As financial planning and analysis (FP&A) professionals increasingly work in collaboration with management and business leaders, they need to develop more than just numbers and analytical skills; they must possess the interpersonal skills to communicate effectively with nonfinancial peers and speak their language. In a recently released AFP FP&A Guide, experts and practitioners explored the gap between what companies need from their FP&A groups and what talents many of them bring to the table. The soft skills are where many FP&A candidates fail.
It’s important to find a candidate with a wide breadth of experience, noted Megan Lesko, FP&A, formerly manager of FP&A at Apollo Education Group and currently the director of finance at Hack Reactor. “Today, being an effective FP&A professional also goes beyond budgeting, forecasting and post-close activities like variance analysis,” she said. “I am also looking for the right personality that can manage across the organization at multiple levels. You need good business skills as well. Accounting, strategic planning, HR and experience doing board and executive presentations are all important.”
Facing the key challenge
One of the challenges Lesko faces within her own organization is finding those well-rounded candidates. “It’s a large and complicated company,” she said. “Good candidates need to understand the big picture, but also understand how the different business units interact and be able to communicate in a way that facilitates teamwork.”
FP&A is often tasked with non-traditional assignments, and practitioners should be able to meet the unique challenges of each project. “FP&A interacts with people from across the organization—from the executive suite down,” Lesko said. “Communication is key. You also need to be a true analytical thinker who recognizes when problems exist and proactively make corrections or solid recommendations in order to move projects forward. In addition, you have to be able to get key information out of sometimes not-very-forthcoming colleagues. You have to manage those bottlenecks.”
It can also be hard to find professionals who are proficient at building financial models. “Being good at Excel is one thing,” Lesko said. “A good FP&A candidate needs to be able to build a model that includes all relevant factors and answers the business question. Then you need to put forth a solid recommendation. It’s also important that the model is auditable and can be picked up by someone else. FP&A gets a lot thrown at it, oftentimes with tight deadlines. Time management and organizational skills are key.”
Lesko recommends finding candidates from websites such as LinkedIn and through networking. In San Francisco, she’s plugged into a strong network of companies. External recruiting firms can also be good resources—if you have the budget for them, let them do the pre-screening for you.
To keep staff engaged, it is important to provide them with many opportunities for professional development. That may be formal opportunities like continuing professional education (CPE), online seminars and software training. “But it’s also important to delegate different projects and tasks across the team to allow different team members to work together and learn from each other. Additionally, it is important to understand what motivates your staff and what their goals are, and then do what you can to help them on their path.”
Lesko attributes her success to a diverse background that began with an MBA. She worked in accounting and finance in both nonprofit and for-profit companies. “The broad spectrum of positions has helped tremendously,” she said. “One thing that prepared me the most was being willing to learn and take on new projects. I encourage people to learn something new; get out of their comfort zone.”
For professionals wishing to advance in the profession, Lesko recommends:
- Taking on new projects; getting out of your comfort zone
- Having a good, solid understanding of the accounting side of things
- Having a good understanding of the financial statements
- Acquiring the right credentials, e.g., earning the Certified Corporate FP&A Professional (FP&A™) designation or an MBA
- Demonstrating that you’re willing to work hard and continue to develop your skills
- Always being willing to learn new things.