How to Become an FP&A Professional

By Simone da Silva Collins, Finance Manager, Polycom

Have you thought of becoming an FP&A professional?

When I was studying for my accounting qualification, I assumed I would become a traditional accountant. I did not know then how wrong this assumption would prove to be. This article gives an insight to my path in becoming an FP&A professional and short guide on how to become one.

I graduated from university with a Bachelor degree in Accounting and Business and started working for a local audit firm. At first, it was quite interesting: looking into the figures of different companies and industries, trying to make sure all the relevant evidence was there and that it made sense. However after some time, I realised auditing wasn’t for me – it just did not challenge me enough.

After a few years of managing budgets for a local government department and acquiring an MBA  as well as an international accounting qualification (ACCA), I moved on to reporting and financial analysis at a national cable telephony company – at the dawn of the telecoms bubble in the UK. It was a good time to join the industry because there was a lot going on. I got involved not only in cost analysis but also provided assistance to other parts of the organisation including retail, wholesale and fraud. I found it exceedingly rewarding being able to support other stakeholders in minimizing risk, protecting revenue and, in some cases, growing revenue. It was then that my ‘eureka’ moment arrived: I wanted to pursue a career in which I not only provide insight but also helped promote business growth.

My next role took me closer to being a business partner. I guided my counterparts in the forecasting cycle and process, as well as reviewed the financials for the group CFO to see how we were performing against expectations. This was when one of the FP&A attributes of being inquisitive came into play. I asked my regional counterparts and decision makers what the reasons behind the variances were and what the plans were to mitigate unfavourable trends. I got to learn more about the drivers of the business. However, being inquisitive also came with its own challenges. One of my challenges was to encourage my counterparts and decision makers to share information so as to build a complete picture of what was driving the company’s financial figures. I also needed to learn to recognise if what my business partners were telling me was realistic and aligned with the direction that the financials appear to indicate. I found that through having regular reviews and discussions with my stakeholders and providing credible analysis, I gradually gained their trust. With trust, I was in a better position to encourage knowledge and information share. For me, as an FP&A professional, it is important to engage my stakeholders. This is a two-way relationship: input from my stakeholders and finance support from me.

During this role, I also got the opportunity to be involved in systems development with a view to improving the forecasting efforts. System development is an area in which FP&A is becoming more and more involved – from defining the scope and system requirements to UAT. By improving forecasting efforts, I enabled the FP&A team to free up more time to engage with their decision makers and be part of value add activities,  that is to take a more proactive role in assisting the company  to align  its actions with its desired strategic outcomes.

My current role is a trusted business partner and ‘go to’ person for all finance matters. Although I am engaged in traditional month-end reporting, I reach out to my decision makers to help align finance with business operations. Therefore, unlike the traditional finance function which looks at what happened, my role involves assisting decision makers in assessing what should happen, what financial impacts are anticipated, why the financials may indicate deviation and how to get back on track. I find that communication and transparency are essential in fulfilling my role.

So where do you begin?

One generally begins by gaining an accounting qualification through formal education and work experience followed by a professional qualification. Professional organisations such as AFP, ACCA and CIMA, to name just a few, offer certifications and qualifications with a focus on various aspects of the finance profession.

The next step is to gain experience by working with both the traditional accounting function and the business stakeholders. You may find some FP&A migrate from traditional accounting function to more business partnering as a natural and lateral move in their career. The existing rapport with accounting function and accounting knowledge enables FP&A professionals to understand the technical aspects of transactional accounting. As a result, FP&A professionals can spend more time unlocking the business intelligence data.

Apart from the academic and technical background, FP&A professionals should also be equipped with soft skills such as listening, influencing and persuasion. A service delivery mindset is essential. FP&A is not about producing fancy reports: it actually helps the business move forward.  Although FP&A skills are transferable, there is industry and organization-specific knowledge that can only be gained by FP&A proactively reaching out.

I believe that to become a successful FP&A business partner, one needs to nurture their relationships with their stakeholders. This paves the way for an FP&A professional to become their trusted adviser.

I see FP&A as the next career move for someone who has a solid accounting background and someone who actually wants to promote business growth.

Simone da Silva Collins is a FP&A professional working in Polycom, an industry leader in unified collaboration solutions.

She provides business partnering to various departments of Polycom in EMEA. She was previously the Group Finance Analyst supporting the Executive Team at Intec (now part of CSG), a provider of Business Support System (BSS) software and related services, primarily for the telecommunications industry. She also worked for Telewest (now part of Virgin Media) for over 7 years providing commercial and financial support to the Interconnect team.

Simone is originally from Macau in SE Asia. She gained her Masters at Manchester Business School. She has also recently achieved FP&A accreditation.