Nicki Gules, journalist

Does the thought of occupying the C-suite fill you will dread? If it does, you might be wondering if you can still have a successful and fulfilling career away from the upper echelons of leadership.

‘Yes, of course’, says Alison Reid, head of professional coaching at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science, South Africa. ‘It all depends on what you define success and fulfilment to be. For some, success is defined by a level of status, a level of influence, but that’s assuming that the only measurement of success is to have that form of influence.’

Technology is flattening hierarchies and democratising organisations

Harvard academic Barbara Kellerman contends in her book Followership that leaders are becoming less important, with followers playing an increasingly vital role. In a world where the word ‘leadership’ denotes success, wealth and status, this is a departure from the leader-centric approach to management. Kellerman says that one of the drivers here is technology, which is flattening organisational hierarchies and democratising organisations.

Is up the only way?

Johannesburg-based Clive Kaplan, a professional accountant and executive coach, says there ‘is still an obsessive drivenness among finance professionals to get to the top position – CFO or CEO’, adding: ‘Most of my clients want the executive status, as the rewards are significantly more and there is much more fun and far less grunt work.

‘I have not seen this dropping off. In fact, I would say that today’s graduates are wanting to make a bigger impact in changing the world and they know they can only do this from a position of leadership. In my view, if you are not moving upwards, you are falling behind.’

However, Reid points out that while the dominant hierarchical system is still ‘very much in play’, there are significant exceptions – including specialisation – and increasingly diverse career pathways. For those wishing to continue to work in their own area of expertise, progression up the traditional corporate hierarchy could be frustrating, as it means abandoning their specialism and becoming a generalist.

James van der Westhuizen, an experienced management, HR and business consultant and coach who works in South Africa and Mauritius, says the vertical organisational model is ‘running out of steam’, with less hierarchical structures often offering more varied, yet fulfilling opportunities.

Do what you love

He says that leading others and succeeding through others is a deliberate career choice. ‘You have to decide if that is your mission and if it brings you joy.’

Van der Westhuizen believes the more interesting roles are often found closer to the action. ‘If you are going to watch a rugby match, you don’t want the seat right at the top of the stadium which gives you a bird’s eye view of the game, you want to be closer to the front line. Would you rather be a senior officer strategising behind a desk or a field officer making quick-fire decisions every day?’

He adds that hierarchical business models work best in stable business terrains where leaders need an overarching view of the business, and the most highly paid people are at the top. ‘But if we are dealing with massive uncertainty, where you are responding at the front line at record speed and you need to change things all the time, then those leadership roles become very different.’

‘We all have in some way a dotted-line relationship to our organisations’

Octopus organisations

It is in this environment that finance professionals who want to stay away from a corner office can find an opportunity to excel.

‘In the finance environment, the ability to respond and run scenarios and test assumptions is becoming a very valuable skill,’ Van der Westhuizen says. ‘We have seen organisational boundaries dissolve. We all have in some way a dotted-line relationship to our organisations, and a lot of people have side hustles, side businesses and personal networks within the organisation.

‘Your ability as a finance professional to be part of a team that is experimenting and testing their way forward is a really important skill. Being really good at testing the viability assumptions of ideas is a fantastic skill that is highly transportable because it is as valid in a side start-up and across the organisation and at the boardroom table.’

Down about up

Reid says that while many assume that being promoted will bring fulfilment, it often doesn’t. ‘It brings some people joy, but not everyone. You can be the best accountant or finance professional but if you can’t adjust to also being a very good people leader, you will never be a good leader. As you take on higher levels of responsibility, you need to direct, reward, motivate and inspire other people’s work.’

Kaplan advises those who don’t aspire to leadership to find something they are passionate about and focus on that. ‘It’s a life-defeating process to languish in a place that does not motivate you to greater heights,’ he says.

Van der Westhuizen also accepts that ‘going up doesn’t necessarily mean going forward’. He says: ‘If your organisation is only giving you an option of vertical progression, then you are probably in an organisation that is quite complacent in its business model and not looking for all kinds of little initiatives that people can run with.’

‘If your only career path is to climb a ladder which takes you up into a more removed role, you are probably in an organisation that is trapped in a one-trick-pony business model. And that is not a great place to be for the future.’

More information

Visit the ACCA Careers website for news and advice on your next career move