Technology itself is ever-evolving, new products will come out and we have to be flexible and open to learning them. Yes, Excel is the best tool for a lot of finance tasks, but one day there will be something better, it will require learning, just like excel did, and if we are not curious and open to putting in the effort, we will fall behind and underperform.
Tell us more about your mid-career moments that lead you to where you are today?
I started my career, properly, in the city, working at a brokerage firm. I was an absolute pest to most of the team as I was constantly asking why everyone was doing what they were doing, to the extent they sent me off to do a formal qualification in trading analysis! I learned a lot in that role, and because of my curiosity, I was quickly moved from sales over to analysis and running a portfolio. That was around 2008-2009, and in the aftermath of the crash, the company just couldn’t survive. The city was swamped with unemployed people with decades of experience and to be honest, in retrospect, it was a very toxic and unpleasant culture. I decided to switch industries and look for a job anywhere. The only requirement was that I could indulge my passion for learning, but ideally involved spreadsheets.
I then went to work for a multinational healthcare and hospital provider. I began my time in purchasing, but this time it was different. Yes, I was a pain, asking everyone why are they doing that (even the surgeons… which lead me to observe some quite graphic surgery!!) but this time, there was so much to learn and do. Our finance director encouraged me to study accounting.
I worked on a floor comprised almost exclusively of accountants and within that were some really stand out managers, who set aside time at the end of their day to teach me their processes and share knowledge. My curiosity was spurred on and I was allowed to go about process improvement, company-wide. It began with me learning some basic programming to automate billing code generation and revenue collection, but then expanded into stock take process improvement and discovering significant billing errors and lost stock. I moved through departments and hospitals learning more and more as I went, and at the same time, I was pushing through my ACCA exams (14 exams in 16 months, all first time passes, and as far as I know that’s the fastest ever).
Shortly after qualifying, I had a message from a tech company looking for a Group Head of Finance. A colleague of mine had recommended me to a connection of hers, and they reached out! I interviewed the next week and was offered the job the same day. It was a big step up for me as I was used to big teams, vertical structures of many finance managers above me. I reported to the CEO in my new role and had a team below me, something totally new. I enrolled on an executive MBA at Warwick Business School to help me adjust and counter the imposter syndrome.
That role taught me a lot, as I had an Israeli CEO who was very direct, very supportive and very innovative. He showed me how to lead a team, have faith in myself, and build a good culture.
Within 12 months I was headhunted again to take on a start-up as CFO, where we went from a team of 30 to over 100 in just 18 months, rocketed up to over US$100m ARR, restructured, raised, and did some M&A. It was a hell of a ride!
Tell us more about your journey with technology during this time, was it important to you, your promotion, your vision, or not? Tech is not essential to your future progress?
Tech has always been an interest of mine, be it space and rockets, or just the latest gadget or tool. My first job in tech was as a games developer, and I just loved the culture. To be honest, playing games is not really an interest of mine or skill for that matter, but in that role, I was allowed to work with developers to improve processes. I was given time with a full-stack engineer to automate our billing process. Working with him was fascinating and helped me understand the way tech design works. After my first CFO role, I went on to start a tech company myself. It didn’t work out, but completely cemented my love for innovation and technology.
For me, I’m motivated by the possibility to build something entirely new, to be part of the evolution of process.
What is your style of leadership and do you break down the hierarchy to be more connected/ agile?
I prefer to have as flat a structure as possible. I like to encourage my team to grow, take responsibility and have the ability to grow their career in the direction they want. I prefer delegating tasks based on interest, rather than title. From my perspective, it helps keep the team engaged and growing.
I like to be very transparent and to work with others who share the same opinion. I think sharing what is sometimes considered to be confidential management info with the wider team, empowers them to move the needle where we need it most. Often the people who are the closest to the coal face are overlooked in decision making, and yet they are the ones who feel the customers pain acutely.
Communication has to be well thought through however, information cant just be thrown out to the team as it can also have negative effects if not managed properly.
All businesses have core technology, so how tech-savvy does finance talent need to be?
I think the most critical talent needed is curiosity. An insatiable desire to learn is the standout characteristic that can overcome most, if not all challenges. I always look for ambitious teammates who want to push themselves to improve, which helps keep the team moving forward and upping our game. Technology itself is ever-evolving, new products will come out and we have to be flexible and open to learning them. Yes, Excel is the best tool for a lot of finance tasks, but one day there will be something better, it will require learning, just like excel did, and if we are not curious and open to putting in the effort, we will fall behind and underperform.
