The top skills required to be a successful finance professional
The finance function’s role is evolving alongside rapid digitalisation. Effective senior CAs of the future will be proactive and catalysts for change, reports Ryan Herman
The skillset required to be a successful senior manager or finance professional is constantly evolving. But what we’ve experienced over the past three years might be viewed as an exceptional period of rapid evolution. The pandemic resulted in the mass adoption of hybrid working and, according to an October 2020 McKinsey report, accelerated digital transformation by seven years.
While that process continues to present certain challenges, it also provides opportunities for those who can embrace technology and new ways of working as a means to redefine their role and importance within an organisation.
Throughout 2023, ICAS, in partnership with BPP, will host leadership and personal development courses to help finance professionals become effective, modern business leaders. Management consultant and lecturer John McKenzie is delivering CFO of the Future 1 – Finance Leadership, the first of five modules he teaches on this theme. The aim, says McKenzie, himself a former FD, is for aspiring CFOs to ultimately become catalysts for positive change within their organisation. “Rather than simply being a well-trained accountant, the finance person of the future has far broader shoulders, a much greater understanding of business issues, and is willing to get their hands dirty,” he says.
“One thing I constantly hear from senior finance people is ‘our systems aren’t joined up’ or ‘we don’t have an end-to-end process’. Well, future CFOs should be leading the charge towards a near fully automated finance function, because if they can spend their time on other projects, then finance can add so much more value to an organisation.”
McKenzie breaks down the position of CFO into four key areas. The first two are stewardship and operator. Right now, stewardship means being able to steer the organisation through a barrage of financial headwinds. An operator, meanwhile, is generating and supplying financial information across the organisation.
Automation would free up time, enabling the CFO to develop the other two roles – as a strategic influencer and a catalyst. “The role becomes broader,” says McKenzie. “The difference between information and intelligence is that information is telling people what happened, while intelligence is about explaining why things happened.
“As a strategic influencer, you can have an enormous impact because you’re providing the insights for managers that they understand, because you’re putting it in their context, but also [showing] how the actions and decisions they’re taking affect financial outcomes in the organisation. And that, in turn, links to the role of catalyst.
“Some people still look at finance and say they’re a drag on the business, they’re the number crunchers. You’re trying to shift that perspective, changing the way the business views finance to that of a catalyst driving change.
“Gareth Herschel, VP Analyst of the Gartner Group, once said: ‘The role of finance is not to play gatekeeper. Instead, it’s to create and supply the information and to help functional groups understand the financial impact of their decision making.’ That’s a great quote.”
But the CFO of the future must also adapt to the world around them. “Traditionally, finance is very good at understanding financial risk, but now you have to consider customer risk, technological risk, environmental risk and macroeconomic risk,” says McKenzie.
To be an effective leader, however, you also need to be a great communicator. Saroj Patel-Hall, a freelance management and leadership trainer and a lecturer at Coventry University, runs the Team Development and Motivation including Virtual Teams course. This is aimed at managers and team leaders refocusing an existing team, project managers managing virtual teams, and anyone responsible for building a new team, virtual or otherwise.
Again, it’s about embracing technology – especially if Mark Zuckerberg is right that VR meetings become the norm. Some reading this will have hosted online meetings and managed virtual teams during and after the pandemic. Yet many of us were, and still are, learning on the go. How do you successfully manage a team virtually if you don’t see them from week to week or even month to month? How do you know that your team is motivated and performing to its best? The simple solution, says former accountant Patel-Hall, is to be proactive.
The mass, and immediate, shift to online meetings prompted a lot of anxiety among employees who tend to be the least vocal members of their team. But being on video conference, where everyone can see you, added an unspoken layer of pressure on those workers to make some sort of contribution. Patel-Hall often cites Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “He emphasises being proactive, rather than reactive,” she says. “Covey also says that you should ‘begin with the end in mind’. Think about what you want to get from the meeting, and let people know in advance so they come prepared.
“So, for example, extroverts in meetings will be able to think out loud and fill the airspace, but introverts need more time to think and reflect before they speak. So sometimes, in a meeting, the introverts will say nothing, but could have contributed if the manager had been proactive and set out an agenda beforehand.”
The year ahead is likely to put all the skills that a good FD or CFO needs to the test, but the ones who go into 2023 already equipped to deal with these challenges are likely to emerge on the other side stronger for the experience.
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