Ep. 32: Robert Leonard - Climbing the Ladder

December 05, 2019 | 20 Minutes

Robert Leonard, CMA, MBA, Finance Manager, and podcast host, joins Count Me In to talk about what it takes to climb the ladder in today's accounting industry. He is a Corporate Finance Manager for FP&A and Treasury at DN Tanks, a middle-market construction company in Boston, MA, and serves as a host on The Investor's Podcast Network, a Top 100 business podcast on iTunes, for Millennial and Real Estate Investing. Robert is an avid stock and real estate investor with a passion for finance and accounting. He loves talking about how to break into the accounting/finance industry and quickly scale your career through some of his own personal experiences. Listen in to hear how accounting skills translate to many facets of business and life, and how they can help you excel in the future of accounting and finance!

Contact Robert: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rwleonard/
The Investors Network Podcast: www.theinvestorspodcast.com

IMA Life-Robert Leonard: https://sfmagazine.com/post-entry/july-2019-ima-life-adding-impact/


Mitch: (00:00)
This is Count Me In, IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I am Mitch Roshong and I'd like to welcome you back for episode 32 with corporate finance manager Robert Leonard. In this episode, Robert talks to us about climbing the ladder in today's industry and why accounting skills are so valuable. So now let's head over to his conversation with Adam 
Adam: (00:26)
So Robert, what advice do you have for students or recent graduates hoping to break into accounting and finance fields? 
Robert: (00:40)
I think one of the biggest things is don't be afraid to take a position that isn't perfect or doesn't pay the most. I think you need to think longterm and you know, ideally look for opportunities where you'll have a mentor. 
Adam: (00:58)
So how do they find that mentor? 
Robert: (01:01)
I think it's through the interview process. Usually when you go to interview, you'll have three or four different people that you'll be meeting with in general and see if any of those people seem like they might be be great mentors for you. And I recently made a job change actually, but within the last six months or so and I was in a position where I was very, very happy. I didn't want to leave the organization that I was at, but the new company, the the gentleman that was going to be hiring me had those characteristics that I was looking for in a mentor. Yeah, I thought he was going to be a great mentor and that was one of the big things that really swayed me there and, and I think you should interview even if you're not a hundred percent certain on the position, you can learn a lot in the interview and that can really help you determine if there's opportunities that might not be present in the job description. I've interviewed for positions before in the past that weren't necessarily right up my alley, but it ended up being a great opportunity for me that I really enjoyed. And I think other ways you can break into the accounting and finance field, they're learning outside the classroom. I think that's so big these days. Well, a lot of people are still going to college and there is great value in college. I think learning outside the classroom is critical and specifically skills outside of like a normal college. So Excel or just how to professionally write emails and professional communications that can be taught in school. When I, back when I was in college, probably the best course I took throughout my entire college career was my professional communications course and that's helped me in various ways that I never would've expected in my career. And I think it's those skills that are more tailored for outside the classroom that can really help [inaudible] break into an accounting and finance field. And just one more thing that I think you can do these days is published content on LinkedIn and it should be tailored to the type of job that you want to get. So if you want to get in accounting and finance, post content about accounting and finance on LinkedIn and that should be able to help you get in front of either recruiters or just prove your knowledge too, potential employers. So you've got a mentor, you've got those first few jobs, you've gone on interviews and then you know, you start your first job. You know, what does it take to kind of climb that corporate ladder in today's accounting industry? I think what's so interesting about climbing the corporate ladder today is that it doesn't just take time anymore. You know, decades ago you could just kind of do the same thing and day in and day out and eventually you would follow the path and you gradually climb the corporate ladder. And I don't really think that's the case anymore. I think what you need to do to climb the corporate ladder is you need to work really hard and do things above and beyond so that you're the first person that a company thinks of when they have an opening. I think there's a lot of turnover these days in companies and so it's almost eminent that there's going to be an opening and when that opening does happen, you want to be the first person that your boss or their boss thinks of when that opening come so that they choose you to go into that new position. And I think that just comes from going above and beyond taking on additional projects that maybe no fit your job description perfectly, but you know the company needs pure hard work. Just be the first one in the office and the last one to leave and if you don't know how to do something, find a way to do it. If you take on additional projects area, there's additional projects that you want to take on and you might not know how to do it. You can, there's so many free resources out there these days to learn what you may need to know to get that project completed. So I just say find a way to do it. And I think the other, I live my career, bye. Three things and it's really helped me advance my career. And that's humility, a dedication to lifelong learning and hard work. Humility allows you to realize that you don't know everything and that you still have a lot to learn. But by being dedicated to learning, you can learn the things that you don't know and then apply it through hard work. And I think, I honestly think what those three things, anything is possible. And I'm still relatively early on in my career myself, but I've scaled my career pretty quickly by those three things. And I think those are really the three critical things that you need to climb the corporate ladder in today's accounting industry. And another aspect of it that I think is relatively uncommon to be talked about, especially when we're talking about work, we're talking about climbing the corporate ladder, right? So what does, what does personal finance have to do climbing the corporate ladder