Preparing the Next Generation of Finance Leaders

January 24, 2023 Mimi Torrington

accounting department watching webinar about next generation of finance

Becoming a successful next-generation finance leader requires a good balance of soft and technical skills. Besides accounting and FP&A, you need to learn how to leverage branding strategies, talent acquisition, relationship building and networking. Even the best learners need guidance to advance their careers in the right direction, so we invited Wassia Kamon onto the podcast to mentor you on that journey.

Wassia is the VP of Finance and Accounting at ACM Chemistries. Before this role, she accumulated thirteen-plus years working for international manufacturing companies in various accounting and FP&A leadership roles. Wassia also serves as a Board Member and Treasurer of H.O.P.E, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income single parents obtain college degrees and become financially independent. In 2022 she was selected as one of 40 Under 40 Accounting Professionals by CPA Practice Advisor.

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Welcome back to CFO Weekly, where we're talking with financial leaders about how to build efficiency in their teams, create time for strategy, and ultimately get results, with your host, Megan Wiese. Let's jump right in today.

Megan - 00:00:31: My guest is Wassia Kamon. Wassia is the Vice President of Finance & Accounting of ACM Chemistries, Inc. Prior to this role, she accumulated 13+ years working mostly for international manufacturing companies in various accounting and FP&A leadership roles. She also serves as a board member and treasurer of a nonprofit organization called HOPE Inc., helping low-income single parents obtain a college degree and become financially self-sufficient. She is passionate about helping the next generation of finance and accounting leaders, so she regularly shares content on leadership development and personal branding on LinkedIn. She also serves on various boards and committees with the IMA and the AICPA.

Megan - 00:01:17: Wassia, thank you very much for joining me on today's show.

Wassia - 00:01:21: Thank you so much for having me, Megan. Happy to be here.

Megan - 00:01:24: Yeah. Today we'll be learning about you, of course, but also about the importance of grooming future leaders and giving back in the form of mentorship, which seems to be very important to you. So I'm excited to hear your story and learn from you. So let's jump right in.

Wassia - 00:01:40: Sounds good.

Megan - 00:01:41: Let's start with you, as always, and your journey as to how you got to where you are today.

Wassia - 00:01:48: All right. So initially I didn't want to be in accounting. I wanted to be a statistician. So that was my last dream role. When I finished high school, I wanted to work in insurance. And so I went to college, took my first statistic course, and I was like, what was I thinking? How did that get to be your dream? I know. I was like, what was I thinking? But then I was a business major, so I had to take, like, Accounting 101, 102 Econ, and so on. And so when I went into my first accounting class, I just loved it, the debits and credits, I just fell in love with the whole thing. And that's what prompted me to actually complete my undergrad degree in accounting from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. And during that time, I had great mentors at my school with my professors, and so they advised me to kind of do some internships to see which part of accounting I would like to do. So in my last year when I was a senior, I interned at a tax CPA firm, and I realized I was not going to be in tax because I couldn't go through the whole getting updated with the legislation. I was like, okay, I'm not going to do tax. And so when I graduated, I had an internship at PwC in the assurance audit practice. Went in there and didn't like it either. People could not understand. How come, it's PwC? It's a big four! It just didn't work for me. It wasn't my personality. I'm an extrovert. I like having conversations. And as an auditor, as soon as you step into a room, they want you out. And so that type of rejection was brutal for me. And so by then, I knew I didn't want to do tax. Public accounting was not going to be an option. And so I jumped into the corporate accounting world. So that's what I've been since. My first role was as a staff accountant at a lottery gaming provider. So it was a manufacturing/software/technology technical support company, that was growing at the time. And I actually spent nine years there. I went from staff accountant all the way to controller. So that was where I learned a lot, I will say, about anything company-wise, accounting, and finance. I built out the FP&A department. There was only one person. I had to hire the first financial analyst. So I learned a lot about managing people, managing the financials, and being a business partner to other departments. From there, I went to a 100% FP&A role at a pharmaceutical company, grew there, and then COVID hit. And that's when I was like, okay, what other things can I do? You know, the big reset that happened during that period, I was one of those people who stayed home, extrovert, bouncing off the wall, trying to go back to work. And so that's when I started being involved with other things. So I joined the board of a nonprofit organization. I started volunteering with them, I started mentoring entrepreneurs, and I started mentoring more people. And I eventually got offered a role as VP of Finance & Accounting with another company through LinkedIn because I started being more involved there as well. And that's where I've been since then.

Megan - 00:05:19: Yeah, LinkedIn can be an amazing tool.

