-24 months provides earlier detection of sales risks, supply challenges, resource constraints and more.

Agility and adaptability are key in today’s workplace

Learning advanced techniques such as these, and then adapting traditional business practices to incorporate their findings, are some of the ways newly minted finance professionals can show agility and adaptability in the workplace. Ultimately, FP&A teams will reach beyond finance, connecting finance’s processes to supply chain, sales operations, and marketing, and out across the enterprise to align corporate objectives with operating tactics and market events.

What does the future of finance look like in action? Watch our on-demand webinar with experts from Deloitte on how to leverage scenario planning as a strategic advantage for your financial organization.

Watch our on-demand webinar about how to leverage scenario planning as a strategic advantage.