in an accounting industry? Well, I think it has a big role and I think what we'll see play out over the next few years and I think it'll be an increasingly important role. And the reason I say that is because if you can get your personal finances in order, you're able to take risks with your career that will play out over the long term, better for you but might not be as helpful in the short term. Right? So if you are in a financial position with your personal finances where you're a little bit tight on money and okay, you might need to take a the next job that you want to take and you might have to go to the job that has the highest salary even though it might be short term, highest salary and not a lot of opportunities for growth. Sure you could switch companies and you know, kind of do the job hopping thing. But in general that's not a great strategy. Whereas if you have your personal finances in order and you're coming from a really strong background of, of your finances, you can take us a little bit of a short term hit maybe that that next job isn't as big of an increase in pay as you want, but you're getting a great mentor, you have huge opportunities for growth. And over the next three to five years you could double your salary or you know even more, you know, I think, but if you don't come from a position of financial strength where you have that ability to take that job, that's going to be better for you over the long term. You know, you're really doing yourself a disservice. And I think this is an aspect of climbing the corporate ladder that is greatly overlooked. And for me, I've had two similar positions like this recently when I came out of college, I worked at a consulting firm for a few years and then I wanted to make a switch and it wasn't the best for me financially and it wasn't a position that I was really super interested in. And this goes back to what I was talking about before about even interviewing on positions that year, maybe not super interested in, you know, to be completely candid, I was getting ready that morning for the interview and I almost didn't go, I almost called and canceled the interview because I wasn't interested. But turns out, I went to the interview, the hiring manager was actually sick that day and so I ended up interviewing with the global controller of a large fortune 500 company and we hit it off really, really well and he really liked me and I got a text from him the next morning and it was super abnormal because you know, you don't usually get a text from somebody that you just interviewed with the day before. And so I got a text from him and he asked me to call him and so I did. And ultimately they ended up offering me a position, probably a step or two higher than what I was interviewing for. I'd say two steps higher than what I was interviewing for. And they were kind of reorganizing their function. They moved around three or four people to get me into that position. And that was an interview that I didn't even want to go on because I wasn't that interested in the job and just didn't seem like a good fit for me. And so that goes back to that even interview on positions that you're not 100% certain about. You never know what could come of it. And then recently, like I said, in the last six months I made up, I moved from my, my career and again, I didn't think it was the best thing necessarily in the short term, but in the long term I saw a huge growth and you know, so far it's been great. I got hired in one position and my boss was actually, I really left the organization about a month after and I was given a large promotion and now, you know, running with that and like my career is rapidly growing. So you just never know. And I want to say that if you approach climbing your corporate ladder from a position of financial strength, you could take a lot of opportunities that you might not be able to take if you need to, if you're really worried about your paycheck. So I would really highly recommend really trying to get your personal finances in order so that you can take those chances in your career that benefit you for the long term. 
Adam: (09:48)
Okay. So a trend we kind of see in among younger professionals is they they hop from job to job to job so they can climb that corporate ladder. You know, what's your take on that strategy for when you're, when you're trying to build your career? 
Robert: (10:02)
Yeah. You know, I think that's a really, really great question and I don't want to recommend job hopping because I don't necessarily think that's the best way. I personally would rather stay at a company for the entirety of my career if that was, if that was the case. But you do see that in general hopping from job to job has been in an efficient way to climb the corporate ladder because, and I don't have a great answer as to why this is, but it seems like a perspective employer is willing to pay you your market value or is willing to, they might have an opening that would be a step up for you. Whereas the organization that you're at, they either don't recognize your market value or they just don't have a position for you. And that's just kind of a symptom of the organization. So I don't necessarily want to recommend job hopping, but if you really want to rapidly grow your career, it is sometimes something that you need to consider. And again, if you need to do it from a financial perspective, sometimes that's what you need to do in order to get your market value. And so I would just be cautious of it. Think, think through all of it. You know, think of your 401k vesting the benefits, you know, as you get a little older in your career, you know, the benefits might not be as so important in the beginning, but as you, as you get into your career more, you want to look less at the monetary salary and look more at the benefits. So when you're job hopping, just make sure you take that all into consideration and really make sure that when you do make that change, that it is a net gain for you. And so that you're not necessarily gaining in some places but having a bigger loss than others. And so, you know, sometimes it is something that you need to do two, climb the corporate ladder. It's just kinda how it is these days. But, but I just definitely make sure you look into where you're going and the grass is not always greener on the other side. 
Adam: (12:03)
So we've talked about, you know, the accounting industry, you know, how about when you go to different industries, you know, how does the finance function change based on the industry you're working in?
Robert: (12:15)