Wassia - 00:05:23: Yes.

Megan - 00:05:26: How did you go about joining the board? I'm curious to know how people get involved in something like that.

Wassia - 00:05:35: So that one, it was through Volunteer Match. They had a post of looking for a board member, and I just applied. I applied for different ones. I was okay with people saying no because I didn't have any board experience. But I got one, yes, and it was with a company with a not-for-profit that I really liked their mission. We are helping low-income single parents complete their education. So these are people that work full time, they have kids, and they're trying to complete a nursing degree. So we come in and we provide for child care so they don't have to work a second job. Because that's often the struggle with a lot of people, is you have to have two jobs, kids, it's tough. So we're coming in, they're working full time, and we're helping in that regard. And this has been life-changing. You have people that were working at a KFC, working now at a hospital as nurses and being able to provide for their families.

Megan - 00:06:37: That's amazing. Very great.

Wassia - 00:06:38: Because people are willing to work and work hard if given a chance.

Megan - 00:06:43: Yeah. For some people it's just so hard balancing life and yes. So that's wonderful.

Wassia - 00:06:53: Thank you.

Megan - 00:06:54: And you dedicate a lot of time and resources to helping aspiring leaders with their careers and finance. So why is this such a big part of what you do?

Wassia - 00:07:04: Because I realize at this stage of my career, I need to give back. I need to be the mentor and the coach I wish I had in my career because I'm an African woman, young, black, and I didn't have those role models. I didn't have a lot of people that would speak to me or tell me, okay, this is how you should go about this thing versus the next. So every post outright on LinkedIn will be from that perspective, from the perspective of the other me that wish I had somebody telling me, okay, work on your soft skills even more than your technical skills at some point in your career. Like, what are some things you should look out for, or what courses or certifications you should use to go to the next level in your career? And things like that. It's been rewarding as well.

Megan - 00:08:00: Yeah, I'm sure. I wish more people had that kind of mindset.

Wassia - 00:08:05: Thank you. I wish so too.

Megan - 00:08:06: And you've been the VP of Finance & Accounting at ACM Chemistries for a year. So can you talk to us about this role and what you've learned since starting there?

Wassia - 00:08:18: I've learned so much. This was a very stretched role. As I said, I've never been a VP before. I've never carried that big of a title. And so there are certain things that I knew before stepping into the role, out of, like, in theory. Right. And then once you're in the role, what does it mean? And one of those things was dealing with people. So as a leader in the organization, you understand that it's not your technical knowledge of the latest GAAP principle that's going to help you resolve an employee crisis. It's other skills, it's getting buy-in from people, the people above you, the people your colleagues, and the people that work for you. So definitely the emphasis on having good people skills, if anything, it's been helpful, but also a stretch because I thought I was good. But then you get in and you're like, oh, I have work to do. So that was one of them. And then being able to be flexible because we're still recovering from COVID. We still had supply chain disruptions that we had to deal with, coming up with new pricing structures or strategies and being in the middle of that because there is no help, you're it. People are coming to you with, how do we solve this? And you're like, oh, sure, let me ask my boss. Oops, I'm the boss. So it's been a great experience and the team has really welcomed me and made things easier for me to join that group because they've been together for years and then they bring me in. So that has been a great experience.

Megan - 00:10:03: So coming in as part of senior management for a team that's been together for years, how was that, how did you gain their trust and how did you integrate yourself?

Wassia - 00:10:19: I think it's really the fact that I was always open and willing to be vulnerable, willing to say, I don't know, but also willing to speak up if I didn't agree with something they've been doing for years. And doing so in a way that's not rude or disrespectful, but trying to understand what's the history, why are we doing it this way? So we're always from the standpoint of I'm trying to learn, I'm trying to understand, I'm not trying to make somebody look bad or feel bad, but it's really looking for that partnership.

Megan - 00:10:56: And a fresh perspective, which a lot of people don't realize they need.

Wassia - 00:11:02: Yes, of course.

Megan - 00:11:04: And as part of senior leadership now, as you're building out your own team, how do you ensure that you're hiring the right people? Especially when roles are kind of evolving and things are growing?

Wassia - 00:11:19: Finding people first, we just say that you're going to select. Because when I joined, the controller that was there had to retire in June. Right. So I started November and then the following year the controller was like, I'm retiring, good luck. And so I was like, okay, I'm going to start my controller search in April. By the time he leaves in June, I have somebody and my controller right now starting in October.

Megan - 00:11:49: Wow.

