Opinion
Sally Percy 2 Mar 2017 10:00am

What does it take to become a successful finance leader?

Finance is one of the world’s most popular professions for good reason – numbers matter. They matter because they are valuable indicators of the health of governments, businesses, not-for-profit organisations and individuals. Get them right and they can promote confidence, investment and prosperity. Get them wrong and they can destroy careers, organisations and even lives

The overwhelming importance of numbers means that the CFOs of large companies are part of the bedrock of our society. The same goes for the partners of the top audit firms. But what kind of person do you need to be to work as a finance leader in an organisation that employs tens of thousands of people across the globe?

This was the question that I sought to answer in my book, Reach the Top in Finance: The Ambitious Accountant’s Guide to Career Success. For the book, I interviewed FTSE 100 CFOs, Fortune 500 CFOs and leaders from some of the top accountancy firms. Their combined experiences paint a very rich picture of just what it takes to operate at the highest echelons of the business world.

Technical competence is, of course, taken as a given for anyone who wants to be even remotely successful in finance. A CFO with all the relationship skills in the world won’t make up for a company being forced to restate its accounts. Having said that, however, a finance leader must possess a wide range of additional skills and personal attributes to complement his or her technical expertise.

Foremost among these is the ability to influence. A good CFO can influence decisions that do not necessarily fall within the “finance” remit – whether the business should offer a new product or service, for example, or expand into a new market. In private, they must be able to act as a confidant to the CEO. Yet at board meetings, they must convince other directors that they are more than just the CEO’s side-kick. This means demonstrating that their endorsement or disapproval of a particular course of action is based on their own reasoned, independent judgement and is not a result of them merely toeing the party line.

That brings us to the very question of judgement itself. Paul Donofrio, CFO of Bank of America, argues that it is crucial for finance leaders “to be right more often than not” because “if you’re wrong, people will figure it out and won’t follow you”.

Of course, getting things right is easier said than done, but you can increase your chances of success in this area by investing in your personal knowledge and growth, taking your time to make well-thought-out decisions based on facts rather than assumptions, and seeking the honest counsel of others. No matter how senior you are, you also need to show humility. When things do go wrong – as they will – you should be able to admit you made a mistake and be willing to learn from it.

Rightly, people skills are often cited as a must-have attribute for a CFO or senior partner in practice. A great leader will hire people who are capable of doing an even better job than they would do. They will invest time in those people and expose them to responsibilities outside of the finance function. And they will let them get on with their work with minimal interference. The result should be that when the leader moves on to the next stage in their career, their natural successor will be lined up ready to replace them.

Is it stressful being a finance leader? Yes, of course. Are you on call 24/7? Yes, pretty much. Do you have to be willing to sacrifice your weekends and evenings? Undoubtedly. As Julie Brown, now CFO of Burberry, put it to me: “If you want a peaceful life on a sun lounger, do not be a CFO.” So what’s the real attraction in the job?

Ultimately, the rewards that come with holding a very senior role in finance stretch far beyond the seven-figure salary that may be on offer. Finance leaders get exposure to the types of experiences and individuals that other people can only dream of and they have the opportunity to make a real difference in the world. As Donofrio concludes: “It’s a very exciting job where you can make an impact on people’s lives.”

Sally Percy is the author of Reach the Top in Finance: The Ambitious Accountant’s Guide to Career Success, published by Bloomsbury

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