Tips for climbing the corporate ladder

  • 01-05-17
  • Richard Lloyd

Ambition, it’s not a dirty word. Whilst it burns inside of some facilitating the constant search for their next step up, for others, not so much. They are more than happy and content with their life’s status quo and have no yearning for change.

Working your way up in the Accounting field, with the sole ambition of climbing the ranks to a Finance Director or CFO position is not unusual. That said, you can’t necessarily expect there to be the right role available at the right time, just waiting for you to apply (along with everyone else looking at the same time). Naturally, the volume of roles at this level reduces the higher up the ladder you go and climbing to the next rung can be a big step up – one you need to be prepared for. When the perfect job does present itself, ensuring you have enough ammunition in your armoury to convince a future employer that you are ready to take on their challenge is critical. However, there can be a significant difference between your perception and a decision maker's perception of ‘ready’.

If you are ambitious and want to take the next step, but cannot see a clear path to where you want to go, try thinking about some of these ideas in your quest for ascension.

Have a career plan

A written plan is essential for structured career growth. Start with the end in mind. Do you know what you want to achieve? What role do you see yourself in? Picture that, then think about what you would need to do to achieve it

Self assess

First and foremost, you need to analyse your current situation against your career plan. Are you at the stage in your life where you can handle the new stresses and obligations that a Financial Director or CFO role will demand? Will you be able to provide and allocate the focus that these roles will require? Are there any skill or knowledge gaps that need to be addressed? Do you possess the strengths that are required for the next stage of your career? Without the answers to these questions, you may find it hard to move beyond the thought of ambition.

Focus on your attitude

Although we all have inherent personalities that shape the way we work, there is no doubt that moving into an executive-level position requires a different skill-set and attitude. We’ve all known bosses who manage by fear, but from our experience that is the exception, rather than the rule. Being a “nice person” to work with or for is equally important as having the skills to do the job. Nice doesn’t mean ‘meek’ either! Be willing to show some of your real personality versus your management mask.

“Yes” is also a very important word. Saying “yes” to requests and being part of the solution, rather than creating problems, will always enhance your standing. However, there is a fine line here. Having the mantra of saying “yes” does not absolve you from making tough and potentially unpopular decisions. Your actions need to be visibly directed towards the future success of the business. As long as it’s done with respect, professionalism and courtesy, it will go a long way towards your reputation.

Broaden your influence and reputation internally

Before considering the next step up, continue to work on your skills and experience by looking for projects outside of your normal scope. Get to know more about the business and how it works. It will make you more valuable to the organisation and perhaps provide additional opportunities.

Talk to trusted advisors

By inviting advice and feedback from others, such as your peers and advisors, about how you are perceived, you receive an external opinion that may well be different from the way you view yourself. This can help to identify areas of improvement professionally or personally that you can work on to increase your chances of moving up the ladder.  There are several tools that can help you, such as this test from Human Synergistics.

Also, put your trust in your current Managers and let them know your goals and aspirations. Put your hat in the ring when an opportunity arises, or when you see a pathway open up within the organisation. Why not? What is the worst that could happen?

Broaden your horizons externally

Although ideally, you may want to focus on the potential growth and promotion in your current company, sometimes the opportunities may not be available in the timeframe you have set yourself. So, how long do you wait? Loyalty is great, but you owe it to yourself to investigate what else is happening, and what opportunities may be on offer in the wider job market. Know your domain. Know what is happening in your industry; who the players are, where you fit in, and whom you aspire to be like or gain inspiration from.

Further education

Experience is great, but lots of companies need to see evidence of further study or certifications that will enhance your offering. If you perceive that there are gaps holding you back, have a look and see what you can do to address them. How would an MBA help, for example? Is the investment in education going to be repaid in your career advancement?

Equally, furthering your soft skills can also be very worthwhile. Have you ever seen someone who was meant to be a leader flounder through a presentation? If public speaking is something that puts fear in your belly, then you really need to do something about it if you’re looking to progress into a senior role. Joining organisations like Toastmasters is a great way to increase your confidence and learn strategies for public speaking.

Be aware of politics

Whilst playing a part in office politics is risky, and definitely not a tactic to get involved in, having an understanding of the politics that exists within your organisation is essential. Being able to effectively and appropriately articulate yourself through these murky waters is invaluable if you want to remain in an organisation long-term.

For this reason, effective communication skills are an essential part of leadership, as they are a key tool to help you navigate your way through potentially disruptive politics.

Technology and innovation

Obviously, you know what technology skills you need to do your current job but don’t stop there if you want to prepare for the future. Arm yourself with more knowledge. You cannot read a blog at the moment without the mention of digital disruption in organisations. If you can build a reputation for being able to face these challenges head-on, your value will definitely increase.

To do this, understand what your competitors are doing, then identify what are you doing better or how you and your company can improve. It is amazing what you learn when you immerse yourself in your sector; reading industry journals, and involving yourself in discussions or knowledge-sharing forums. In addition, don’t limit yourself just to your industry. There is a lot to learn externally, so don’t be afraid to gain inspiration or innovation from other domains.

When you have ideas, bring them to the table, own them, be willing to fight for them and drive them to completion. Caring about the business is a great trait in a leader.

Find a mentor or coach

The resource of a trusted mentor or coach can be invaluable. Someone to talk to and bounce ideas off, someone to guide, to question and to keep you accountable. If you have never used a mentor or a coach, officially or unofficially, it is highly recommended. A lot of the time, if chosen appropriately, these people, whilst not doing the work for you, can help guide you based on their own personal experience.

Finding a good mentor or coach is challenging, as not all people are great mentors, no matter how successful they are or have been. Look into your network, and maybe approach someone you admire who is further ahead in a similar career path. Are they the type of person you would like to emulate? Maybe it is someone who has left your organisation, whom you worked with previously, maybe it is someone you met at a conference? Connect with them, join a conversation and when you feel comfortable, ask if they would be interested in mentoring.

Business coaches are easier to find, Google will help you with that. Be warned though, if your expectation is that mentors and coaches will give you the answers, you will be sorely disappointed. Their key benefit is that they provide you with the tools to help you discover the solutions for yourself.

Mentor or coach others

Part of being a leader is, obviously, to lead and coach those coming up through the ranks. Giving back, and having the confidence to impart your knowledge to help others grow, is an important part of being a leader. However, you do not need the title of Leader to engage in this activity.

Leading by example and being known for delivering, reliability, and being the ‘go to’ person guiding and encouraging people to success is incredibly satisfying, and can get you the recognition you desire. Run teams, ask for responsibility and then grasp it with both hands to build a reputation as a rising star in your company.


When making the decision to start climbing the corporate ladder, nerves and self-doubt are to be expected. Being a CFO, Finance Director or any other executive isn’t as easy as some people make it look, but if you have the ambition, a well-thought-out plan, and you are surrounded by those who support your decisions, anything is achievable. Be patient, and be ready to grasp the opportunities when they arise.

If you still feel ‘stuck’ and need some help to get started, or maybe just a compass to consolidate direction – contact us, and we’d be happy to help.

Further information: What Today’s Accounting Executives Wish They Knew At The Start Of Their Careers.