Careers – safe to cross

Green man says go

It is especially frustrating for many finance professionals that they can
perfectly match all of the skill and personal requirements in an advertisement,
or job specification, but will be instantly de-selected because of a lack of
relevant sector experience.

It’s a serious matter. This recession has hit you hard. There may be a
stratum of super people, who always give the appearance of being in demand, but
for most it is a major frustration to be barred from making what may be a
perfectly good case to at least be considered for a job.

Meanwhile those employers that are seeking the services of a new accounting
expert rightly recognise that they have both a choice and an opportunity. A
choice of outstanding people, and an opportunity to truly strengthen their
finance operation.

This means that many job and person specifications are drafted in the
tightest terms and are exacting regarding industry and skills. So can finance
professionals realistically expect to be able to transfer from sector to sector
under these market circumstances?

If you don’t have sector experience then the case for moving into a different
sector will rely on your relevant skills. For example, a company may state in an
advertisement that change management skills are a requirement. Applicants that
can demonstrate a proven record in change management may therefore think it is
worth applying. This appears to be entirely valid. Leading change is widely
viewed as being about people and processes. Leadership of people may be regarded
as a generic skill, if you can do it in retail why can’t you do it in financial
services? Many argue that sector knowledge is a disadvantage, fresh thinking
applicants are not tainted with stereotypical views.

Process skills, it can be argued, are equally generic. Some sectors may have
different regulatory requirements but surely it is within the scope of a capable
finance professional to grasp the issues reasonably quickly. Financial r
eporting and managing financial transactions are processes in any organisation,
transactions must be recorded, invoiced and money received. How complicated can
it be?

The point is often forcibly made that finance skills are portable. For an
intelligent qualified accountant picking up the nuance of a sector quickly is a
reasonable expectation. This means it should be possible, for example, to
quickly offer commercial insight based on interpretation of commercial and
financial metrics and an innate ability to pick out the narrative that underlies
the numbers. Also there are sure to be many people inside an organisation who
can offer sector knowledge to support the development of an incoming individual.

he question can rightly be posed to employers, therefore, should the employer
hire the best person available in a given sector or the best person? There might
be a big difference. Going for sector experience might be short-term thinking
and ignore the immense skills others have to offer. In the long run, calibre and
the right personal qualities will outweigh experience. This can bring
substantial benefits and appointments are sometimes made on this basis. So why
the regular insistence on industry sector experience?

The answers lie in risk and opportunity. The consequences when mistakes are
made can be cataclysmic. It will not have escaped anyone’s notice that Andy
Hornby, the former chief executive of HBOS, was appointed to his post from ASDA.
Might disaster have been averted if an experienced banker, rather than a food
and consumer goods retailer, had been appointed? The link no doubt was
retailing. Hornby, and those interviewing him, must have been convinced that a
bank could be viewed as a retail operation and that his skills were therefore
transferable. Hornby got the publicity and faced the commons committee, but the
finger of blame should point to those who appointed him too. They took a big
risk and paid the price. As for Hornby, his skill and ability told, having been
appointed group chief executive of Alliance Boots in July 2009.

All of this begs the question, why take an unnecessary risk when there are so
many great opportunities to hire people with sector experience, who can add
immediate value? This sets the bar very high for outsiders. A HR director
recently involved with the recruitment of a new FD recently asked: “Why would I
risk personal credibility by backing someone who lacks a key component of our
specification when I don’t need to?”

He went on to point out: “ It is more challenging to hire from outside our
sector because it is necessary to consider more variables in the selection
process, for example, size of firm, complexity, international reach, regulatory
background, the nature of the finance organisation and so on. The idea that a
candidate may bring the required skills and competency profile from outside the
sector ‘cuts no ice’.”

Ultimately we are just dealing with the market laws of supply and demand.
Much, therefore, depends on your circumstances. Those sitting in gainful
employment may want to change job but feel under no pressure to do so. They can
afford to wait and need not be too stressed by being overlooked because of a
lack of sector experience. For many who find themselves out of work it is a far
greater frustration. The effort you put into applying for jobs that don’t match
your sector depends on what your priorities and circumstances are and the state
of the sectors in which you have worked. The correlation between employment
markets and GDP movement is a given. So one thing is for sure, when the market
improves, cross sector moves will become easier again.
Paul Goodman is the founder of Goodman Masson, a specialist financial
recruitment business.

Martini qualification?

There are a few angles for candidates to consider. There are opportunities to
find similarities between unlikely sectors. A recent case of a large legal firm
appointing from the advertising sector was explained by the strong link between
the billing systems in the legal and advertising sectors. There are other,
perhaps slightly more obvious, links. The partnership structures in
architecture, legal and other types of professional practice create a particular
business culture which requires a certain level of understanding. Candidates
have got to be smart to spot the links.

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