Finance professionals 'on the fast-track to the boardroom'

It's confirmed, finance professionals are on a fast-track to the boardroom. If you have your sights set on the top, and are eager to work your way up to an executive role, there are many different routes to the same end. Chief executive officers (CEOs) and managing directors (MDs) come from a range of different career backgrounds, with each one following their own individual progression route.

But while anybody can reach this level - providing they have the skill, ability and ambition - it seems some pathways to the top are more commonly taken than others. Research conducted by Robert Half suggests professionals who have a background in finance and accounting have an advantage when it comes to targeting leadership roles.

When questioned, the vast majority (87 per cent) of senior finance professionals across 16 different countries said a financial background improves a candidate's chances of being appointed to the executive board. Some 86 per cent said their initial choice of profession makes it more likely that they will secure a CEO position in the future.

This echoed findings from Robert Half’s FTSE 100 CEO Tracker, which was released in May 2014. The study revealed that half of the current leaders in the UK's top 100 listed companies have a financial background. Businesses are seemingly eager to appoint candidates who have proven financial skills and knowledge, and the other attributes commonly associated with such professionals.

Perceptions around the world

In the UK, 83 per cent of senior finance professionals surveyed by Robert Half thought finance and accounting skills were advantageous when targeting a board role, with 81 per cent saying the same about CEO positions. So, although this was below the global average of 87 per cent - 86 per cent for chief executive roles - over four-in-five finance leaders believe the playing field is uneven when it comes to promotion.

In China, 98 per cent of senior finance professionals thought a financial specialism would help secure a position on the board, and 95 per cent said it would be an advantage in claiming a CEO role. Similar views were expressed in Brazil (96 per cent and 91 per cent), Australia (95 per cent and 96 per cent), Singapore (95 per cent for board positions and CEO roles), Japan (93 per cent and (90 per cent) and France (91 per cent and 90 per cent).

Phil Sheridan, senior managing director at Robert Half UK, said there is an "explicit link" between finance skills and senior leadership opportunities. This suggests there is a "clear career path" for individuals to follow when trying to progress to the top of their company, he noted. This is not to say other professionals cannot advance into CEO or MD roles - they can depending on their personal characteristics and career record - but they may be up against various candidates from the financial elite in the selection process.

Finance skills can help women progress

Financial skills can be an important attribute for professional seeking career advancement, with the Robert Half study highlighting the value of finance expertise for women in particular. In the study, 67 per cent of respondents claimed there are more opportunities for women to progress in accounting and finance than ten years ago.

Some 91 per cent of senior finance leaders surveyed said a financial career would help female professionals achieve their goal of becoming a CEO. In addition, 95 per cent expressed the view that such experience would be to their advantage when applying for directorships.

Robert Half's Mr Sheridan said careers in finance and accounting can help women achieve their career goals, since they demonstrate a clear understanding of commercial acumen, financial analysis and cost management. "With the finance function increasingly playing a role in developing and delivering corporate strategy, partnering with various business units to deliver growth and efficiency, women who also excel in soft skills, including collaboration and communication will be well positioned to rise in the ranks," he claimed.

Demand for finance professionals

All-in-all, it is a great time to be working in this sector. Finance and accounting jobs not only offer great opportunities for career progression, but also attractive pay and benefits in the short term. A lack of suitably skilled and experienced candidates is causing rapid salary inflation, as organisations compete to hire the talent that is available. As employers strive to keep hold of their best people, many are offering pay rises to discourage them from leaving.

Research conducted by Robert Half found that those finance leaders who plan to increase base salaries for staff will do so by an average of 6.1 per cent in 2014. This is around four-times the rate of inflation - highlighting the value employers are placing on individuals with financial skills. Some 26 per cent of UK employers are also intending to increase bonuses this year, in a further effort to retain their most valued workers.

Phil Sheridan, senior managing director at Robert Half UK, said the job market for UK finance professionals has tightened dramatically over the last couple of years, with businesses now paying a premium to recruit and retain top people. "With organisations competing for a limited talent pool, finance professionals are in high demand, with many candidates receiving multiple offers," he stated.

“To retain business-critical staff, companies need to pay competitively, as well as offer a host of other benefits, such as flexible working hours and extra holidays," Mr Sheridan urged. "Businesses that are unsure about the different types of remuneration, benefits and/or salary bands, should look to industry salary guides as a benchmark.”