How to Become a Finance Director UK? Great Advice from a Very Successful FD

How to Become a Finance Director 5
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The below is my interview with Patrick, 35, Finance Director, Multinational Media Company, London

He started off working for a Big 4 Accounting firm.

Then he got an ACA qualification and has worked for really cool media and music companies ever since.

In the below post you will learn:

  • what Patrick studied at uni and why he chose finance as a career
  • how much of what he learned in uni he uses in his daily job
  • what he would do if he was 18 again and could start over
  • about the jobs he has had since graduating
  • what he likes and dislikes about his career as a Finance Director
  • how much Finance Directors earn in the UK
  • qualifications needed to become a Finance Director
  • skills needed to be a great FD
  • the pros and cons of working for a small company
  • how many hours Patrick has worked over the years
  • what he would do career-wise if he could start all over again
  • tips on how to become a Finance Director
  • his advice to a young person who wants to become a Finance Director

This post is part of my ‘Finance Career Content Series’ which contains the following posts:

How to Become a Finance Director UK: What is your degree in?

Bachelor of Accounting

How to Become a Finance Director UK: Why did you do the degree you did?

In New Zealand where I grew up, you must decide what you want to do for a career and then study that at university.

At the time I was 17 and had to choose. I had no clue!

I knew I didn’t want to be a builder or a teacher which is what my parents were.

Being reasonably good at accounting and knowing it paid well is why I chose it as a career!

How to Become a Finance Director UK: When you came out of university did you seek advice from anyone?

Before I went to university, I spoke to a career guidance counsellor.

I did a test that showed I was good with numbers. It said accounting would be a good career for me.

I’d really encourage young people nowadays to reach out to people who are working as an Accountant, Lawyer, Doctor to ask them what it is really like before deciding they want to be one.

Parents, Lecturers, Guidance Counsellors they all mean well when they give you advice. However, you need to talk to people who actually do the job day in day out and see what they say.

How to Become a Finance Director UK: Did you know what your day-to-day role as Finance Director entailed starting off in your career?

No, I just imagined you were behind a computer crunching numbers for some company.

I had no idea what it entailed. Shocking really I knew so little.

How to Become a Finance Director

How to Become a Finance Director UK: What percentage of what you learned in university have you used in your day-to-day roles?

10% – I still use my debits and credits but nothing else.

Your university degree just gets your foot in the door of a good company.

The people with the best degrees from the best universities will have the best chance of getting interviews with the top companies.

Make sure you go to the best uni you can.

(Check out the 14 differences between the ACA and CIMA Accounting Qualifications in my infographic post)

How to Become a Finance Director UK: With the benefit of hindsight, if you were 18 again now would you do anything differently degree-wise?

I would have tried to pursue a different option and then have accounting in reserve.

It might be easy to say now, but I also would have asked lots of different people what their jobs were like, the pros and cons, the hours, the salary, etc.

I’m an outgoing person and finance is usually pretty stiff and boring. So I would’ve tried to find more interesting jobs you could do if you were good with numbers.

how to become a finance director uk

The issue is with accounting or any profession, you start studying it at university, it’s not too bad for the first couple of years.

Then you have to do really hard exams and get a job in it. By then, it’s too late to go back and start over again. You don’t want to waste the time you have already invested in it.

I’d have tried to do as much research as I could into my options before uni.

How to Become a Finance Director UK: What are the jobs you’ve done since graduating? And what have they entailed?

Finance Director, Media Company, London

  • Develop and control budget for Europe (as I’m the FD for Europe)
  • Analyse and report on my regions performance
  • Advise and help the European CEO and his management team
  • Prepare comprehensive forecasts and cashflows
  • Supervise and train the european finance team
  • Ensure the audit runs smoothly

Financial Controller/Interim CFO, Media Company, London

  • manage all accounting operations i.e. paying invoices, reporting costs, etc.
  • ensure the monthly reporting of company performance runs smoothly
  • develop internal accounting policies and ensure they comply with regulations
  • ensure that the finance function has necessary controls in place
  • prepare and publish the annual financial statements
  • ensure the external audit runs smoothly

Finance Manager, International Music Company, London

Being involved in a project to carve up a global music company and sell it to competitors.

Finance Manager, Energy Company, New Zealand

Preparing statutory accounts, month end reporting, budgeting, etc.

Audit Senior, Big 4 Accounting Firm, New Zealand

Planning and carrying out audits of companies in various industries.

How to Become a Finance Director UK: What are the things you most like about your career so far, and the things you don’t like?


  1. Some of the people I’ve worked with. The quality of people you have around you is really important. I’ve met friends for life in the companies I’ve worked in.

