Leaderonomics has experts on career management, HR and office issues, who will address your questions and doubts. We refer to them as Careernomers – experts in career matters who will help you in your career journey. The questions can range from issues you are facing in the workplace to career advice and questions that you need help on. Panelists will take turns answering your questions on careers.
I am currently working in a multinational company’s finance division. The company offers an excellent training programme for financial management with opportunities to travel, experience different aspects of finance and excellent leadership training as well. However, I often find that I am not a “finance” person – I find what I do now interesting, however, I would like to eventually move out of this line and pursue something else.
I was wondering whether you could give me your thoughts as to how do you think I should use the skills I am gathering right now and apply them in different areas – and what those areas are. I need some direction as to what routes I should pursue after this. Is it common for a finance person to move within a multinational company to different departments (i.e. sales, marketing, etc)? What is the benefit of sticking with finance from a young age? Does it help me branch out one day? Finally, is it also possible to move to different departments in other companies given my background in finance?
Responses from our Careernomers
I can truly relate to your situation. I, like many others, spent the first few years of my career in auditing with an accounting firm. Like your finance role in an MNC, it was good development and exposure to the various aspects of business. But like many others who started in finance, we did not remain there and I would dare say the majority of my contemporaries did not remain auditors.
It may be cliché but the world is your oyster. It is really up to you what you intend to pursue based on your interests and strengths. You mentioned how you’re gaining excellent leadership training. The good news for you is that finance professionals account for the most represented profession amongst CEOs of top Malaysian corporations. Corporate icons like Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah, Tan Sri Azman Hashim and many others started off their careers in finance.
In some other countries, engineers take up more of the CEO spots. So notwithstanding whether finance people necessarily make good corporate leaders, it is a good thing you’re in Malaysia. It is actually very difficult to give any definitive advice as there are many routes to success. Sticking to finance, one can potentially take the finance controller route, potentially emerging a chief financial officer (CFO). Quite a few CFOs then become CEOs (case in point, Datuk Seri Abdul Wahid Omar of Maybank). Others deciding finance is just not their thing, move on to other paths like sales and marketing (which many view as a good training and counter balance to a finance background for aspiring CEOs).
It is not uncommon to move to other departments within the same MNC. Especially if you have decided you’re not a finance person, I would suggest you explore this path. As opposed to trying to move to a different role in another company, moving first to a different department in the same company, you would at least start with the base of good company knowledge and yet provide you an interesting different perspective of the same company. At the same time, you will be building up a new competency, without necessarily compounded with the adjustment of a new organisation.
All the best in charting your path. I would only advise you towards a path where you believe you find your passion and have the requisite capabilities to succeed.
Johan Mahmood Merican
Johan is currently CEO of Talent Corp Malaysia. He previously served as Principal Private Secretary to the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. He was instrumental in the development of human capital related initiatives such as the GLC Blue Book on Performancelinked Compensation policy, PINTAR and Trust Schools.
It’s great to hear that you are with a good company and the programme you’re in sounds like a really robust and well-structured management trainee programme. Very few good companies offer such a varied experience, training and exposure for finance people and it would be wise to really give your best and learn from the best in every one of your finance roles.
I may be slightly biased in my advice here coming from a finance background myself. I’ll shamelessly tell you that I think finance is one of the most important functions and the best skill to develop early in your career if you know you are going to be in the corporate business arena for some time. Simply because numbers/finance are the language of business and some form of finance knowledge is required in almost every other function in an organisation.
Finance is also one of the most versatile capabilities to have that enables you to branch out to any function in a corporate environment, if you have talent in the other areas. I personally have done so and also have many contacts and friends who majored in finance, worked in finance for quite a fair bit but eventually branched out to many other fields to pursue their true interest and function that best suits them.
Having a strong foundation in finance enables you to truly understand the business you are in and know how to help a business grow. The finance career path is actually very interesting. As you might know, since your organisation allows you to experience different aspects of finance, there is a range of finance roles. Some roles are a little more backend like in corporate governance, treasury, controllership and statutory, accounting as well as inventory management.
And some roles are more front-end with the operations of the business, like being a finance business partner to a function, finance analyst, project financing, pricing analyst etc. If you think finance is the path for you, then it would be great to have a hand in the various roles as you chart your path towards being a CFO.
If you know for sure that further down the road, you may not want to stay in finance, then you can focus more on building your finance expertise currently in more front-end roles where you will work more closely with the operational aspect of the business. If you have the choice, be more selective of the finance roles you can work in. Take on roles where you work closely with the sales team, with the marketing team, HR, engineers, the operations team in the factory floor, or the business development folks.
As you use your finance background to help these folks, you also learn their modus operandi and it gives you insights on whether you’d like to venture into these functions in the future. It would be good to give yourself a good four to seven years of finance experience to have a solid foundation you can always rely on before embarking on a totally different function. I believe every leader needs to have one strong functional foundation as they explore other avenues.
This might interest you: Finance – Do What You Love!
Having said that, when in your finance role, don’t be a bean counter… be very curious and inquisitive, get your hands dirty and walk the floor, learn from the engineers and operation leaders in the factory floor, learn from the sales people how they go to market and how they win deals, learn from the HR folks how they hire and develop their people, learn from the marketing and corporate communications folks how they brand the company and position themselves. Be a nice “kepoh” in our very own Malaysian context. Learn, contribute and build networks with those you work with. Leaders and co-workers in the functions you’ve impacted before can be your supporter, sponsor and referral when you do request for an inter-functional move.
Multinationals are probably the most “open” to inter-department/inter-functional moves in their organisation. Reason being, they look at talents in an organisation as belonging to an “enterprise pool” of talent, rather than a talent belonging to just a finance department/function. Even more so for MNCs who pride themselves in their training excellence, it is a greater reason for the organisation to want to retain the talent they have developed in the organisation even if it means losing them from one function to the other.
I would advise you to try to move within your organisation first if you want to explore a different function. Moving within an organisation you are familiar with, helps you transition faster and also has little to no impact to your compensation bracket. If you want to move from your core function of finance to a different function outside of your organisation, it is still possible. Though it would be a slightly harder uphill battle to have to prove yourself from scratch and to demand the compensation you are currently getting or even higher.
Lastly, remember that behind every number in the books, there is a very interesting story and journey of how it came to be. If you find out the story behind the number, you will learn a lot about the business, its people and its strategy. Excel in your finance role now so that your opportunities for later will be much brighter.
Be thankful for the wonderful organisation you work in now and all the best in your future choices!
Ang Hui Ming
Hui Ming was part of GE’s elite group of hi-potential talent. She was a business leader to GE’s Global Business Service division and later led the HR functions for GE at the Asean level before being made Asia HR leader for GE’s Oil and Gas division. She is a co-founder of Leaderonomics and a prominent HR leader in Malaysia.