BIE’s aspiring CFO community in Manchester was treated to an inspirational evening of insights and advice from Andrew Mackinnon, CFO of Moonpig Group, Craig Lovelace, Group CFO of Huws Gray, Elizabeth Law, Group CFO of PD Ports and Louise Britnell, CFO of the co-operative Bank. Thanks to all for sharing their experience and advice so freely.

Here are some of the topics we discussed:

Different routes to CFO

While some of our panel always had a clear ambition to become a CFO, others were more accidental CFOs. Whether planned or more by chance, all agreed that broadening your experience both through working in other areas of finance and changing sectors builds our arsenal of transferrable skills. Craig Lovelace spoke of “running towards the grenade” and not being afraid to grasp opportunities, no matter how daunting they may initially appear. For others, moving out of practice and into industry, they strove to get more of the FP&A and commercial finance experience, honing their skills as story tellers to reflect finance back into their businesses. Moreover, the opportunity to work outside of finance was also seen as valuable, particularly as the remit of the CFO is expanding.

When thinking about stepping up to the position of CFO, Louise Britnell insisted on surrounding yourself with a good team. You’re being paid to exercise good judgement - it’s not the size of your spade, it’s the accuracy of your scalpel! With so much being dropped at the door of the CFO, Craig advised the group to prioritise, defining what really matters while Liz also reminded us to take the time to relax into it, making the role your own.

Many participants wondered whether smaller or larger companies were better places to get the experience to become CFO. All on the panel agreed that it was more important to think about what you want to do in the job. For some, this can be obtained as a divisional FD in a larger business where you can get the scale, albeit in a tighter role.

The value of gaining broader experience

Moving beyond your area of finance, be that financial control, FP&A, commercial finance or other, to get broader finance experience is viewed favourably. However, it’s rare that a new CFO will step into the role without some gaps. Louise advised not shying away from this while being clear about what you are comfortable with. Don’t ever be afraid to say when you don’t understand something, but make sure that you learn to ensure that you gain knowledge faster. On the topic of learning, Craig also thought it was essential to maintain regular contact with good head hunters and professional advisors who are alive to what clients (and Boards) are looking for from their CFOs in the next 3+ years. This ensures you remain relevant, future-focused and alive to emerging topics ahead of time.

Future skillsets for successful CFOs

Taking out their crystal balls, the panel reflected on what skills the CFO will need in five years’ time. Liz thought it will be less about the numbers per se and more about what you do with them with AI presenting both opportunities as well as risks. Some see that AI will go beyond reporting and do the forecasts as well, enabling finance leaders to dig deeper to really understand the numbers, all the while building the story for the business. Furthermore, the CFO moving beyond the ‘ivory tower’, spending more time out in the business dovetails into this sincerity of getting to the emotional heart of the business.

Aspiring CFOs need to build relationships internally to be seen as a credible CFO successor. Even if there is a selection process for CFO, you shouldn’t assume you are the front runner as the Board will be benchmarking externally. When asked about what KPIs our CFOs have to benchmark their own success, the panel was probably less stringent than they might be on internal corporate KPIs! Andy advised against share price as a marker of success as the markets are not always rational in the short term. Also, he would ideally want to look back in six months’ time and think that, collectively as a finance team, we have moved the business forward. Liz thought similarly but with a view to not doing the same thing in a years’ time. Again, it’s all about having the courage to make changes and build that arsenal of finance experience. Some advised talking with the incumbent CFO to get them on side and also to letting them know that it helps them for you to do more. If at all possible, only work for someone who wants to promote you, and don’t be afraid to leave if you feel things aren’t going to work out.

Finally, be confident in your abilities, ensure that you have all the facts and this will help you to manage the broad stakeholder relationships of the modern CFO.

Written by

Eoin Canty

Eoin is a qualified accountant (CIMA) and a Consultant within BIE’s finance team, with a particular focus on delivering executive search assignments.

He works across a range of industries, recruiting CFOs, FDs, Divisional FDs, FP&A Directors, Group Financial Controllers and COOs, for SMEs, international PLCs and private equity/VC backed organisations.

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