Strategy & Operations » C-suite Communication » Skilling up: Becoming the confident leader

Skilling up: Becoming the confident leader

Why it’s so important for CFOs to be confident- experts offer guidance on how to lead with authority.

Its vitally important for leaders to ooze confidence. It’s also critical for staff of any organisation to have confidence in their leaders. And in many respects the confidence game is more important for finance leaders than anyone else in an organisation.

“Internal and external stakeholders judge the financial security of a company by the confidence they see and have in a CFO or finance director,” says Mark Freebairn, partner and head of the financial management practice at search firm Odgers Berndtson in London. “This is especially the case if a company is going through a serious challenge, that may for example require a refinancing ,” he adds.

The gaining of inner strength and developing an aura of certainty and conviction about what you are doing can take many steps, or there might be a particular experience that has the effect of instilling confidence, lifting you to the next stage on the career journey.

For Jon Mortimore, CFO of Airwair International, owners of the Dr Martens footwear brand, that moment came when he knew he could step up to the first big role, becoming the financial controller at stationery giant WH Smith.

Although his career had been building at a decent enough trajectory- including a two- year stint in the US arm of United Distillers, part of drinks giant Guinness, it was a move to hotel group Forte that really set things in train.

When Forte became the target of a takeover bid by conglomerate Granada, Mortimore spent a number of weeks on the hotels group’s defence team. “I got two years’ experience in two months,” he says. “We were working over Christmas. It was really hard work, but a great time, looking back.”

Working at feverish pitch with a large number of players including the senior management team and external parties including lawyers and bankers- resulted in Mortimore ramping up his communications skills. “In that situation it’s about confidence, and not being scared. If you’re confident that you’re doing the right thing, and communicating with everybody to bring them with you, that’s all you can do,” he says.

Although Forte fell to Granada’s hostile bid, Mortimore was able to move on to WH Smith, where he started as assistant financial controller, which he did for a few months before becoming financial controller. He says much of his willingness to step up came from the previous experience. “I think a lot of it was down to the confidence gained from my time at Forte,” he says.

To help things further he was now reporting to WH Smith finance director Keith Hamill, who had been FD at Forte. “He gave me a lot of time and helped in terms of try this, try that. I needed some help in the early part, just to make sure I knew what I was doing, then I grew into it after not too long.”

Mortimore never looked back- after financial controller, he became finance director of the group’s book publisher Hodder Headline, before becoming finance director of WH Smith’s UK retail business. CFO roles at Travelodge and a couple of other companies followed before he ended up in his present position.

Professor Kamil Omoteso, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Business, Law and Social Sciences at the University of Derby, says is it important for leaders to have a confident manner because it reassures followers that their leader knows what they are doing, is in control, has a sense of direction and, therefore, can be looked up to.

In addition, a confident leader is most likely to be keen to develop confident followers and, hence, develop their team and feel comfortable to delegate to them. “Furthermore, confidence from the leader has contagion effects on their followers as it is capable of boosting their confidence level and, by extension, the confidence their stakeholders such as clients, customers suppliers or creditors, repose in the organisation. Confidence from leaders enhances productivity, the perception of stakeholders and corporate reputation,” he says.

The getting of confidence

“Confidence can come from lots of different places,” says Odgers Berndtson’s Freebairn. “If you’re not an inherently confident individual, you’re going to struggle. If all you are is confident, that won’t be enough.

“There is a very clear correlation between good things you learn and the very different things you gain from positive experiences. But you can also get plenty of confidence from coming through a very difficult set of experiences as well,” he says.

In a situation where someone feels unsure or unconfident, receiving positive reinforcement and praise from their line manager or colleague, for example, reminds the individual they have the support to successfully carry out what is expected of them, says Prof Omoteso.

Recapping similar situations where they have succeeded is also a good tactic for encouragement. “Feedback can be great for boosting confidence, as well as planned actions such as mentoring and coaching. However, confidence can also be generated through negative experiences, such as criticisms, failure, and self-reflection,” he adds.

“Receiving criticism is not a pleasant experience, although people handle it very differently. From experience, people are initially disappointed when criticised, but do go on to self-reflect about actions they could have taken to have produced a more successful outcome.

“Nobody likes to fail but it is natural; we cannot get everything right. Failure can knock confidence and, for some, can be a demotivating process. Having constructive conversations  can help you think about how you could progress and move forward. Seeing it as an opportunity and taking positivity from the situation is part of the learning process,” says Prof Omoteso.

Having data-based evidence for supporting arguments is very important because knowledge is power. “When you are equipped with the right sets of facts and figures, you will be confident to face anyone or any situation. In fact, half of your problem is solved, the remaining half will depend on your soft skills such as the communication process, manner of delivery, interaction and respect for others,” says Prof Omoteso.

He says Board members will want to test your theory; they will want to hear a robust argument and will challenge you with out-of-the-box questions and variables for you to consider, so being prepared is crucial. “Your level of articulation, tone of voice, and ability to think on your feet, accompanied by your knowledge of the audience, are all key components in delivering a confident and assertive case,” he adds.


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