Interview with a CFO: Alain van Reyk on the A to Zs of leadership

Interview with a CFO: Alain van Reyk on the A to Zs of leadership

June 17, 2016 by Stella Petrou Concha

How do you build a high-performing team? Just one question answered by Alain van Reyk.

Q: What have been the top things in your career that have helped you get into a leadership role?

Alain: Definitely. The primary one is working for a global best practice business like Pepsi – a business that has delivered double-digit volume growth and remained successful in a competitive and mature industry.

In the early 90s, this business recognised leadership as a key component of a business that is successful in creating long-term shareholder wealth. The company very much has an internal development plan, which is recognised as a component of your career. They have a career model that links leadership competencies with experience and develops that in the right order, supporting it with contemporary tools such as cultural engagement surveys.

Leadership skills and core competencies was a total skill set that you needed to acquire.

Leadership skills and core competencies was a total skill set that you needed to acquire. The big difference was a global best practice way of assessing leadership capability, giving honest feedback so you can develop.

For my second point, I’d say it’s a combination of luck, good structure and my own personal choices to work for good leaders. I think an organisation can only do so much – it’s the leaders that develop and empower you. I’ve been lucky to work with great leaders who have been astute in diagnosing my needs and have mentored and coached me along the way, teaching me to develop soft skills and experiential skills. It’s taught me that when I’ve worked for an organisation where that leadership piece is not there, I know to fall back onto my true brand of being a best practice leader.

As an overall point, don’t over complicate that. When you have exposure to great experiences, great material and also a chance to fine-tune your internal radar to pick and choose what is right and run with it, don’t overly complicate your career progression. Have a healthy dose of flexibility and openness.

People balanced on a scale
Diversity is a challenge all leaders face in their professional careers. Alain was no different.

Q: What has been your greatest challenge?

Alain: I think particularly when you come from a finance background, you have access to data and insights and you live and breathe it. You have expectations of delivering results and success swiftly, and this can be challenging as you work with the organisation. At that core of it, how do you embrace working with true diversity to deliver results?

You recognise that everyone has different styles and different ways of processing. It’s a constant challenge of moving from the “I” to the “We”. Probably the greatest challenge comes as you progress quite quickly; it leads you to people that are more experienced and older, and involves working with your own self-doubt.

Part of how I dealt with it was experimental learning. Not being afraid to fail and to get things wrong, but creating an environment of consistently seeking feedback. Leadership and career development is a journey that involves being honest and transparent. When you do fail, it’s asking how you can learn from that.


Leadership is always about being focused on everyone bar yourself.


The solution is having a broad group of stakeholders and a mentor, consulting widely, being humble and recognising that you can always grow and develop, while making sure you try and connect with people at a personal level and bringing that into your learning and exchange.


Q: What does leadership mean to you?

Alain: Leadership as a value or skillset is the differentiator between a globally successful organisation and one that isn’t.

If you look at businesses that have a strong focus on leadership, they delivery sustainable results in the right way. Leadership is always about being focused on everyone bar yourself. At the heart of it, it’s about building capability and a high-performance team that contributes to the business’s success.

At the very core of it, being a great leader is about how to make yourself redundant. It’s not about “I” it’s about “We”. One thing I have realised is that it’s about embracing diversity when you are trying to build a high-performance team. Work with it and build it!


Best preforming teams have very focused leadership
The best performing teams have very focused leadership.


Q: What have been the behaviours of the best leaders you have worked with?

Alain: Humble, approachable and having a sense of empathy. They challenge you to be the best; they diagnose and asses their team accurately; they coach and facilitate; they create a clear vision and strategy; they are technical experts but they use that to garner respect not to drive compliance.

Good leaders are results-driven with integrity. Their behaviours are that they always focus on you and the organisation to drive towards an end result. They are calm under pressure and you view them as a strength of the organisation. So, they are dependable, resilient and trustworthy, so you have a sense of faith and confidence in them.


Q: How do you create balance between strategy, operations and leadership?

Alain: It starts with strategy. You have to have a clear strategic plan that globally and clearly represents an understanding of the market opportunity. This opportunity must have a clearly well-thought-out plan of how you get from current to future state.

From this, it’s about understanding the gap in detail and your roadmap to get there. The business across all levels needs to clearly understand the strategy. Then its all about clear accountability and responsibility on how to get there. That’s through functional leadership.