Wassia - 00:11:54: It took time. Yes. When people say there is a talent shortage, it is real. And so that in itself was a challenge. But make sure, to find people that are aligned with you and your vision more than anything else. I'm always looking for people that are curious, trying to learn, trying to advance, but also diligent. Because at the end of the day, in accounting and finance, you have to be diligent with the work you do.

Megan - 00:12:23: And when you look back at your first role at Intralot, as you mentioned, you grew from a staff accountant to a corporate controller and you did that in less than seven years. So how did you progress so quickly in that amount of time?

Wassia - 00:12:39: I was doing what now I know there is a word for it, what's called personal branding and strategic partnership. I didn't know those names at the time, but I was always very intentional about letting people know what I wanted. I was speaking up for what I wanted to learn. There was no guessing that Wassia was trying to do a CPA, or that I wanted to be in an accounting leadership role one day. I would network with directors that were not in my department. So supply chain marketing, people outside, to learn from them, learn their struggles, learned what the numbers meant. And so when it came and then of course, hanging out with people, having a good time, because I love having fun. Right. That's why I wasn't in public accounting. And so I was doing all those things, not realizing that he helped me build a strong network and really learned from others, people that were like 10, 20 years ahead of me and just downloading information over lunch right in the break room. It didn't matter if the title was VP or so and so or Director or just the admin, because I learned so much from secretaries and admins as well. So just being out there, it really helped me because when it was time to move, because of the senior accountant role, there was somebody else there. But I was so curious, I was doing some of their jobs for them. And so when the person left, bam, I was there. I was working on my CPA, and once I got it, there was no accounting manager. That role was created for me because I'm a new CPA and I'm like, I need to have a nice title and the money that comes with it too. And this is how I think I can bring value to the organization. And the CFO was on board, but it was coming down to articulating what I wanted and the kind of things I wanted to be involved with. I didn't want to just stay and just do my desk job. Like, this is the job description. I'm only going to do this if marketing needed help with pricing because we're a government contractor. I'll show up and say, hey, I can help you with a spreadsheet. I know how to do Excel. So being there has really helped me over the years because then people knew me not just as the person that tells you over budget, but the person who understands why you are over budget and tries to help you, coming up with initiatives and things like that to change.

Megan - 00:15:17: Yeah, I think one of the best ways to progress in a career, as you said, is to start doing the role you want to be in, and then there's no argument as to why you shouldn't be in that role when it does come open. And yeah, the word relationship, I hear that word again and again in talking to finance leaders. It's so important, and you just can't underestimate the importance of the relationships you build.

Wassia - 00:15:43: Absolutely. Because you can only relate to the numbers so much. At the end of the day, you work with people.

Megan - 00:15:49: And talk to us about your decision to move on from Intralot. How did you know it was time to try something new?

Wassia - 00:15:59: So Intralot was an international company headquartered in Greece, and in their tradition, the CFO of every country, at least in the US, was Greek, and spoke Greek, because some of the meetings at headquarters were in Greek for the budget. And you probably hear my accent. I'm originally from Africa on the west African coast, and I speak French, and I wasn't going to learn Greek at that time. And so being a controller, I had reached the highest level somebody can have as a non-Greek person. And so I could stay there for ten more years. But then I was like, okay, it's been five years. Okay, maybe I need to change. But that's really what happened. I didn't want to learn Greek or speak Greek. I had to reach my ceiling.

Megan - 00:16:50: Well, yeah, it's important to realize when you've done that and recognize that it's time to move on. I think some people maybe just get comfortable where they're at and don't press themselves any further. But congratulations for making that change.

Wassia - 00:17:05: Thank you.

Megan - 00:17:06: And you're a business mentor with SCORE and Pacific Community Ventures. So can you tell us about your work with these organizations and how it enriches your life and your professional work?

Wassia - 00:17:19: Sure. So SCORE is a nonprofit. It's mostly sponsored by the SBA Small Business Administration. And as SCORE mentors, you are connected with entrepreneurs in your area. So I mean, that's in our area. And people go on the website and sometimes they need help with accounting or they need help with marketing strategy. And you're doing it pro bono, so it's free. So some of my mentees I have one that she's the owner of a lash salon, and then she needed help on how to work on the business plan, and how to better price a product. So I'm able to use all these years of experience in accounting and help those entrepreneurs who don't necessarily have the means to actually pay for a consultant, but they're in the community again, and they're hard workers. Entrepreneurship is hard. So being able to bring that knowledge and see them succeed, and it's been very enriching for me.

