06 May 2014 Back

Leadership Skills for CFOs Fit for the Future

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT: Global businesses need finance professionals with wide-ranging leadership skills who can operate effectively in an increasingly complex world. IEDP interviewed Sharron Gunn, Executive Director, Commercial, of the Institute of Chartered Accountants England and Wales (ICAEW) to hear how the accountancy profession is meeting this leadership development challenge.

Ten years ago, aspiring CFOs and finance leaders weren’t expected to focus on ‘soft’ skills in the same way they do now. The growing market place and the demands for leadership and development now go beyond technical knowledge, and programs have had to adapt to this demand accordingly.

A pivotal moment came for the Institute 5 years ago when it surveyed senior members, in practice and industry, and received the consistent response that their accountancy training had not prepared them for the broad range of business issues and leadership demands that they faced as their careers had progressed. The CFO role in particular, more far-reaching than others in the ‘c-suite’, was one they had felt unprepared for. The consistent advice was that the profession needed to do more to develop leadership skills, in parallel to delivering qualifications and technical skills, if its members were to be fit for the future.

In subsequent years the ICAEW has achieved a great deal as it has responded to this clarion call. The most high profile outcome has been the creation of a suite of Leadership Development programs catering for all career stages, from newly qualified accountants to board directors and partners. The involvement of experienced senior members of the profession in the delivery of these programs, which range from personal development, through team leadership to boardroom effectiveness, ensures a good balance of commercial and interpersonal skills development.

It is worth mentioning here that this is not merely a UK centric response – ICAEW has offices in Beijing, Brussels, Dubai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and active networks around the world, and recently leadership development programs have been launched in Singapore and Malaysia.

One of the critical points in a successful accounting career is the step-up from divisional finance officer to CFO. To support members in making this transition the Institute is able to provides one-to-one mentoring and coaching. Mentors are senior members of the profession who volunteer their time. The mentees, who are in senior leadership or board level roles, are sponsored by their companies.

Helping female members of the profession reach board level or to become partners is a key objective for the ICAEW. There are now many more women entering the profession than in previous decades, but a bias in the educational system, which propels girls towards ‘humanities’ rather than maths based subjects, is echoed at graduate entry level to the profession where 60% are men. At boardroom level things get worse where female representation is still less than 20%.

The Institute has a created a specific leadership development program for women which has been particularly successful, with over 100 female executives taking part, and which is now being run internationally.  It also offers returner-to-work schemes, mentoring support, business networks for female members, and a program aimed at women and men before they take a career break.

A too narrow focus by some CFOs on short-term financial gain rather than long term sustainability can be linked to several notable corporate failures of the recent past.

The CFO of the future needs to be a trusted strategic partner, able to look beyond the numbers to link strategy, leadership, and financial decision making to long-term sustainable value creation, able not only to help the CEO formulate strategy but also to communicate and lead it. The ICAEW has gone a long way in a short time to move the accountancy profession towards understanding this and providing the leadership development support to achieve it.

Illustration: Computing figures in an illustration from the Margarita Philosophica, a general encyclopedia written by Gregor Reisch, printed 1503 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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