What’s your best “Agility” hack? How do you stay nimble, able to respond to change?
I like to try to have a holistic approach to learning and not get too entrenched in a niche subject. Understanding new technologies, which are sometimes way over my head, keeps me excited and motivated. I attend all sorts of events, from machine learning talks and blockchain hackathons to marketing webinars and brand positioning masterclasses. It not only helps me to business partner more effectively but also to help with strategy and product development. Being an integrated part of the company, not just a purse holder or historic reporting function, is key to adding value to a company.
What will be the biggest change in a finance team over the next 5 years?
Move away from accounting and more towards the business. Partnering, adding strategic advice, modelling and leadership are the resultant skills of an experienced and qualified finance professional. Sometimes it takes a while, if at all, for an accountant to get to this stage, but once they do they make fantastic business leaders. I see less time being spent on bookkeeping tasks and far more on evaluation and planning.
What are the must-have skills or talents to be in the finance leadership team?
Communication, negotiation and influencing skills. These three allow a person to effectively work completely across the business, to interpret and manage the evolving situations that may arise and to bring the rest of the team together towards a common goal of growth. It’s very similar to a CEO however, the CEO is often externally focused or may have a specific vision which isn’t necessarily the most profitable route to exploit. A good finance professional can manage the business to achieve its strategic goals.
What is the most in-demand skill or talent in the finance leadership team?
The ability to fully integrate and business partner across the company.
What is the number one technology you couldn’t live without in a finance team?
Rebank! Aside from that, slack. Even prior to being remote, sometimes quick and very sensitive finance chats need to be had away from others ears. Being able to do so quickly is super helpful. Now that we are fully remote, it helps keep us connected. The tools which work with slack (like Rebank) or Donut etc help make your day more efficient and collaborative.
There are many tech trends, but what is the number one technology to impact finance?
Open banking is a game-changer, and yet it’s still in its infancy. Banking infrastructure is largely stuck in the dark ages, with hideous tokens and dongles and an impossible system of complex screens or worse – paper trails.
The capabilities allowed with open banking mean that the finance team can move much closer to automating those mundane tasks and make progress with value add stuff instead. I have hated bank rec’s from the day I first did one, and could not believe when I met an accountant who genuinely told me that reconciling to the penny when it was out by a tiny amount, was the highlight of his month.
Let’s move on!
And how will that bring further / less challenges to the finance team?
Banking is a necessary evil. It adds little to no value to the business in the transaction processing area, and yet its so critical to be secure and timely. By removing these tasks, from even junior finance team members, allows more exciting work to take place, and drive real business value.
What is the best podcast or audiobook you listen to for your work life? Why is it helpful?
Tax foundation – I have a secret love of international taxation! We have an international group structure at Rebank, and so it’s helpful for me to keep up to date with the latest changes in GILTI and the like, but from a personal level, I see it as a massive puzzle with constantly changing parts, that you have to try to work out.
What is the best app you used in your personal life? and why?
Uptime, like most people I wish I read more books. Uptime helps me sift through the latest titles, to gather which ones warrant a full read and which cover areas I have already read about. It breaks up the book into key learnings and presents them in a summary that is only a few minutes long. It also surfaces new titles and helps me discover interesting topics outside of my go-to reading list.
Mental fitness in business is important, how do you manage your mental fitness?
I like to get outside and into nature. I live in central London, but I am right next to holland park so seeing the peacocks and parrots is really uplifting for me. When I have more free time I like to get out and go horse riding or even just take my dog on a long walk. She is always with me, she’s 13 and has never been alone. Ever. I joke she’s my therapy dog as she knows when I’m stressed and comes over to sit on my lap.
Looking back at your career, is there anything you would have done differently?
I wish I would have had more faith in myself earlier in my career. I was fortunate enough to have found some fantastic mentors and bosses who helped me step up and out of my comfort zone, but looking back I could have pushed myself harder.
Chris is the founder and MD of GenerationCFO.com and creator of the Digital Finance Function Model and a contributor to many articles on our platform. Chris focuses on the shift toward digital transformation in accounting and finance, shows you what good looks like, then helps to get you there!
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