Megan - 00:18:19: And you regularly post career insights on LinkedIn to help aspiring finance and accounting leaders. So why is it important for you to engage with your followers in the LinkedIn community in this way?

Wassia - 00:18:33: I have learned a lot from LinkedIn. That's one, I have been able to partner with other folks that are going through the same thing in finance and accounting, especially ladies because there are not a lot of us in accounting and finance. So I've enjoyed the network and understanding, okay, how do you do it here versus there? And like I said, I've been posting from that perspective of the boss that I wanted to be, I wanted to have, or the coach, or the career that I wanted to have. And I realized that there were a lot of things that I was doing. As I said, the personal branding, the speaking of the networking, that to me was it became easier for me, obvious for me, but it's not necessarily for others. So they look at my LinkedIn and I got a lot like, how to do all these things so fast, so quickly. And so I feel like, okay, I need to let people know, help others accelerate their careers. Because I know how it can be frustrating that you want to do the work, but you don't know how to go about it. Like, you want to have an impact, make an impact in your organization that you're not necessarily making the right investments or right moves about it. So actually starting a career strategy agency to help fast track finance and accounting careers, a lot of it has to do with your soft skills, your personal branding, knowing how your network inside and outside your organization as well gives you leverage as well as you go. But it's been very rewarding. And I just like this type of thing. Like I said since COVID reassessing all the things that really bring you joy and living to the fullest has been my motto.

Megan - 00:20:26: Since you found a lot of meaningful ways to spend your time.

Wassia - 00:20:31: Yes.

Megan - 00:20:33: And I think you mentioned that you use LinkedIn to find the role at ACM Chemistry. So how did you leverage LinkedIn to do that?

Wassia - 00:20:41: So first I optimized my profile. So a lot of people don't realize that recruiters, use some features of LinkedIn, especially sales navigator, to look for roles. Okay. So the client goes to them and they say they want somebody with full P&L experience. Maybe on your LinkedIn profile, you said to handle the whole financial statement. Well, you don't use the term full P&L. Like there are certain keywords that have to be present. You're not lying about it. You're not just using the right term that they may be looking for. So my profile was optimized so that people looking for an aspiring or future finance leader could see I would show up and see what I was about and what I could bring to the table as well. Because of my skills, and my experience, all that was filled out again in a way to attract people. That was one. So that the profile optimization. The second part was I always connected with recruiters. And so I was just one connection away from the recruiter. We eventually contacted me, which means when I post, he probably sees me in his feed, right? This means when I'm interacting with maybe our mutual connection, he may see that, those comments. And so whenever I'll see a role, one habit I had is, even if I'm not actively looking for a job, if there is a recruiter that keeps posting roles that I like, I send them an invitation and say, hey, you post the kind of role I like, I hope we can connect. So at the end of the day, my connections are probably 20% recruiters. And so it's things like that that having an optimized profile, making sure you're building those relationships with those decision-makers, the people who influence those decisions. Very key.

Megan - 00:22:34: Yeah. Very smart.

Wassia - 00:22:36: Thank you.

Megan - 00:22:36: And you were nominated as one of the 40 under 40 accounting professionals. So what did this mean to you and what has this achievement brought you?

Wassia - 00:22:46: It meant a lot because I'm almost not under 40 anymore.

Megan - 00:22:51: 40s are the best. I'll just tell you right now.

Wassia - 00:22:54: Thank you. Okay. I'm glad I got recognized before I switch, but that was great. It was great. I mean, I had a chance to connect with so many others, the other 40 over 40, the other 39, and learn what they're doing and how they are advancing the profession as a whole. So we have a lot of people that are accounting entrepreneurs and others in a nonprofit space. It's been very good learning about other like-minded, I will say, accounting professionals.

Megan - 00:23:29: And we've spoken about relationships and soft skills, and maybe that's part of this answer, but what's one piece of advice that you have for other finance leaders or aspiring finance leaders?

Wassia - 00:23:44: I would definitely say work on your soft skills because it's so key. Things like business, because I know soft skills, say soft skills, but it's harder for me to work on your soft skills than your technical skills. Right? Because you can just get a course and learn more about this Excel function. But there's not just one course to learn how to be a better public speaker. So some of them are business acumen, strategic thinking, relationship building, of course, communication influencing. So as many as you can have to be that well-rounded person is very key. And I think as the profession is moving toward business partnership, I think it's essential that as finance people, we better understand the stories behind the numbers we report. So as much as you can grow, your business acumen and your ability to give insights, to drive the right decision in the business are so important.