2. The travel when I was in audit. I got to go to Ireland, Australia, and the Pacific Islands. This is one of the perks of working for a big 4 audit firm

3. The career development that working in finance offers. Finance functions are very linear, you are an analyst/accountant, then manager, then director. If you have ambition you can progress quite quickly.

4. The money. It gives me a good lifestyle. Once you get to FD it pays pretty well compared to other roles. You also have a great chance to earn more money by becoming CFO, or by moving out of Finance and into a Business role.

Some other jobs have ceilings where it is very hard to earn more money i.e. Engineering, Architecture. You can always earn more money in finance.

How to Become a Finance Director UK 2


  1. Being an accountant! – it’s not the most exciting job in the world. If you can cut through the repetitive financial accounting it can be cool.

As an Finance Director you have to analyse and report on the companies performance every month, for however long you are in the job. This can get a bit monotonous.

2. Politics – Some of the people that I’ve met not acting with integrity. They will lie and do anything to get ahead of you. This can be a pain.

Once you get into a well paid Finance role, then there will be a lot of politics. It can get tiring.

3. Finance Directors are leaned on heavily, sometimes a lot harder than their counterparts in the business. i.e. HR Directors, Marketing Directors, Sales Directors.

You will be the right hand man of the Business Director for your area, expected to advise him on anything and everything.

Then you also have to ensure your finance department is running smoothly at the same time. It can be a lot of work!

Considering a career in finance but still not sure? If so, check out my post on ‘Why Work in Finance; 11 Convincing Reasons’

How to Become a Finance Director UK: What is the average Finance Director Salary?

  • A typical finance director salary will range from £85k to £150k depending on who you work for and where you work. Some industries will not pay as much as others i.e. media, travel, others will pay very well i.e. oil & gas, banking, mining, etc.
  • If you are an FD with niche skills, i.e. IT systems knowledge, specialist industry knowledge, or finance transformation skills you can earn a lot of money as these candidates are in short supply.
  • In London, the average Finance Director salary is approx £120k. In Manchester it is approx £90k
  • If you move onto a CFO role, you can earn anywhere from £120k – £200k plus depending on profile and experience.
  • Big multinationals will always pay a lot more than a small company that doesn’t make much turnover or profit

How to Become a Finance Director UK: What Qualifications do you need too become a Finance Director?

I know lots of people who are Finance Directors in the UK and did not go to a university.

They joined a company in an entry level position straight from school and worked theri way up to Finance Director. All of them would have done a professional accounting qualification i.e. CIMA or ACA

If you want to become a Finance Director working in industry in the UK, I’d recommend you do the CIMA professional accounting qualification.

The ACA is also a great qualification but it is more geared towards accountants who want to work in practice i.e. accounting firms.

A bachelors degree in business or finance is handy to have as it helps when sitting the professional accounting exams but it is definitely not a pre-requisite.

You do need good business acumen though if you are to become a good Finance Director.

Do you want to work in finance but want to study something else at uni? or are worried that your degree is not science related? if so, check out my post on How to get into Finance with a Non Finance Degree

How to Become a Finance Director UK: What in your opinion makes a good Finance Director?

I think you need the following skills to be a great Finance Director:

  • great people skills – you will be supporting business directors with advice, and collaborating with other functions, i.e. HR, Sales, all the time, so you need to be very good at building relationships with people. You will also need to motivate your finance department and make sure they are happy and working well. 50-80% of your role as an FD will be relationships and dealing with people, so you have to be very good at this
  • analytical skills – you will need to analyse and report on the companies performance, and be able to spot risks and opportunities that other people in the business will miss. A lot of your job will entail advising on how the company should spend their money and what on. You need to ensure all new investments are good ones and that the money spent generates value and a return for the company
  • communication skills – an FD must explain financial data and performance to non financial people who don’t really understand the numbers. So you must be very good at simplifying complex data and making sure senior management understand the one or two key messages
  • management skills – Finance Directors are responsible for the running of their Finance Department, everything from paying invoices, developing accounting policies, training staff to renegotiating loans with banks. You need to be good at prioritising what needs to be done, nurturing your strong members of the team and coaching the weaker members, and ensuring everyone is happy and motivated.

For more on how crucially important good soft skills are in your career, check out my post on the Most Important Soft Skills you can have in Business

How to Become a Finance Director UK: Which would you prefer to work for -> a small company or a big company, and why?

I would say a small company.

