When it comes to your finance career, do you want to be Adam Sandler or Christian Bale?

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Adam Sandler is never going to be Batman. Adam Sandler is still a multi-millionaire, so I think he isn’t lamenting that fact too much. Christian Bale, on the other hand, made an iconic Batman. Despite a reported $50million to reprise the role, he refused, favouring alternative projects in which to flex his method acting muscles… or paunch, or skeletal frame depending on the demands of the film.

Bale is acutely aware that an actor will restrict the number of roles they will be considered for based on their previous experience. An actor is much more likely to be called up by a casting director if they have shown a versatile range of abilities, much like you will be a far more attractive prospect to a future employer if you can demonstrate a varied skill set.  Consider if you will, that there are many similarities between the careers of actors and those of finance professionals. Sadly, no, I am not referring to the glitz and the glamour – more about how both professions are forced to map out the direction they want their careers to take very early on.

Thankfully, finance and accounting cultures certainly have less of a seedy underbelly than Hollywood, with its perennial casting couch culture proven by the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein. However, the pressures and dilemmas that young finance professionals face regarding how early roles will affect the course of their entire career are very similar.

When an actor receives a script, they and their agent must carefully assess if it is right for them and whether it takes them in the correct direction. Job descriptions are the equivalent of movie scripts – and you probably don’t have an agent to help with weeding out the roles that will limit your career potential. Maybe that’s where your friendly recruitment consultant can come in.

As a recruiter I often come across the same wish lists from newly and recently qualified auditors who are considering leaving practice to enter the world of industry. They want the ‘cool’ roles in retail and media, and they want the commercial roles without the reporting responsibilities.

After qualifying, accountants generally arrive at this metaphorical junction, where they must decide which direction to travel in. Do they move to industry into technical or commercial or do they actually decide to stay in practice and work their way up the food chain there. All options have their pros and cons.

Commercial finance is perceived by many to be the most intellectually stimulating with the most scope for creativity and flexibility, and less restricted than technical finance. Akin to the big Hollywood blockbusters, commercial finance seems to attract the most kudos and attention. There’s a lot of opportunity for advancement and recognition in commercial, but opting for more technical roles will give your career longevity and stability.

When everyone wants the sexy lead role in the big commercial enterprises, what is to gain from going against the grain and choosing the technical route instead?

  1. The magic is in the method

When candidates are coming from an audit background, they have not yet practically applied accounting theory. Moving into a financial reporting role allows them to practically apply accounting methodology and really hone their skills and their craft. These roles can be likened to the gritty, challenging roles in less mainstream movies, the kind of projects that really give method actors a chance to get their teeth into a role and a character and enable them to put their method acting training into practice.

Understanding financial reporting is perceived as a true strength, and there is a huge demand from employers for candidates who have this knowledge and willingness. Those skills are highly prized and sought after. In my experience, candidates who have financial reporting experience under their belts have been in a position of tremendous power with potential employers, in certain cases using their skills as a bargaining chip to achieve the kind of roles and opportunities they desire. This valuable experience, far from seeing a candidate then typecast in a role they do not find interesting or exciting, can transform them into professional chameleons and then really ease the transition into a commercial position.

  1. Command the big bucks

Actors like Gary Oldman, Edward Norton, Charlize Theron are the best modern examples of artists who can play virtually any part. The very best actors are known to be versatile and convincing in a variety of roles. They are able to command higher fees, even when they aren’t necessarily the hearthobs nor the biggest box office draws in the business. Technical roles tend to pay more than their commercial equivalents by up to 10-20%. This is partly because companies know that analytical roles are more popular and inherently attractive, so they can get away with paying less. It is always important therefore, to remember what you could be forfeiting financially when opting for commercial roles over technical.

  1. Don’t get stuck in the best supporting actor category

If you move into commercial finance too quickly and lose sight of reporting you can seriously hinder your progression to Financial Controller or Head of Finance and ultimately, your lose sight of your route to Finance Director. Ultimately, if you step away too far from accounting too early in your career, you inhibit your career progression in the long term.

Conversely, not moving out of practice soon after qualifying can also hinder your progression and cause you to stagnate in middle management – here you may find yourself stuck in the best supporting actor category.

Working in Group Finance can offer an umbrella view of the entire business. Being sat at the top of the organisational matrix can give a holistic view of the business and a fundamental understanding of performance and how that feeds up to key decision-makers. You also get the opportunity to build your personal profile and showcase it to senior management to achieve greater exposure and recognition – paving your way to climbing the career ladder and ensuring you are in the running for your ‘Academy Award winning’ starring role.

So, what would I recommend?

Try to gain industry experience early on, as you will increase your earning potential and it is important to achieve familiarity in other areas away from audit and advisory in practice, and to build up a network of contacts. Consider the stepping stone option of a Group Finance role, or get involved in projects that allow you to take on a broader remit. This will provide you with wider exposure to different parts of the business and experience in the likes of consolidating financial accounts.

Broaden your horizons and don’t just limit yourself to the big shots. Instead, consider your options and go for a business with a good reputation or one that you feel would be a good cultural fit, as it might give you the chance to earn wider responsibilities and greater industry experience, therefore opening up future opportunities.

Candidates who are reluctant to consider anything but a commercial position are likely remain on the market for around three to four months whilst they wait for their perfect casting call, therefore stifling their progression. While I am not suggesting that you should take the first role that comes to you, as it needs to be both a good cultural fit and in line with your career aspirations, I find that some candidates do need to manage their expectations and think more strategically about their long-term goals.

Finally, when thinking long term, CFO positions and other senior roles require candidates to be well-rounded, so having technical experience is a must. It shows you have confidence in dealing with banks, audit committees and a variety of senior stakeholders – traits looked for in candidates at the senior end of the market. With technical reporting requirements continuously changing it is imperative to keep up-to-date and have a firm understanding of all legal obligations.

If you are considering your next career opportunity, please contact me on 0203 002 8059 or email