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Careers in Business 101

Perhaps you’re beginning to think about your future, and people have told you that you should consider a career in business. Not wanting to appear dumb, you’ve nodded your head and mumbled something about, “looking into that,” even though you really have no idea what “a career in business” actually entails.

Well, Forté is here to help. Consult this in-depth guide on the major functions of a business enterprise, the types of jobs that support those functions, and the aptitudes that each requires.

Begin with the idea that businesses attempt to provide services and products to people while making a reasonable profit from the activity, and explore some of these exciting and flexible career paths.

Management Careers

No matter what a company does, it needs people to oversee the smooth functioning of all the activities that are necessary to produce a product or service. General managers have this responsibility. They ensure that—from the concept of a product to its production and delivery and how it’s accounted for—a business’s operations blend together as seamlessly as possible.

Providing strategic direction, sharing information, enhancing communication, and making decisions are all hallmarks of the general manager role. Most important, general managers are responsible for making money for the business: they take credit for the profits and must explain any losses.

Due to the level of responsibility expected, employers rarely hire a business school graduate immediately into a general management position. General managers are typically executives with many years of experience. Most employers, however, are hoping to hire future general managers, and one can begin a career with that goal in mind.

There are two main ways for a young person to get into a career in general management: through a functional role and through a general management development program. The first is to start in a functional job—for instance, finance, marketing, or operations—and then segue into a general management role as your experience develops. Explore the amount of flexibility that potential employers offer for you to later manage in other functions. Many organizations are simply looking for talent, and if you perform well at your initial function, they are happy for you to move to other areas of the company as your level of responsibility grows.

The other way to embark on a general management career is by entering a general management development program (GMDP) after graduating from college. GMDPs have grown in popularity, as these programs allow firms to rapidly develop specific skill sets to meet their staffing demands. Most encompass several rotations and last from one to three years. By rotating individuals through the different functional or business units within the firm, the programs provide opportunities to build transferable and functional skills. Also keep in mind that while an awareness of several disciplines is important, general management is a specific career focus just like finance, marketing, or operations.

There are many different paths a general management career can take, so there are various skills and interests required. But there are also some commonalities, including an interest in controlling an enterprise, managing people, and quantitative analysis. General managers must be well versed in a variety of functional areas. They must exhibit strong leadership, interpersonal effectiveness, supervisory ability, initiative, general business knowledge, sound problem solving abilities, great communication skills, and creativity.

A career in general management will be rich in variety, offer a certain level of autonomy, and much influence. The lifestyle may be demanding, however, as leading large divisions or an organization requires many hours and a high level of dedication.

Marketing Careers

The marketing function in a company explores products and the customers who might be interested in them. Once a connection is established between product and customer, a marketing professional must develop strategic plans that set positioning, pricing, and strategic direction for the product (or service) throughout its life cycle.

Marketers develop programs (like advertising) to improve brand recognition and loyalty and increase profitability. In addition, they communicate with partners and customers and manage various internal and external departments, driving all toward common marketing goals and objectives. A marketing career requires many of the same skills as a general management career and may prepare an individual for general management or an entrepreneurial endeavor.

The typical entry-level position in a consumer goods firm like Procter & Gamble or Campbell’s is the assistant or associate brand manager. A brand manager will help develop new products and is responsible for analyzing markets, doing sales forecasts and competitive reports, figuring out pricing, and evaluating the effectiveness of advertising campaigns. In the typical brand management career path, a person moves to the marketing manager level after two to four years of total experience.

Someone doing the market research function will typically perform the analysis work that goes into successfully marketing a product or service. Market researchers are responsible for identifying consumer insights and behaviors, studying competitors, figuring out the target markets, and calculating the optimal price and level of advertising and promotions. Market researchers must have strong analytical skills, as much of the work involves utilizing marketing models and frameworks.

Finally, opportunities in sales—a subset of the marketing function—are extremely varied and plentiful. Virtually all industries and companies need people to fulfill the sales function, and a sales career often provides a path into product management. Modern sales techniques often include implementation of marketing tools, and many larger firms have specific training programs that develop sales professionals to move into greater roles managing larger territories and other sales people.

Regardless of the specific marketing position, there are some basic skills and interests that marketing professionals should possess. Marketers enjoy leading a process from start to finish. They “own” their product or service and essentially run a small business, so entrepreneurial interest is a positive trait.

Marketing professionals have high creative interests and are effective communicators. In addition, marketing careers call for a strong interest in managing people, as many marketing efforts are organized around teams.

Marketing professionals can expect a fast-paced, diverse, dynamic work experience, and very few describe their work as “boring” or “routine.” Travel is a job requirement, whether to a field sales office, manufacturing facility, customer account, advertising agency, or to supervise local market research.

Accounting Careers

A top business school dean once called accounting “the mother of all business disciplines.” Of course, he was an accountant himself and may have been biased toward his profession, but the fact remains that the very first business courses ever offered at colleges and universities at the turn of the 20th century were in accounting. Without accounting, a business could not function.

Simply put, accounting is the bookkeeping methods involved in recording business transactions and in the preparation of statements that summarize a company’s activity so that the business can be evaluated and managed.

