3rd March 2023

The Unwritten Rules to Becoming a Finance Director

A challenge in many organisations is the lack of clarity on how to be promoted to finance director.

In my experience, organisations aren’t good at telling you what you need to do to get there. But luckily for you, this is where I can help. What I’m about to share are what I like to call the unwritten rules of becoming a finance director.

Assumption: You’re good at your job

As a baseline, we should assume that you’re good at your job and competent enough to fulfil the role. If you’re not, you will need to be!

Now we’ve got that out of the way, here are 6 things that you should do to achieve your goal.

Get sponsorship from a Senior Leader

The first step in becoming a finance director is to secure sponsorship from a senior leader. This person will likely be more senior than your boss, so you’ll need to figure out who it would be for you in your organisation. They don’t have to be the final approver, but they need to explicitly agree to sponsor you through the process.

To get this sponsorship, you should have a conversation with your senior leader and ask one important question:

  • What do you expect to see in your finance directors?

This key question will engage your senior leader’s help in the process and get them invested in your success. Even though you are not directly asking what you need to do, they can set expectations and you can start planning how you will close any gaps.

Senior leaders don’t liked to be asked “What do I need to do to get promoted to finance director?”. Because there is no single answer. A senior manager role is probably the highest position you can get to where you a list of tasks and things you need to do will get you promoted. Once you go beyond this, it’s about how you go about your work, as much as what you do.

Get support from other leaders across the business

Your promotion to director will need approval from other leaders across the business, not just your sponsor. You’ll need to identify who these people are and what they want to see from you to approve your promotion. They may be in finance but if your organisation is not that large, they may be other leaders. This could include things like knowing who you are in the first place, having interactions with you, and knowing more about what you do.

To get this support, you should look for opportunities to demonstrate your skills and knowledge to the people you need to influence. This could be as simple as a 30-minute conversation or giving a presentation of your work.

Get customer, business partner, or client support

Your leadership team will want to know that you’re not only good within your own bubble, but that you work effectively with others too. This includes customers, business partners, and clients. A key part of being a director is being able to scale the impact of your role by empowering others, so it’s absolutely essential to show that you can have impact with a range of stakeholders.

Suss out the scope of your role

Next up, think about the size and scope of your current role. You might already be doing director-level work, but the problem is that it doesn’t need an actual finance director to be doing it. Does your company have the ability to say ‘yes, we should have a finance director doing this job’? If not, it’s time to think about other roles or other spaces you could get promoted into.

Organisational agility

Do you understand how to navigate the unwritten rules of your company? The people that say ‘our HR systems are rubbish, I can never get what I need to do done…’ aren’t showing director-level behaviour. Instead, directors find ways to achieve what they need to with the constraints that they have. That’s what organisations are looking for, so if you don’t already, you need to practice approaching problems in this way.

The most important thing to demonstrate here is that you don’t let potential barriers hold you back from creating a positive impact. By the way, this doesn’t mean you need to be overly political – but that politics don’t stop you achieving impact.

Be famous for something

It’s rare that someone is promoted to finance director if they aren’t ‘famous’ for something. In other words, most directors have something they’re known for being good at.

What does this mean in practice?

Well, let’s start with a list of things that your ‘famous’ trait can’t be:

  • I work really hard
  • I’m a team player
  • I deliver results

Because so does everyone else. You need to have something that differentiates you from the rest. For example,

  • I’m a talent magnet – great people love coming to work with me
  • I take on and deliver difficult and big projects
  • I scale my impact because I get on so well with business partners and other people in the business
  • I’m a very strong technical specialist in this area (if a very technical space – e.g Accounting or Tax)
  • I’m able to work across a broad range of stakeholders
  • I actively drive a diversity and inclusion agenda within my organisation

Want to become a finance director?

These 6 things aren’t the only steps you’ll need to take to be a finance director, but they are the core requirements that often aren’t explicitly discussed or written down.

If you’re looking to get to a director-level role within your organisation, I can help you create a bespoke strategy for your particular situation.

Get in touch with me to book a free 30-minute discovery session. Together, we can lay out an action plan, and help you understand what finance coaching can do for you.

Oliver Deacon

Finance tips straight to your inbox.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.