Dozens of top career experts are gathering at the Career Thought Leaders conference in Baltimore next month. Cindy Kraft, known as the “CFO Coach” for her work with senior finance executives, is among the speakers. SmartBrief Senior Editor Mary Ellen Slayter recently spoke with Cindy about how workers can best find and develop their own professional niches. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

MARY ELLEN: Your particular expertise is professionals in finance, a field that has successfully distinguished itself from mere “accounting” to encompass a strategic role. What career lessons do you think professionals in other fields could take from the evolution of finance as a profession?

Those who have been effective in transitioning have moved beyond the perception of bean counter to being seen as finance executives. Then moved from merely being a finance executive to one who also possessed a strong operational background. A deep understanding of how finance drives operations and operations impacts finance has earned many of them a strategic seat at the executive table.

Among the key lessons other professionals can learn:

  • Keep track of your contributions, and make them known. It’s not enough to make a big difference if no one with whom you work knows the extent to which you’ve influenced the organization. Internal candidates should prepare three times as much of a promotion as that of an external candidate, which speaks to the importance of raising your “value visibility” in the workplace.
  • Be seen by decision-makers. An immediate boss might not always have your best interests in mind, particularly if he or she feels threatened by you. It’s critical to be on the radar screen of members of the executive leadership team, particularly if you are vying for a promotion or a transfer.
  • Volunteer outside your job description responsibilities. If you have the time, volunteer to participate in an area in which you have passionate interest and something of value to contribute. I’ll use my daughter as an example. She loves marketing research but joined a company post-graduation in a buyer/planner role. That department was on the same floor as the marketing department so she began networking with marketing decision-makers, sharing ideas and providing insight. Her valuable contributions combined with her passionate interest have earned her a newly-created marketing research position within that company.
  • Keep growing. It’s not enough to rest on your laurels if you want to evolve. If you look carefully at the evolution of the bean counter to the strategic business partner, the first thing you should notice is growth. Sharpen the saw and sharpen it often … then use what you’ve learned to make the organization better, even if it is in a volunteer effort at first.

What are the 3 most important steps a mid-career professional can take to make themselves stand out?

  • Build your network, internally and externally. The new definition of networking is not who you know — but who knows about you.
  • Find a mentor. It’s an opportunity to learn from a seasoned executive and get introductions to his or her cone of influence.
  • Track bottom line impacts diligently, and use them at yearly performance evaluations. Numbers make all the difference. Do you make a company more than it costs them to keep you? If so, you have much more leverage.

How do workers get over that fear that if they position themselves in a niche, they could miss out on perfectly good jobs? This anxiety is particularly strong if they’ve been out of work for a while.

Great question! That anxiety becomes an obstacle many people face. It’s the difference, though, between trying to be all things to all people — which never works very well — and positioning yourself from your individual strengths, passions, and values and being very clear about what you have that a company in your target market would pay to get.

The most important thing to remember is that the tighter your niche, the bigger your presence. When a candidate plays the “posted position game,” he or she is competing with hundreds, if not thousands, of other people. It’s very difficult to stand out. Shift away from the masses to a position of strength (niche) and a clear target market and the competition is significantly less.

What is the most common mistake you see mid-career professionals make, in terms of how they approach networking?

First, they don’t network until they need to network, and then it’s too late because of the second reason, which is that desperate networkers don’t “give to get,” rather, they ask for jobs. The fastest way to shut down a network is to ask for help from people with whom they have no relationship and to ask for something that is impossible for a network to deliver — a job.

Image credit, svanhorn, via iStock

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4 Responses to “Cindy Kraft, on why you need to go niche”

  1. Tim in NY says:

    What exactly does she mean by saying it's impossible for a network to deliver a job?

  2. Cindy Kraft says:

    Thanks for the question, Tim.

    The BEST use of a network is to ask for CONTACTS, which is something everyone in your network can deliver. Very few people can actually hire you. And when a job search candidate approaches a networking contact asking for a job, it often causes the door to be slammed and locked. Asking for a job can make people feel very uncomfortable, even defensive, and as a result, they retreat so they don't hurt your feelings. Then they begin avoiding because they can't deliver what you've asked them to deliver. This can be particularly taxing on friendships because the job seeker expects friends to help. The reality is the help they can deliver is rarely a job.

    Your network can certainly deliver leads to potential opportunities – often through their contacts. Seldom, if ever, will your network directly deliver a job.

    Does that help?

    Cindy Kraft, the CFO-Coach

  3. Gale Bowman says:

    These are excellent tips, Cindy! I encourage young professionals to take this advice sooner rather than later because the longer you're promoting yourself and building a strong network, the more leverage you'll have when you're ready for your next move (either up the ladder or laterally within the organization).

    I've found that it's extremely important to build strong relationships with members of other departments for a variety of reasons: 1) you have learning opportunities 2) you build your network 3) you may be creating some job security if anything should happen to your department, and 4) "cross-functional" experience is something that business schools LOVE when deciding whether or not to admit you.

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