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Skilling up: How to be hired for the next big role

To take on the biggest job of your career, preparation is everything says experts and leading CFOs.

Making the big leap forward to the role you’ve been building towards, such as group CFO, can often mean having to build out skills to develop your profile.

For many it can be adding a new function such as treasury, for others it can be for the first time having to understand how to engage with stakeholders.

Adding these key elements may come from additional responsibilities, sitting on other boards or working with mentors and coaches.

Chris Davies, CFO of travel group National Express built out a set of skills in his first group CFO role of a publicly-listed company – car dealership Inchcape. Coming from a divisional role at drinks Diageo, he says: “It took those three years at Inchcape to really round out the group functions of a group. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. In a very big division of a very big company, it’s easy to feel you’re a bigger being than you are, and think you’ve got a more holistic view than you have,” he says.

“It wasn’t until I was actually sat at the centre of a group that I saw this, without the hurly burly day in-day out, performance management that is a divisional FD, forced to really think through things like capital allocation, FX management, hedging strategy, a whole bunch of stuff that weren’t even on the agenda as a business unit FD.  I can’t imagine going straight into a CFO role without having done those, so I’m very glad I did. It’s really set me up for this one,” he adds.

For Ian Smith, who had held senior roles in financial services before becoming CFO of retail bank CYBG, the top job required an understanding of treasury, which he says “was a big addition to the portfolio. There’s a degree of technical skill and capability in there that I had less experience of, so I’ve worked very hard to learn about that,” he adds.

Another big addition for Smith was investor relations. “I’ve learned an awful lot about how equity and debt markets think about companies and the way they invest. Putting the things you do through a shareholder lens and really understanding how investors think about your business, and then persuading those providers of capital to invest in your business has been an important learning curve for me,” he adds.

Out of the comfort zone

Oliver Staple, consultant in the corporate officers sector at global search firm Russell Reynolds, says making a successful bid for is about building the requisite skills and experiences to be considered for greater authority and responsibility. This is achieved through a variety of activities which can involve pushing and stretching oneself beyond the day-to-day and out of one’s comfort-zone, he says.

“In order to enhance team building and leadership capabilities, individuals should seek out opportunities to expand their roles and responsibilities by picking up ancillary functions together with wider sector or regional responsibility. Seeking greater exposure and opportunities to present to the executive committee and board will improve communication and stakeholder management skills.

“Equally, taking on NED or charity board positions will serve to give greater confidence and stature in this domain. Actively pursuing opportunities to present in public and become involved in topical company initiatives, such as diversity, data and digital will increase visibility and raise your profile, not to mention increase the perception of you as a confident driver of change within the company,” says Staple.

He advises finance professionals to start trying to view their work through the lens of the business, and increase this interaction professionally and socially: “How are your colleagues in the front office approaching matters? What are their drivers and concerns? The more you can truly understand some of these nuances, the more effective you, as CFO, can become as commercial business partners adding value”.

Staple says it is vitally important to garner advice from peers and mentors before taking a leap forward to a top role. He says this is critical to development and needs to be approached with an open-mind and a willingness to listen to others. “By having self-awareness, development conversations can help to identify where the gaps are and how to progress these into strengths,” he adds.

For Simon Boddie, CFO of industrial thread producer Coats, acquiring the know of outgoing finance director Jeff Hewitt when he arrived at his previous role- finance head of Electrocomponents, was vital. “I hadn’t sat on a board and I hadn’t really done the investor piece in terms of presenting. I had some overlap with him for a month or so so that was very useful,” he says.

Confidence game

Russell Reynolds’ Staple says that whilst mentors within in an organisation are clearly in a strong position to observe and offer advice, the objectivity of a coach can also be extremely helpful and increasingly. “We are seeing clients look to such professionals to help support and develop up and coming talent,” he says.

Kelvin Stagg, CFO, of Page Group, says when he joined the global recruitment firm he hired an external coach, to help with ensuring he has developed the full skill set. “I think it was as much as anything a sounding board, he did a 360 degree evaluation for me at the beginning and came back with bits of feedback, which were quite helpful. We said: ‘What are the things I probably need to do and don’t- and haven’t done for a while’.”

An area for Stagg to develop was public speaking and presenting, which for long periods of his career he hadn’t done much of. “Twice a year we do an analysts’ presentation to the City, where we talk about the strategy of the group,” he says. Having a confident grasp of this area he recognises, like many, is vital for carrying out a senior role.

Becoming a CFO involves greater internal and external scrutiny of one’s work, and with this comes increased pressure and the need for emotional resilience, says Staple. “As a company leader, you need to find the balance of technical excellence with strategic contribution and business development.

“It is essential for new CFOs to consider the bigger picture and not get too caught in the weeds. Confidence is king; to be promoted to CFO, enough decision-makers must believe in you, so go forward with assurance and build on the skills that you possess to truly add executive value,” he says.


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