April 18, 2024

Agile Achievements Unveiled

Pioneering Success in Business & Finance

Skills development: Which ones will you need?

8 min read

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Oliver Rowe, an FM magazine senior editor, at [email protected].  

Oliver Rowe: Welcome, Gary.

Gary Cox: Nice to be here, Oliver.

Rowe: Today we’re talking about skills and how you can improve them now and throughout your career. Firstly, why is it important that finance professionals have a plan when setting out to improve their skills?

Cox: That’s a very challenging question, Oliver, but let me answer it like this and I want the listeners to think of what I’m going to say as a point of reference all the way through this podcast. There’s a recent survey in the US which asked accountants, Are you happy in your role on a scale of one to five, one being extremely unhappy, five being very happy. The survey came back with a score of 2.6, which for me were quite low. At least a minimum, I expect that to be over three, certainly reaching four.

But that’s very similar to a survey that was done in Europe three years ago, where 42% of the cohort came back and says that they were unhappy in their role. I looked a little bit more at the data just to see what was interesting and what would pop out. Forty-two percent of the respondents also said that there was lack of opportunity for development and advancement. In the open comments, there was a common theme which was fed back, which said that people felt frustrated and they also felt as though their career had stopped as well. I wanted to explore this a little bit further and get some more insights.

I looked at how many people in financial controlling roles actually went on to be a CFO or equivalent in financial leadership. Surprising, that was only 31% and I thought it would be higher than that. That suggests even though we have a green agenda now on recycling, that a lot of CFOs recycling themselves and moving on to the same role, it may be different sector or the same sector. This seems to be a little block on people who reach controller or making that step up. Maybe that’s down to experience and also capabilities, which are obviously — there’s a lot more expectation in a higher level role rather than just the technical, financial, and good management roles you’d expect.

I actually dug a little bit further. I was really interested this. I looked at CEO roles. How many CEO roles have an accounting background? Given that I did this across continents, it ranged between 18 and 22%. We’re saying even at the higher roles, it still looked a bit low for me. I think the financial skills that you develop and the decision-making [that you need] probably lead more on maybe a CEO role.

I actually chopped it up in another way and looked at senior leadership roles that were nonfinancial, maybe supply chain leadership, looking at strategy leadership, acquisition, change management leadership and this really surprised me Oliver, that between 16 and 19% in those roles worldwide had a finance background, which I think is incredibly low.

When I looked at the stats and thought about the survey, it seemed to think that a lot of accountants in the middle are getting stuck and maybe instead of moving up, what they’re doing is moving across and taking a similar role, but maybe in a different organisation or a different sector and not really maximising their potential. And I’m sure that they didn’t really have a plan to do this, their plan was to actually enhance their skills and actually develop through their career and have multiple opportunities, but also there’s some restriction within the financial arena and certainly when you get towards a white collar and mid-management role.

Rowe: Thank you, Gary. You talked about the different skills, so the technical skills and then people going on to become leaders. Which skills do you see most in-demand and what should listeners be focusing their efforts on?

Cox: That’s a great question and follows on very nicely. I’ll start off with what I call effective use of data, insights, and really good storytelling. Let me break that down into four component parts. I think the data insights is that traditionally, a lot of accountants have looked internally or mainly lagging indicators and how the company is performing.

I think certainly over the last few years and going forward, it’s a case of bringing different data sources. Whether that’s around competitive information that’s available maybe it’s around other sources of bench-marking and really amalgamating those into something that gives a bigger picture of how the organisation is performing, and how maybe the competition’s performing and where some of the gaps are.

First thing is around the insights. The second thing is around effective engagement. There’s a danger that you can get some incredible insights and there’s a bit of a wow factor and there is a call to action. But I think what you’ve got to do is engage certainly with the management team and know when to provoke a reaction and when to get other people to come in and really take on board what you are saying. Then also know when to interact and bring the conversation back and also try to take some emotion out of it. The engagement is key, because I think you do need to start to direct people towards making decisions. Through that is that effectively that you need of knowing when people can really give valuable input, and then knowing when to go to summary mode.