I think what's interesting about different industries is, and I think that's a great question. I've actually worked across quite a few different industries. I've worked in financial services, consulting, healthcare, I've done a little bit of government work, manufacturing and I currently work in construction. And so far construction has been by far the most different industry out of them all. But what I think is great about finance in accounting is that it doesn't really change a cost across industries. It does on a micro basis. There are some specifics that change as you go across industries but fundamentally doesn't change. Accounting is still accounting and finance is still fine if you do the things that I mentioned previously, specifically those three key points that I approach my career by humility, a dedication to lifelong learning and hard work. You can learn whatever is needed for industry specific knowledge. When I joined the construction industry, I didn't know anything about it and it is very different than the industries I've worked in the past and there is a lot to learn. But by applying those three things, I've been able to learn what I needed to know about the construction industry and I'm still learning of course every day, but it allows you to really understand what you need to to get by at first until you can really understand everything you need and the industry won't matter as much if you're doing all of those things I mentioned because you can learn those specifics. You can learn what this specific items are that make an industry different from the other relatively easily. But if you don't have those soft skills that we've talked about so far, those are the really hard things to develop in yourself. So if you have those soft skills, then you can pretty much apply those to any industry and be successful in it. 
Adam: (14:06)
So why do accounting skills and abilities translate so well to other facets of your life? 
Robert: (14:13)
There's a few different reasons and the a few of them are, I think accounting is generally really organized. So I think the organization of accounting work generally applies well to other facets of life. Because I mean generally being organized in anything you do is, is beneficial in same with accuracy in accounting, everything has to tie out. So being organized and accurate, again, just applying accuracy and organization throughout your whole life, it can be be very beneficial. And the other two items are problem solving and deadlines. And so problem solving and accounting especially, you're doing reconciliations, that's basically a big puzzle that you're working on and you're always problem solving and trying to work your way through those reconciliations. Right? And so by learning you have to learn different ways to find out what needs to be done to get those accounts to reconcile. And you're basically just doing a lot of problem solving and learning to problem solve through that type of exercise or those tasks can be applied to a ton of different facets of life that you can just apply those problem solving skills that you have recently developed throughout your accounting profession. And then deadlines and the deadlines might not be super strict depending on your company or your industry throughout the month. But when you're in your close process, generally you have some pretty strict deadlines that you have to follow. And so by following and learning how to follow those deadlines during a close or tight closed process that helps you be on time and just present at the need of time for all different variations of life. So anything that you're doing by knowing you need to have things done at a certain time, it helps with time management skills and it just makes sure that everything is done as needed. 
Adam: (16:07)
Yeah, it's great cause you know, if you apply what you're learning in your job or your learning outside of your job too, your professional, you'll be able to, you know, just grow as a person and then you'll be applied through each no matter what industry you're in, no matter where you're going, you can just keep growing us. Keep growing in what you're doing. 
Robert: (16:30)
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean there's so many other ways that accounting skills and abilities translate well to other facets of life. But I think those are the, the four main ways that I've seen in my life. 
Adam: (16:43)
That's great. You know, so we've covered a lot of different things today. We've talked about, new skills that you can gather, you know, getting mentors, climbing the corporate ladder. But, you know, let's take a look at the future. What do you, what predictions can you make for the future of accounting and finance? What, what do you see happening? 
Robert: (17:03)
Yeah. You know, future, future predictions and things like that are always difficult. You never know what's coming. But I think the biggest thing is that people who don't do the things that I've talked about throughout the show and don't have those soft skills, they're going to be replaced by software, other software programs, AI, machine learnings, et cetera. Right? If it's just processing invoices, just doing some reconciliations or some relatively simple just kind of tasks that are repeated frequently, those things are going to be replaced by software or AI. You're not necessarily going to need degrees any more, I don't think. I think you're going to need to know the basics of accounting and finance. But again, I think the EQ and soft skills are going to be so much more important. AI and software, they can do a lot of repetitive tasks, admin type tasks, but they're not going to be able to do the analysis, add that human aspect that you can. And so I think focusing on that is going to be really important. And I think, you know, for me specifically, I was recently hiring for a treasury analyst at my current, in my current role, and I was looking more for software skills. You know, I was putting a very heavy emphasis on Excel and another ERP system that we're currently implementing. And I was looking for hardworking and time management more than anything. You know, of course I want some treasury skills and some, a little bit of treasury experience but that was almost a back-burner for me. You know, I feel like I can teach relatively easy. I feel like I can teach the accounting and finance and treasury skills needed to do the work. Whereas if you don't understand how to use Excel or if you're just not hardworking or you don't have time, good time management, those things are very difficult or very time consuming to teach and I don't think that that's going to be successful for you to grow your career. So it's really, I think if you don't, to really sum it all up, I think the biggest things that I predict for the future is that you're not necessarily going to need the advanced degrees anymore that you do today. And I think that the rather remedial tasks are going to be replaced by software and AI. 
Announcer: (19:19)
This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you liked what you heard and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.