As the role of the CFO heads in a more strategic direction, the ability to successfully manage change, think critically, and provide added value to the business through analysis are becoming essential skills.
This new direction should be viewed as an opportunity for finance professionals to grow and become recognised as the key decision makers they are.
Fiona Cusack, Group Finance Controller at Inchcape has never been one to shy away from change and believes this is a big factor in her success. She recognises it can be challenging, but welcomes it as an opportunity for herself and her team to improve, learn, and grow.
Fiona shared her thoughts on managing change, building strong teams and the importance of strong financial controls, and how these are critical elements in the makeup of the finance team of any business.
What have been the top two things in your career that have helped you achieve your current position?
Firstly, it would have to be the training I received at Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC). It gave me an opportunity to complete my CA qualification, work with talented people with a strong work ethic, be engaged with a variety of companies and industries, and provided me with a strong foundation for my career. Having a well-respected name on my CV also assisted with the move from the UK to Australia.
Secondly, embracing change when it happens, and not being resistant to it, has definitely contributed to my success. Change will often happen whether you like it or not, so for me, it’s essential to be part of that change rather than pushing against it. Embracing change has enabled me to widen my experience and get more involved in the business.
What has been your greatest career challenge?
My biggest career challenge has been dealing with a large scale change management project where we restructured the finance function. I was dealing with a number of key stakeholders with the challenge to satisfy and get the ‘buy-in’ from them but also having the drive and conviction to make the changes needed. While the change was happening it was still critical that the “Business as Usual” (BAU) activities continued, and to ensure there was strong governance and internal control.
What enabled me to be successful in this instance was that I was able to identify potential issues before they arose by being very detailed in my planning. That being said, it’s also important to be able to adapt quickly as situations change. It was also critical to make sure my team remained engaged as they are key parts of a successful change.
What are the important things you need to do to contribute to the business from a strategic point of view?
As the Group FC, it’s important that the back office is functioning well to support the business and its BAU activities. You need to support the team from the ground up so that controls are robust. It’s also important to engage people at all levels and provide insights to the wider business around issues that we may be facing.
The way I engage my team is to encourage critical thinking and get them to challenge the status quo. For example, I encourage my accounts payable staff to business partner with other sites to create understanding and build relationships.
Encouraging that mindset is key. It’s very emotionally engaging for the team to think outside what they do day to day.
How do you balance the operations part of your role with the strategic?
I think this balance is achieved by having a mindset that financial rigour and controls are essential to a smooth running business. You need to do the bread and butter of finance well to allow you to spend time on strategy.
How do you identify talent?
For me, it’s someone who has raw intelligence, but also willingness to learn, develop, and be taken outside their comfort zone. When you challenge yourself you will hit road bumps, but that’s how you develop. You’ll never know what you can achieve if you don’t take risks and push yourself.
Resume and experience are important, but it’s the person’s soft skills that make them stand out. These are things like attitude, confidence, etc.
When you meet with people in an interview, what do you value?
I like it when people are honest in interviews – for example, being genuine about their weaknesses. I like to hear real weaknesses and not just saying something for the sake of it. In an interview, it is sometimes difficult to do, but examples around what didn’t work and what they’ve learned from those difficult situations stand out for me. There’s nothing more off-putting then hearing rehearsed stock standard answers.
How would you describe the culture of your team? Do you do any specific things to nurture team culture?
We are a high performing team in a caring, family-like environment. I like to do a lot of activities around team and engagement. For example, we give a weekly ‘Star of the Week’ to a team member who performed well, and when someone has a birthday, their desk is decorated with balloons.
It is important to me that people enjoy their work, and we do lots of things to get our people out into the business and increase their business knowledge as I feel it adds greatly to their enjoyment of work. It’s also important that there is transparency and recognition, and an understanding of who are your internal customers.
What tips can you give other people in the finance industry on how to build a successful team?
Encouraging your team to continually look for ways to improve and recognising that improvements can come at all levels. Empowering your team to engage in change management and process improvement will help with the culture as it gives the team a sense of value and keeps them challenged.
Also, treating each employee as an individual. What drives one employee will be different from what drives another, so a tailored approach to meet each person’s needs will drive the best outcome. This means knowing how to work with each of your team members. It is important for team members to know that their boss cares about them.
Do you see any significant emerging trends in the finance function?
I think the trend in finance is that it is no longer being viewed as back office. Finance teams are adding more strategic value – they are no longer just a cost to the business. Members of the finance team are decision makers, particularly because every decision they make could affect the business from a commercial perspective.
How do you think the career of a finance professional will change over the coming years?
I think with technology a lot of things will be automated. Finance will need to add value and be strategic – even more strategic – as well as provide insights. That being said, controls will still be a key focus.
I think the nature of the role will become more strategic as the expectation that the back office works well as automation becomes more widespread. A lot of improvements will be within the finance team itself, and finance leaders will drive projects, automation, and increase their strategic role. But any new focus must not come at the expense of our back of house functions.
As the role of the CFO changes, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the financial controls that are essential to the business. Real strategic thinking can only occur when this part of our role is working effectively.
When the team that supports us is made up of individuals that are capable of making decisions and valuable contributions, finding the right balance between strategic thinking and operations becomes achievable. And when we build strong teams around us, the challenges that change brings will only make our team stronger.
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