The World Economic Forum has predicted that by 2028, “44% of workers’ skills will be disrupted” — and the finance sector is no exception. Accounting used to be the starting place for a career in corporate finance, but more than 300,000 accountants and auditors quit their jobs between 2019 and 2022. And while having strong technical skills once meant knowing how to navigate Excel, that’s no longer the case for financial roles, according to HubSpot chief financial officer Kate Bueker, MBA ’98.
“Finance teams need more sophisticated data and analytics,” Bueker said at the 2023 MIT Sloan CFO Summit last November. “I recently had a colleague — who was another CFO — do a talk with my team. All of his team is getting trained on Python and SQL; they are all becoming more technical.”
Bueker was one of several finance experts featured in a panel discussion on how the types of talent and capabilities needed for financial functions are changing. Here are some takeaways for leaders on in-demand skills to hire for and ways to train and retain this talent.
Find value in traditional and contemporary skills
With financial roles becoming more strategic and technical, an important skill for the future of finance is the ability to interpret the effect of finance on the business and vice versa.
“[CFOs] have a deep understanding of finance and how the business — and things that happen in the business — translate into financial results,” Bueker said. “Lots of people don’t, and we can play that role to help people make smarter choices.”
Managers can help employees develop interpretation skills through practice presentations. By asking employees questions and offering feedback during these sessions, managers can help them ensure that their stories are clear and effective before they’re presented to an audience.
Despite the drop in the number of people choosing accounting as a career, companies still need to hire for those core accounting skills, said Andrea Spinelli, managing director of consulting firm Protiviti.
“People are still going to need to know what an asset versus a liability is, a debit versus a credit is, but what they do with it and how they do things with it is going to change,” Spinelli said. “It’s going to look different, and people have to adapt to that.”
Foster a shift in mindset from audit-focused to strategy-based
Another necessary evolution in financial roles is helping people see themselves as enablers rather than just enforcers, said Kim Dodge, CFO at Phoenix3 Holdings.
For example, precision and rigidity are typically seen as attributes that make a good accountant, Dodge said, but “how many of you have gotten ‘Oh, this person spent $3 extra on lunch and I shouldn’t approve the whole expense report’?”
Dodge said she likes to instead have her team think of themselves as being the top enablers in the business — taking the friction out of processes while other teams do their jobs selling to customers, developing code, or handling human resources responsibilities.
“Sometimes you have people that just don’t get it, and that’s [all] right; it may not be for them,” Dodge said. “But this whole idea that an accountant has to be so rigid and not flexible and not be a good partner is not good for their growth either.”
This also means training the rest of the organization not to regard accountants as roadblocks to running the business, said Ravi Ragnauth, partner and CFO at Berkshire Residential Investments.
Ideally, when a business is trying to make a decision, it should look to the CFO and financial team as advisers who understand the intricacies, risks, and potential returns of that decision. Doing so not only builds trust across the organization but can start to shift that audit-focused mindset held by many accountants.
“Having a seat at the table with discussions ongoing about business issues trains their minds a little differently [from] ‘closing the books’ to ‘How do we get to the data to actually make a decision with respect to the business?’” Ragnauth said.
Tailor retention efforts to employees’ talents and goals
No matter how much work an organization puts into hiring and upskilling its financial workforce, the reality is that it won’t be able to retain everyone. That’s why it’s important to identify your top talent, motivate them, and invest in them so they want to stay, Bueker said.
When it comes to younger employees, Dodge said she tries to remind herself that the current generation wants meaning and connection in their work. Even if it’s a mundane task, finding a way to demonstrate the value it creates is an important way to contextualize someone’s impact on the organization.
For Ragnauth, middle managers are a good place to start.
“If you look at most finance organizations, that middle-management level is really the key performer of growth,” Ragnauth said. “That’s about 30% to 40% of the success in our finance organization,” so it’s critical to grow and elevate at that level, he added.
Spinelli said it’s important to recognize that not everyone will want to be upskilled or move to the next level of an organization — and that’s OK.
“You do need a good mix, and people need to feel that there might be a different path for them and that there’s different timing and different places in the organization for everyone,” Spinelli said.