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Are You a Generalist?

Sounds good, I know, for today's finance professional. But don't forget the value from creating a specific brand for yourself

A popular 1990s country music song by Aaron Tippin said it best: "You Got to Stand for Something, or You'll Fall for Anything."

The finance profession has seen job prospects hold up fairly well during the economic downturn. CNN Money's most recent list of Best Jobs in America included a number of positions that are either exclusive to finance, or a prime opportunity for finance professionals. (Business development analyst was No. 45 on the list). However, competition for top jobs remains fierce, and you must build your personal brand to be unique in the marketplace.

The days of arriving to work, doing your job well, and moving up the corporate ladder are long gone. Increasing specialization and demands for immediate results require strong personal branding to identify ourselves. Just as companies like Nike, Apple, and McDonald's instantly create impressions (both positive and negative), we must develop an instant recognition about our own value in the marketplace.

Ron Box, CFO and CIO at Birmingham-based Joe Money Machinery Company offers one example of how we can build a strong brand in a particular discipline. "Cost accounting professionals that can see and make broad scope recommendations based on an integrated view of the company can be a great asset," Box explains. "I believe that cost accounting should be integrated into the broader picture with cost accountants able to see the impact of their work on the whole financial results of the organization."

My personal experience offers a cautionary tale of how being seen as a generalist is not necessarily a good thing. When I joined John Deere in the late 1990s, we were encouraged to work in a variety of operating divisions, job functions, and locations. I moved six times in 10 years, including a 15-month assignment in Europe. I worked in a variety of assignments, from general ledger accountant to project manager of an ERP implementation. I gained a lot of experience, but I never was seen as an expert in one area. I did not have a strong brand as a recognized expert in a particular function or skill. While my experience is now extremely beneficial in my position at AccountingDepartment.com, I have only recently cultivated a strong brand as a forward-thinking business coach and technology expert. That brand is serving me well in a virtual accounting organization where I am expected to be an expert in many different business areas.

I encourage you to take several hours and think about the brand you portray in the marketplace. Is it how you want to be perceived? If it is, how can you communicate your value to secure the career you want? If it is not, what can you do to build your brand? If you know for what you stand and your best gifts, you can develop a unique position in a very crowded and competitive job market.

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