However there are pros and cons of working in a small company:

  • PRO – you get much more visibility of how the business works. You get exposure to tax, treasury, accounts payable, sales, marketing, business development, facilities, manufacturing, literally everyone in the company. That is something you just don’t get in a big company, you will just get exposure to your little part of it and not know how the rest of it works.
  • PRO – the processes in a small company aren’t going to be as good which many people see as a con. However, I enjoy identifying where the problems are, fixing them and adding real value, so for me that is a PRO. In a big company, the processes can be so large and outsourced, it can be very difficult to know what happens in the start and end of the process.
  • CON – the people and training may not be at the standard that they are in a bigger company. Big companies can be more picky with who they hire and pay better so you usually get more talent in the bigger companies.

How to Become a Finance Director UK: Have you worked long hours over the years?

I very rarely work crazy hours.

In the big 4 it was long hours. You could be working 50+ hour weeks from 8:30am to 6pm or later most days.

When you get out of the big 4 and start working in industry, it’s a lot better. You will work 9-5:30, and there will be spells where you are not that busy in the more junior roles.

As a Finance Director, you will be expected to work 9-5/6pm, but there may be overtime involved preparing for presentations to senior management. You will also be expected to travel which can eat into your personal time.

Some of my friends who are Finance Directors work as contractors and seem to have more control over the hourse they work. I sometimes get jealous and am really tempted to go freelance myself.

how to become a finance director uk; business, time, clock

How to Become a Finance Director UK: If you could start over and you were 22, but you know all you know now, would you do anything differently career-wise?

– Sometimes I think what would have happened if I didn’t leave the big 4, would I be an audit partner now?

Partners can get paid £250k+ so I sometimes do think about this. I still have friends who are in the big 4 trying to make Partner!

– I would be more aware of how important relationships are. I would have tried to keep in touch with people, once you leave a company it’s very easy to fall out of contact with someone.

When you get to a senior position like FD in a company, it’s very often who you know and how good your network is that will determine how good your next job is.

I’ve worked with some amazing people in the past, yet I can’t pick up the phone to them and ask them for advice now, which is a real shame.

How to Become a Finance Director UK: What tips would you give a someone who wanted to become a Finance Director?

  1. Get a professional accounting qualification.

Whether it’s CIMA, ACA, or even ACCA, just get qualified as you won’t be able to get tp job without it. Some of the world’s most successful business people are qualified accountants.

2. Do as many roles as you can in the finance function

When you are in your 20’s, do as many different roles as you can i.e. financial accountant, management accountant, treasury, tax, accounts payable, systems accountant.

That way you will have a deep understanding of how the finance department works, the issues that crop up and how to fix them. This will make you a great candidate when a Finance Director role comes up.

3. Work on your people skills

Soft skills are the most important thing to have in a Finance Director role.

As an FD you will have to build rapport with many different stakeholders i.e. different functions in the company, your business partners, suppliers, senior management and your team.

They all need to trust you and want to work well with you for you to be a success in your role. Relationships are so important in a Finance Director role.

The more you progress in a finance function, you realise that everyone can understand a balance sheet or set a budget, it’s the people who build and maintain strong relationships that get promoted into the top roles.

4. Understand how the business works

To be a good Finance Director you need to understand how the business works; how it makes money, what it spends money on.

You need to spend time in the business understanding the issues, and the risk and opportunities.

As an FD, the business directors will constantly ask for your advice on budgets, sales, costs, investments, new hires, etc., if you don’t understand the business, he/she will quickly stop listening to you and make their own decisions.

A good FD will keep a tight control on costs, while investing wisely on the right things like marketing, people, systems, that will drive business growth in the long term.

5. Leverage Technology

People in finance departments usually do lots of manual boring work.

Finance Directors need to ensure their finance team is happy and motivated otherwise the standard of work will suffer and people will leave.

By knowing what new systems and software packages can do, an FD can automate the menial tedious parts of people’s jobs.

They can then get them to do more analysis and value add work which keeps them happy and makes the finance dept. look good too.

source code, code, programming

How to Become a Finance Director UK: What general career advice would you give a young person now?

– I think the key thing these days is to have other interests. Be the treasurer of your sports club, organise charity events. I think you should have other things to differentiate your CV coming out of university.

– I would say try and get into a big 4 firm; it sets your career apart from your peers.

– Don’t be afraid to take a chance to get where you want to go. Too many people fear making a change and need the job security. I’ve changed jobs as I found the opportunities. I’ve had five or six different jobs in the last 10 years, that’s why I have such great experience on my CV.

– One thing I’ve learned through the years is that you are one of the smartest people in the room. If you don’t know the answer, then people more senior than you probably don’t either, it’s just they are better at bluffing than you. It’s all about being confident and believing in yourself.

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