Megan - 00:24:46: Yeah, I think the role of finance leader or CFO, whatever the case may be, it's changed so much in the last 20 years. Whereas 20 years ago, maybe you could be an introvert and sit in your office and close the books, the role is just not that anymore.

Wassia - 00:25:04: Yes, very true.

Megan - 00:25:05: So, lastly, as you look out into 2023, what is one or two of the biggest challenges that you and your team are facing?

Wassia - 00:25:15: Right now is talent and technology. Those two. Talent. Because like I said, the business is growing. My team is growing. And it took me almost nine months to get a controller. It's trying to make sure the team is motivated and mentored to always bring their full self to work, driving that productivity, encouraging people, and making sure people are comfortable at work. Right. We know how we're talking about being hybrid, working from home and coming to the office, making sure the employees well being is taken care of so that we can do the work we need. Right? Because we're trying to automate a lot of tasks and go through digital transformation and all that. It's all good. But who's going to do it, it's the people. So that's really some of the things that are definitely top of mind for 2023 and the years to come.

Megan - 00:26:16: Yeah. I'm just curious, where do you think the talent has gone? Any thoughts on why there's such a shortage?

Wassia - 00:26:25: To me, because I had a good question. I had a conversation with an accounting professor from Georgia Tech University, and my question was, we see that there are fewer CPAs. So 75% of CPAs, I believe, are on their way to retirement. Yeah, I've heard that statistic and I said, why do you think people are not enrolling in an accounting course at university? He said, first, the starting salaries of professions like IT are getting way higher, right, than in accounting. So if I'm going to be good with numbers, this one is paying more, and this one is not. Okay, maybe I'll go to it. The other thing he said is that the CPA, so when you go to college and accounting, they tell you it's all about the CPA working for a big four. Now the big four and public accounting have a bad rep, right? Because it's like, I don't want to work all these hours. And to be a CPA, there is 150 hours requirements, so it's more student debt. If I want to take those extra accounting courses, do I want to go through this? Is it worth it? So people have all these thoughts. So we're not having a lot of people in our pipeline. So I think it starts from there. I don't think people went away and sell it from the profession. They're just doing something else. And accounting and finance.

Megan - 00:27:47: Yeah, I agree. Wassia, thank you so much for being my guest today.

Wassia - 00:27:54: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you so much for having me.

Megan - 00:27:57: Yeah, I really enjoyed speaking with you and hearing about your experiences and all of the resulting insights. And I really appreciate you taking the time to be here with us today. And I wish you and ACM Chemistries all the best. And to all of our listeners, please tune in next week, and until then, take care.

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In this episode, we discuss:

  • How can you leverage soft skills for career success?

  • Leadership skills finance executives should master

  • How do you ensure that you're hiring the right people?

  • Mentoring entrepreneurs

  • Building relationships to advance your career

Key Takeaways

Helping Aspiring Next Gen Leaders With Their Careers and Finance

Quote aspiring next generation finance leaders

During her career, Wassia didn't have financial role models that could guide and help her progress. So she focuses on helping aspiring finance leaders by advising them on things they should look out for to succeed in their career, like courses, certifications, and soft and technical skills they need to develop.

“I realized at this stage of my career, I need to give back. I need to be the mentor and the coach I wish I could have in my career,” Kamon said. - 06:54 - 08:06

Leadership Skills You Should Master

Quote wassia kamon, VP of Finance and Accounting at ACM Chemistries

After taking on the role of the VP of Finance and Accounting at ACM Chemistries, Wassia understood that dealing with people well and being flexible are the most important skills finance leaders should learn.

“As a leader in the organization, you understand that it's not your technical knowledge of the latest gap principle that's gonna help you resolve an employee crisis. It's other skills,” Kamon said. - 08:07 - 10:03

Hiring the Right Finance Roles to Build a Next-Generation Team

Quote hiring the right people

When looking to make a new hire, you have to find people aligned with you and your company's vision. Though challenging, you should take your time to find curious people, constant learners, and diligent workers

“Finding people aligned with you and your vision is more challenging than anything else,” Kamon said. - 11:04 - 12:24

Mentoring the Next Generation of Finance Leaders

Quote mentoring next generation of finance leaders

Wassia works as a business mentor with SCORE and Pacific Community Ventures. As a core mentor at SCORE, she is connected with entrepreneurs looking for help with accounting, marketing strategy, or other business-related areas.

“I can use all these years of experience in accounting and help those entrepreneurs who don't necessarily have the means to pay for a consultant,” Kamon said. - 17:06 - 18:20

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