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Resident CFO: The challenges of a large team

Chris Astle, former Allergan CFO and Financial Director's new Resident CFO, shares his experience of taking on a large team for the first time


Perhaps one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking transitions in a career comes when taking on a large team for the first time. How you go about embracing the challenge can be pivotal, as those first conversations and impressions will stay with your new team throughout your tenure.

So, as a new leader, how do you build on existing relationships and develop new ones to ensure you have a positive impact on your team – in a genuine and likeable way?

Chris Astle, Financial Director’s new Resident CFO, shares his experience of taking on a large team for the first time.


While progressing through my career, taking on positions of increasing responsibility and, with them, larger teams, I was very conscious of the advice I had heard time and again: the most important part of any business is its people.

In 2016 I was offered the promotion to CFO – International Division of Allergan (NYSE: AGN), a global bio-pharmaceutical company.  This was a commercial division with over $3 billion in revenue and growing at double-digit rates, with approximately 4,500 employees and more than $1 billion in spend. Undoubtedly a position with an exciting breadth of opportunities and challenges, and with it nearly 200 finance team members located in 60+ countries around the world.

As I stepped into the new role, my biggest worry was not how I would manage complex tax arrangements, the governance challenges of the developing markets,  or reaching the quarterly profit targets, or even how to navigate the political waters of the executive level exposure that came with the new position.

I was preoccupied with thoughts of how to establish myself as a leader and coach to my new team. How to evolve the relationship I had with very senior peers who now had to come to me as their manager. How to continue to be an accessible coach to everyone in my team, when some were on the other side of the planet (only about 10% of the team members were in the UK).

While my career had progressed well, I had only managed small teams up to that point. Managing a smaller team is hugely rewarding and the relationships you build last a lifetime, but the transition from manager to leader required more than the sum of the parts of being a good manager.

Although I felt that I had a good level of emotional intelligence (EQ), I have also read that people tend to over-estimate their own EQ and their ability to lead others, and I feared the accidental “David Brent” management style.

The first thing I did was to seek advice from those that were more experienced.

This was not just to help me feel more confident in my new clothes, but because I wanted the very best for my team and I had to be honest that I had not been in this situation before. Having an outside view on my style, with coaching through some of the difficult conversations that lay ahead, helped to ensure that my first few senior level interactions went smoothly and that I was thoroughly prepared to get the relationships off to a strong start.

I then set a personal goal – one I felt that if I stayed true to it would help me be a good leader. Mine was simple – “be there.” Be there for my team, in person when/where possible, and always on the phone. I would only be successful if my team were successful and I saw my own support, encouragement, listening and championing as essential for the team to thrive.

If I were to be successful at delegation and not be seen as just “dumping” work on people, then I had to make sure that I gave them the responsibility and accountability to undertake the work themselves. At the same time, I shared responsibility for the success (and failure!) of the work and actively supported the team when they needed me.

I structured my day so that first thing, last thing and in the middle of the day I would check in on team members – either on the phone, via email and or in person. Sometimes it would be on the latest commercial development, coaching challenges or career progress, but other times it would be to talk football and family. As a father of two young children I always had news from home to share – more often than not the lack of sleep I was getting or how I spent my weekend driving my children from one activity to another! Sharing this part of my life helped to make me more human and relatable.

The next thing I did was to spend time considering what were the top three things I wanted to achieve with my team in the year ahead. I carefully weighed the priorities and consulted with my direct reports and peers, and naturally ensured they supported the aims of the wider business. I then communicated this to my direct reports, so they could in turn talk this over with their line managers and see how their day-to-day work could help contribute to achieving these goals. I felt that having this clear direction helped the team focus on the priorities and for us to all pull together in the same direction and make some real progress.

I often found that at leadership team meetings, the heads of commercial business units would give updates on their teams’ projects, including what new products they were launching. Finance would often focus on presenting the business finances and not what the finance function teams are up to. I ensured that, in addition to the traditional business finance presentations, I represented my team, the challenges, the rising stars. This way I ensured I could champion the team and recognition of their work.

In discussing new challenges or projects with my team, I took the time to frame why this new piece of work was necessary and where the idea came from, which helped them to think about how it could be achieved and understand the benefits to the business. Treating people with respect, listening to their concerns and helping them with their questions really helped to achieve engagement and buy-in.

I could not write this article without mentioning feedback. Along with coaching, feedback was critical in allowing me to correct and adjust my style. Don’t wait for the HR department to furnish you with a tool or for your boss to tell you how you are doing – there are online resources to allow you to collect anonymous feedback, but also just asking for it in your one-to-ones, both in your team and across your peer network, can produce some great insights.

The final thing I decided to do was to simply have fun. I love working with people and deep down I knew that this was the right role for me. I took time to enjoy the experience and the privilege, and accepted that it would not be perfect. Behaving the way I wanted my team to behave and setting an example would hopefully result in my team embracing the journey and having fun along the way too!

Regrets? Well, as Sinatra sang so well, I have a few, but too few to mention. If I had to say one, then it is that there will never be enough time to meet with everyone on a regular basis when you have a large team, so finding ways to connect with everyone and making the most of the interactions that you do have is perhaps what I can suggest.

As professor Clayton Christensen noted in the well known HBR article, “How Will You Measure Your Life?”: “Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility, be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.” So, prepare yourself but don’t hesitate to jump right in – it’s a fantastic experience.

And if you are wondering what my top three goals for the team were, read my next article where I discuss what I see as the top priorities for any finance team.


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