But an accountant rarely just keeps the books. She must understand the data being recorded and participate as a member of the management team in strategizing, planning, and executing the business’s plan to be successful. An accountant must also be aware of the U.S. tax system, evaluate the effectiveness of accounting processes and systems, and create methods of improving the data flow and the financial reporting processes of the company she works for.

A career in accounting can begin in three basic environments: public accounting firms such as Deloitte & Touche LLP, Ernst & Young LLP, KPMG, or PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP; industry or nonprofit organizations; or government agencies such as the IRS, the FBI, the Secret Service, or the Department of the Treasury. In addition, there are three different accounting disciplines: accounting, audit, and tax.

While most students are familiar with what accountants do—analyze and reconcile accounts, assist in financial statement analysis, and prepare budgets—they may not be familiar with the audit and tax functions.

An audit involves examining and testing the documentation that supports a company’s financial statements. The final result of the audit is to ensure that financial statements are accurate and fair. Early in their careers, auditors within public firms will begin to develop an industry specialty such as banking, retail, manufacturing, or high-tech. Tax professionals, on the other hand, assist their clients in minimizing their tax liability. They prepare tax returns, conduct research on tax/law issues, and correspond with federal and state tax authorities.

Regardless of the specific position, there are some basic skills and interests that most accountants possess. In addition to the obvious—a strong interest in numbers, calculations, and quantitative analysis of financial information—accountants often have an interest in improving systems and methods.

They must be very adept at working with computers, particularly with spreadsheet packages, and possess great attention to detail. Also, strong communication and interpersonal skills are vital, as accountants and auditors work with teams of people.

The accounting industry now requires that students complete a fifth year of education to sit for the Certified Public Accountant Examination (CPA), and this has dramatically changed the profile of the student who enters this field. While it is still possible to earn a BBA (four-year undergraduate degree) in accounting, at many schools it is no longer possible to take several of the courses required to sit for the CPA exam if you are not enrolled in the Master of Accounting (MAcc) Program. This means that it is especially important that those considering accounting undergo a self-assessment to be certain that their skills and interests match with positions in the field.

Finance Careers

While accountants keep track of the capital flows within a business enterprise, it is the finance professionals who actually manage the money, investments, and other assets that a business might accumulate through its operations. Finance also refers to the commercial activity of providing funds to start or expand a business.

While there are many sub-disciplines of finance, including real estate finance and venture capital, we focus here on corporate finance.

The term “corporate finance” is often used to describe two separate areas. The first is within commercial and investment banks, and the second is within companies. The corporate finance divisions of commercial and investment banks provide financing, investing options, and other services to corporate clients. Corporate finance in banking is deal-oriented and requires some marketing and sales skills.

Every company also has its own internal financial organization; and within a company, finance professionals work on a wide variety of projects that pertain to the financial needs of their firms.

The treasury function within a company typically addresses cash management and investment activity, while the finance function works with significant acquisitions, financial and cost analysis, and internal audits. The finance job in a large corporation will require some accounting skills and can lead toward a career in general management.

A career in corporate finance often provides intellectual challenge in a fast-paced environment. Managing people and processes can be rewarding, and the positioning of corporate finance within a company may be one of power or prestige. Accordingly, the pay scale for corporate finance jobs is very competitive, and upward advancement can lead to very senior level management within the firm.

Graduates with BBA degrees in finance will have opportunities as either financial analysts or cost analysts. A financial analyst will evaluate capital proposals, forecast budgets, analyze firm performance, do competitive analyses, and value acquisitions. Cost analysts, on the other hand, typically work in manufacturing or service industries and locate opportunities to reduce costs and improve processes and make pricing decisions.

Specific skills and interests of finance professionals include analytical and problem solving ability, leadership, initiative, interpersonal skills, assertiveness, confidence, and maturity. Students who want to learn about the industry should begin to read publications that discuss financial happenings: the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Institutional Investor, Business Week, Economist, Fortune and other financial publications.

Operations Management Careers

The discipline of operations management encompasses managerial skills, knowledge of information and technical systems, and an understanding of the supply chains that take a product from raw material to customer delivery. In a nutshell, the operations manager ensures that the functions involved in producing or delivering a product or service run as smoothly and effectively as possible.

Operations people may be employed in manufacturing, in the service sector, or in consulting. Operations management jobs include operations strategy, product distribution and logistics planning, supply chain management, business process improvement, and manufacturing strategy.

This field offers significantly less travel and potentially fewer hours than careers in some of the other business functions, however it should be noted that manufacturing problems may disrupt personal plans without warning. One lifestyle note worth mentioning is that operations management assignments are often at manufacturing plant facilities. Upward promotion may require relocation to other plants throughout a career.

Operations management in a corporate setting is not as lucrative as other fields business students may pursue, but there is a (relative) degree of security. A career in this field can also provide a great deal of variety, power, and influence. As global manufacturing becomes more important, international opportunities are becoming fairly common.

The skills and attributes important for success in this environment include technical knowledge (an understanding of systems and engineering processes), strong analytical and problem solving abilities, general business knowledge, negotiation skills, and presentation skills. Also, production and operations managers often enjoy leading people. Operations managers have a high interest in the business applications of technology, quantitative analysis, and enterprise control. They have an engineering-like approach to business problems.

Technical experience in terms of internships and/or other education is very helpful in landing operations positions after graduation, and it is helpful to have a strong background in math, computer science, or engineering.

This article was derived from career materials prepared by the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

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