The third thing which is absolutely key for me is emotional intelligences. I think a lot of situations people are very passionate. Sometimes the personal agendas maybe come into a little bit, the emotions run high. I think being able to have that function where you can spot that, where you’re in a room and you can know that maybe at some point now it’s time to take back a little bit of control and put facts there.

Bring a sense of purpose back and also get people to really focus on the making outcomes and objectives and try to take some of the emotion out until we turn that emotion into good passion, which can influence some of the decision-making and get the best out of people.

The last thing around the storytelling is, I’d call group facilitation. I think accountants are great problem solvers and I think it’s a skill that you have when you’re qualified and when you go on after qualification. I think going forward, I think it’s facilitation of what I’d call group problem-solving. When you’re there presenting data, when you’re telling those stories, it’s not down to you to be in solution mode all the time.

I think it works better where you can actually facilitate that amongst a group and that’s a skill because it’s easy to just pull up three, four options and say please choose one. I think it’s better to work with a group to get them to come up with what those options could be and have the skills to be able to manage a group so that you can get them to use all their skills and capabilities and knowledge to come up with potential solutions. And being able to facilitate that and know when to step in and step back, is a real skill I think that’s needed.

I think there’s another one that’s essential, Oliver, any level this, is what I call relationship building with multiple stakeholders. Now I’ve observed that a lot of, especially post-qualified, maybe one or two years, very keen to get on. That’s not a problem.

It’s great to see that energy in a room but what can happen is that, there’s a danger people try to prove themselves so much and really hold out all the subject matter expertise. When you’re working with stakeholders, what they want to do is they want somebody who can listen and really understand. The attentive listening is absolutely key and to be honest, it’s an underrated skill. A lot of people talk about this, but don’t really understand the impact it has.

Another danger point is sometimes collaboration can be just one direction. That means that you go, you’re a business partner or you’re working on a project and you are in your financial role, and basically you’re taking a lot of data or a lot of task and it’s just, “We’re using you for your financial skills.”

I think where it works best is where somebody’s in a role and they’re building that relationship and it becomes bi-directional. Where the person obviously wants to know what can you offer, what lengths can you see that I’m not seeing? I think it goes beyond finance, it goes down to your business skills and now being able to provide a solution or maybe facilitate a conversation with somebody as well.

Probably the last two, Oliver, really key is, and this is more of a technical skill as well, is around what I call simulation and scenario planning. I think post coronavirus, we’re in a different world now and I think business planning will carry on, strategic planning will carry on. They can be a little black and white and I think one skill that’s needed and sometimes different sectors have these, people that are dependent upon oil prices, certainly the airlines sector, some of the sectors that really depend upon commodities on the stock market.

They really need to have good scenario planning just in case something unexpected happens. I think companies are going to look at that to say, where are they vulnerable? Where is the risk? What lever do they need to press if they see a trend starting to happen? And how as finance people, can we model that and put something very simple together that can be assessed and reviewed and where the only input is a change in dynamics. But there is somebody alert to see that and knows the impacts. I see that as a skill that will be required across multiple industries going forward.

The last one for managers is really bringing in more coaching skills. I think from a management point of view, there’s a lot of traditional management out there which works effectively.

And people say, they’re maybe not delegating too much, they don’t really find time to do things. I think part of that is stepping back and saying, look, to really work with a team, you have to trust them. You have to start to empower them, you have to unlock their potential. It’s like a double bonus because not only do you empower them to get job enrichment, things get done quicker, you extend the capability of the team.

The big thing is you find free time for yourself. That free time then you can be used to connect to the stakeholders at your peer level, you can go and maybe look at problems that haven’t been resolved. Or you can maybe start to look at developing some of those skills and finding time to do that. I’d say that there’s a lot more, but there are the ones that I would certainly focus on if I were looking at the marketplace now and certainly over the next two to three years.

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