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For accountants and finance professionals, today’s workplace demands courage and technical competence — as well as the ability to wear many hats. Indeed, given the fast-changing nature of financial work, management accountants are constantly being challenged with stretch assignments.

For Michelle Janse van Rensburg, currently managing director at Pretoria-based Nimacc Business Lounge, moving out of her corporate comfort zone in South Africa saw her taking on a rather unconventional stretch assignment in Mozambique for an asset management company that was handling agricultural projects across Africa, where she was tasked with implementing new financial and operational systems.

“If we’re talking unknown territory, this was definitely it. The most I knew about systems at the time was how to draw up a set of financials and process a journal,” Janse van Rensburg said. “Managing this process was not exactly in my wheelhouse at the time. However, it taught me the underestimated value of understanding the detail in each business process and aligning these with an efficient, integrated system.”

Although this particular mission was certainly out of the ordinary and, in fact, required trips to several African countries, Janse van Rensburg said that within accounting and finance, stretch assignments are becoming the norm.

“When we look at the speed at which technology is changing, we as accountants are forced out of our comfort zone more often than not — with assignments requiring knowledge and skill that we did not exactly learn while paging through the Principles of Managerial Finance,” she said.

For Lyndy van den Barselaar, FCMA, CGMA, her role as managing director at ManpowerGroup South Africa is “a continuous stretch assignment”.

“I was a purely financial person who was given the opportunity to lead an organisation as the operational and financial head,” van den Barselaar said. “It was something that I had never considered before, and the idea was quite daunting. But my company took a gamble on me, and I stepped up.”

According to van den Barselaar, every year as managing director brings new stretch assignments in terms of being able to deliver the required results in a very depressed South African economy. Beyond ensuring financial profitability, such assignments have included managing a diverse senior management team and keeping the business compliant in the face of key legislative changes affecting workforce solutions.

“To this day, I remain afraid, never once thinking that I have arrived,” she said. “I think this is a good thing though, as it keeps a person on their toes and does not allow you to become complacent.”

Stretch assignments can be a good way to improve your skillset and advance your career, especially amid the rapid evolution of the finance profession. While you should not take a job that you are not qualified for, here are a few tips on how to utilise stretch assignments to grow your career.

Moving forward

While the actual definition of a stretch assignment is highly subjective and up for debate, Janse van Rensburg asserted that management accountants have to actively take on certain roles and challenging projects to keep themselves professionally relevant.

“Involvement in assignments where we need to understand and improve the business processes in all areas of the business — incorporated with technology enhancements — are, in my mind, a rocket ship seat!” she said.

For van den Barselaar, there is no question as to the value of stretch assignments, and she urged finance professionals to always be ready for new challenges.

“Anyone should always be ready to take on these assignments, as they allow us to learn more and grow,” she said. “We need to be constantly learning new things and pushing ourselves to ensure that we stay relevant in a constantly changing environment.”

Wedded to perfection?

However, while some accounting professionals regard stretch assignments as a valuable ticket to growth, others may find the prospect of entering the unknown and risking failure far less enticing.

Adelle Wapnick, an executive coach and director of Futurenow Consulting in South Africa, said that the biggest challenge for today’s finance professionals is not the availability of growth opportunities — rather, it is their ability “to put themselves forward”.

A key factor is the individual’s need for learning and development, which Wapnick said relates to ambition, the flow of work, and the need to find a balance between comfort and stretch, avoiding boredom on the one hand and burnout on the other.

“Stretch assignments typically enable exposure to key stakeholders, mentors, and sponsors,” Wapnick said. “If the assignment aligns with your career goals, then it would make sense to take up the opportunity. More than anything, however, is the intrinsic motivation to opt in.”

A good indication that “intrinsic motivation” is present is when the assignment is naturally satisfying and you are not purely motivated by recognition and reward.

Janse van Rensburg echoed this sentiment and noted that stretch assignments should always be closely aligned to your career plan and objectives. “What we take on needs to be measurable,” she said. “Stick to your core and become exceptional at it!”

Even if the stretch assignment seems intrinsically motivating, relevant, and aligned with your career development plan, Wapnick cautioned against taking on challenges in situations in which there is little or no support from key leaders or peers.

Importantly, however, accounting and finance professionals have to learn to articulate and ask for the support, influence, and resources that they need — which may be a stretch assignment of its own.

— Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at [email protected].

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