It is said that 10 out of 9 financial experts cannot count. But jokes apart, finance as a function is in midst of a complete reorientation. Finance is no longer a stand-alone department disconnected from the rest of the business and focused only on numbers. Finance now is an integral part of any business operation, and also has a key seat in the boardroom. Along with this, the role of a finance professional is also going through a deep change. No longer are finance executives expected to do only bookkeeping, file taxes, comply with local laws, and generally keep track of the company’s financial health, but rather so much more. While it is impossible to be market-ready, how does a budding finance professional be future smart?
First things first. For any budding finance professional, either you are in your B-school aspiring to begin your career, or you are just finishing your professional qualification and completing your internship. Either way, you will soon discover that no matter what you have been taught in your school, the real world is very different. You can now no longer simulate an exciting business opportunity on your excel sheet to impress others. You now need to apply real knowledge and experience in building and managing a business. It is also true that as you graduate and step into the real world, you will now compete with about a few million other bright graduates who have probably read the same books, mastered the same curriculum, read the same case studies, and generally carry the same aspirations.
They are equally good, and it will need some superlative effort from each of you to stay different. So what will help you stay relevant for the future and how do you stay ahead of the curve?
It is highly possible that in the course of your studies, you have been exposed to other skill areas than the domain you plan to specialize or work in. For example, hopefully, you have built your softer skills along with your skills to read a balance sheet, worked on your presentation skills while you learned how to do financial modelling, and other key aspects as you completed your core and elective subjects. Managing conflict, working in teams, ability to communicate, handle stress, correlate polity with economics, understand the human behaviour, master global laws, etc. are skills one must have. While these are indeed important, these are hardly going to help you stay ahead of others.
The fact is that finance as a domain as we know today is going through a complete changeover. There is an impact of technology on borrowing, lending, assessing risk, etc. in a big way. Technology is also automating all transaction tasks and basic balancing of books is no longer being done by junior accountants but by automated intelligent software systems. Risk assessments, modelling, compliance, and other functions are now using artificial intelligence and machine language learning tools to help finance, and especially business, professionals take quicker and faster decisions.
There is also a change in the way core financial activities are being done. Financial heads are no longer balancing just books. They are now meeting investors, raising capital, dealing with vendors, helping acquire more customers, and generally doing other things which traditionally have been done by sales or operations teams.
However, whichever role in finance one wants to specialize in, here are a few key skills which you necessarily need to build on as you step into the professional world:
Technology and data analytics
Finance professionals can longer feign ignorance about emerging technologies and stay away from them. Emerging technologies are coming at us faster than ever before, making the very business environment we operate in suspect. Businesses now need extra hands and eyes to spot tech trends and advise core teams to make suitable changes to long-term and short-term strategies. This is no longer about being binary and looking through cash flow statements but being able to measure the impact of emerging technology on current business and manoeuvre challenges on the way.
Along with technical skills is the ability to analyze numbers. Handling big data, analyzing trends, deep diving into raw figures, correlating them to strategy, and presenting them coherently for businesses to make sense of is a key skill required. This is easier said than done. Most budding finance professionals think that managing worksheets and being able to operate advanced functions is analytics. It is much more than that. Good knowledge on how data structures work, using visualization tools, and regression analysis are key here. It is the story behind the numbers which needs to be told.
Often the most ignored skill, finance professionals usually spend the least amount of time building this. This is not about writing the Queen’s language to impress the judges of a spelling bee contest but to be able to write concise, grammatically correct language. For our country, where English is the primary business language, it is important to be ready with this. As a finance professional, you would need to interact with multiple stakeholders and be able to sell the story of why being in business, the unique proposition the company brings on the table, the key differentiators, etc.
Unfortunately, many of us study in different local languages in school and English is often not our mother tongue either. The ability to simplify complex things and write in an easy-to-read way is a key skill to have. Writing well also helps in structuring thoughts in a crisp and methodical manner.
Triple bottom line
Businesses of the future will be measured not just by how profitable they are but also how much they have impacted social and environmental needs. Organizations will be severely scrutinized not just on profits but also on people (social) and the planet (environment). Finance professionals will play a key role in this and will soon be the custodians of these metrics as well. They will be answerable, and with tighter compliance and regulatory oversights, finance professionals will need to develop skills to understand how the business they operate in impacts these two vital parameters.
No longer will a company be able to generate investor interest if it fails to communicate how they have built a business sustainable for the future, socially and environmentally. While a lot of work has indeed gone in, future laws will be even tighter, requiring all stakeholders – including finance – to be agile in this key aspect.
The above are not just skills important for a budding finance professional but also for all young graduates who step into the professional world soon. Education builds a solid foundation of core concepts and some key skills necessary to work with others. However, this is not enough. With a world moving towards protectionism, the speed of adopting technology faster than ever before, and a workforce of Generation Me, businesses will face multiple challenges to stay relevant.
The future as we know it might change very soon. There may be machines that will outsmart us, science that will help us inhabit newer planets, where quantum gravity and general relativity may unify, where genetically engineered people will be everywhere, where superconductivity will charge our batteries, where we will say goodbye to electricity and energy will be free, and many more things. The future which we haven’t seen as yet will just blow our mind, and being prepared for it is the least any serious professional can do.
Ambarish Datta is the MD and CEO of BSE Institute Ltd and Founder-Director of BFSI Sector Skill Council of India.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)