A lot of people ask me how to get into a company’s financial planning and analysis department. For many, these positions are highly sought after due to the fact they often involve working with various members of upper management and the provide analysis behind key strategic business decisions. Whether or not you’re already working in accounting and finance, there are some things you can do to prepare and rebrand yourself as someone fit for a role in the FP&A department.
What is FP&A?
FP&A stands for financial planning and analysis. Typically financial planning and analysis departments are structured to serve upper level management with the information they need to make strategic, operational, and tactical decisions. Roles in this area tackle a dynamic array of issues often focusing on changes and adjustments to the underlying business. They bring quantitative, analytic support to decision-making for management to feel secure proper options are evaluated appropriately and measure progress toward reaching company goals. This department typically focuses on forecasting results of the future, analyzing trends, and looking out for possible challenges emerging in the business before they fully impact the financials.
Positions in the department vary depending on the nature and size of the company’s structure, but generally include Financial Analyst, Sr. Analyst, Business Analyst and Strategist titles. Because this department interfaces so closely with management and the business, the specific roles in this department and their responsibilities vary widely from company to company. Even with this variability, there are some areas you can focus on that will help brand you as a candidate in your company for this role.
What is a must?
Everyone wants a strong candidate, but there are some characteristics that are generally required of any candidate trying to get in to the FP&A side of finance.
Intelligence, natural curiosity, and a desire to learn. A natural curiosity and desire to learn is the most critical attribute of an analyst candidate, as they will constantly be required to learn more about the business, emerging issues, and facets of the industry in order to perform quality analysis. A core component of analyst role in the company is to take aspects of multiple dimensions and perspectives reflected in the business and bring them together with a quantitative approach. A good analyst knows they never know everything about all the aspects of the business and industry, and there is always more to research, study, and absorb.
Knowledge of accounting and/or month-end close experience. In order to be able to evaluate and communicate the impact of specific business issues for the company, a candidate must have a good understanding of all components of the financial statements. Journal entries and reconciliations are likely to be reserved for those in the core accounting department, but a thorough understanding of this is the foundation upon which leading indicators and other metrics are built. Intimate knowledge of the debits and credits made throughout the accounting cycle bring a valuable perspective to an analyst who must understand the interrelatedness of all aspects of the business.
Experience working on projects. A good candidate should be able to demonstrate that they have taken on projects in the past and can communicate how those projects have added value to the company. Even those without experience in a project-focused role, should have identified “extra” things that warranted change in their area. They should have had the confidence, drive, and support to institute even small changes and the understanding and communications skills to explain how that project added value to the business.
Technical aptitude. Candidates should have the ability to solve problems utilizing technology. This will likely be demonstrated through an in-depth understanding of Excel and other commonly used applications. They may not have been exposed to some of the systems they will employ in this role, such as Hyperion Essbase or SAP Business Objects, but they should have a very good understanding of any system they’ve come into contact with. Because aptitude is what is important, I look for the most ability with the least amount of training and experience. A strong technical background might mean one year in an accounting department with a full understanding of advanced functions in Excel such as vlookups and array formulas as well as beginner custom (not using macro recorder) programming in Visual Basic. The longer the candidate has been exposed to these applications the more advanced understanding I would expect.
If you possess all of these things, and are looking for an opportunity in FP&A, make sure you can concisely communicate your strengths in these areas. Be able to site specific examples if asked. Because these opportunities are highly competitive, you will likely not stop there. Be sure to continue reading about what other things to do to make you a strong analyst candidate.