To operationalise the strategy, you need to empower everyone to be accountable and trust them. What modern finance teams do is partner with the organisation to build commercial capability so they understand the strategic plan and how they can execute it. From a leadership perspective, leaders are there to guide and enable, not to do.


Q: What are the three attributes that you believe characterises talent?

Alain: Definitely the potential to be a great leader, learning agility and having a passion for learning in general. Also, someone who embraces life experiences – both positive and negative – as a contributor to their career journey.


Q: When you meet with people in an interview, what do you value?

Alain: I already assume the person who comes to the interview has the core competencies to do the job. What I value is the diversity they can bring to the team – experiences and perspectives that they can bring to help it be a high-performance team.

I value someone that is going to challenge me; I don’t look for a yes person, I value strength of character – someone who can take a few knocks and step back up. Someone that has demonstrated resilience.  I definitely value someone who sees the vision of where a contemporary finance organisation is heading and how they can add value to the business.


My team is results-driven and has high accountability, integrity and values.



Q: How would you describe the culture of your team? Do you do any specific things to nurture that?

Alain: I have many people in my team. I would describe it as diverse, inclusive, all high in potential and highly capable. There is an element of family. It’s a young team that is growing and developing, and with that comes challenges that need to be facilitated.

My team is results-driven and has high accountability, integrity and values. It’s a high-performing team and very much focused on building capability in the organisation to help the organisation do and be better.

When I start a team, firstly we establish the vision and strategy, where we want to be in five years. That’s an inclusive process, so everyone has a seat at the table. During the month, there are a series of meetings and always a weekly catch-up. Round the grounds keep everyone informed, monthly 1:1s focus on career development, monthly leadership team meetings where we discuss challenges and results – my whole team contributes to that agenda.

I am very passionate about 360-degree engagement and feedback surveys. We need clear accountability and responsibilities, very detailed JDs and we spend a lot of time on the annual target setting and objectives process, making sure we are aligned and have absolute clarity on that. I have an open-door policy where people don’t come to me with an issue, they come to me with a proposed solution and we work together on that. Importantly, my team is a very safe environment where it’s OK to fall over and learn from that process. I let the team manage tasks, and I facilitate development to collectively achieve outcomes.


Q: What tips can you give other people in the finance industry on how to build a successful team?

Alain: The first thing you have to do is recognise that Australia has a small population, high labour costs and a mature and sophisticated market. So therefore, we have to help finance redefine itself to make businesses successful in the global environment.

There are a few things that we need to do: Leverage systems and processes to create high levels of control and efficiency, and a low-cost transactional environment. We can therefore free up resources to partner with the business and build capability to deliver results where it makes us globally competitive. Finance in Australia needs to strive to work smarter, not harder.

Also, embracing and championing investments in BI systems and global best practice ERP systems, helping the executive team to see it as an enabling investment and not a compressible cost. We need to encourage lateral moves to build capability, pushing members of the finance organisation to have an in-depth understanding of the business drivers, while not being afraid to have finance people do roles in operations and the business because that will make them a more capable contemporary finance individual that will add value to the business.

All G&A and admin headcount has to be smaller, as well as more nimble and efficient, given the trade environment.


Q: Do you see any significant emerging trends in the finance function?

Alain: Definitely the outsourcing and global least costs of transactional services. It is in the audit arena where the industry is playing catch up on finance system implementation. How do we make system and process drive high control environments? There’s a big trend of doing more with less. Meanwhile, all G&A and admin headcount has to be smaller, as well as more nimble and efficient, given the trade environment. Finance is really going to have to thrive, strive and demonstrate ROI.


Q: How do you think the career of a finance professional will change over the coming years?

Alain: We have to be dynamic and flexible – we’ve got to strive to be the objective business partner in the room. We are not there to be liked, we are there to be respected. We have to build capability in the organisation where all other functions become financially literate to help them make commercially strong decisions.

They have to be open to opportunities in general. Each opportunity has a chance to be a better leader. It’s really about a finance individual’s focus on how they can add value. There will be a lot more movement between companies – moving from tenure to breadth of experience will be a challenge and people will have to embrace it. Finance individuals will have to think about what legacy they will leave – and in everyone’s role, they’ll need to make sure it’s a positive one.

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