What does it take to become a successful finance leader?

Published in Economia 

Sally Percy shares some career-boosting tips from leading CFOs

Finance is one of the world’s most popular professions for good reason – numbers matter. They matter because they are valuable indicators of the health of governments, businesses, not-for-profit organisations and individuals. Get them right and they can promote confidence, investment and prosperity. Get them wrong and they can destroy careers, organisations and even lives

The overwhelming importance of numbers means that the CFOs of large companies are part of the bedrock of our society. The same goes for the partners of the top audit firms. But what kind of person do you need to be to work as a finance leader in an organisation that employs tens of thousands of people across the globe?

This was the question that I sought to answer in my book, Reach the Top in Finance: The Ambitious Accountant’s Guide to Career Success. For the book, I interviewed FTSE 100 CFOs, Fortune 500 CFOs and leaders from some of the top accountancy firms. Their combined experiences paint a very rich picture of just what it takes to operate at the highest echelons of the business world.

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The robots are coming

Published in The Treasurer

Will artificial intelligence erode the role of treasurers or boost their profile within business? Sally Percy investigates 

Read too many articles about artificial intelligence (AI) and you could come to the conclusion that humankind collectively is heading for a career dead end.

A 2013 paper by academics at the University of Oxford predicted that 47% of US jobs were at risk of being automated over the next 20 years – with the jobs affected ranging from taxi drivers through to accountants.

A year later, a joint report by the same university, together with Deloitte, predicted that 10 million British jobs could be taken over by computers and robots over the same period.

Then, a 2016 study by salary benchmarking site Emolument revealed that nearly half (47%) of people working in financial services in several different countries thought that technological innovations, such as automated trading platforms, were putting their jobs at risk.

With the use of AI within business set to increase dramatically over the coming decades, where does this leave the treasurer? Will the profession even exist in 2030 or will it have been consigned to the history books? Let’s find out.

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How can AI help shape a brighter future?

Published in The Telegraph 

Artificial intelligence could help us to live healthier, more fulfilling lives in future. So it’s time we lost the fear of AI. Sally Percy reports

Until now, humans have held sway as the most dominant force on Earth. Despite lacking some of the physical attributes of a host of other species, we have conquered the planet by virtue of our mighty minds.

Yet by 2025, a computer costing as little as $1,000 will have the equivalent processing speed of the human brain, according to Silicon Valley engineer and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis. And artificial intelligence systems are already faster and more accurate than humans when searching vast databases for anomalies or patterns in customer behaviour. They can also “learn” from what they have discovered and react to those findings.

Artificial intelligence potentially offers vast benefits to humankind. These range from improving medical diagnosis and treatment to caring for the elderly and making cities safer places.

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Are CFOs now ‘mini chief executives’?

Published in Raconteur’s The Future CFO supplement in The Times 

A successful chief financial officer now has to support the chief executive in developing company strategy as well as taking care of finance. Sally Percy reports

If you want proof of how far the role of chief financial officer or CFO has evolved from number cruncher to strategic adviser, talk to a headhunter about the briefs they get from chief executives.

“If you look at a job specification from ten years ago, everything that was on there then is still on there today,” says Mark Freebairn, partner and head of the financial management practice at executive search firm Odgers Berndtson. “But there are two more pages that weren’t there before and are there now.”

The pressure on companies to innovate and compete in an increasingly complex, fast-moving and transparent world has led to the chief financial officers of large businesses becoming more involved in driving the commercial activities of their organisations. So they are helping to improve the business, manage margins, assess potential new markets, make investment decisions and oversee mergers and acquisitions.

These are activities that all conceivably fall under the umbrella of strategy and require chief financial officers to possess a wide set of skills.

The scale to which the chief financial officer’s strategic remit has been expanded is clear from the briefs that Mr Freebairn gets, which often request what is essentially a “mini chief executive”. “CEOs say, ‘I need a CFO who will second-guess me because that will make my decision-making more robust. I need a commercial equal in that role’.”

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Will robots replace the CFO?

Artificial intelligence. Blockchain. Robotic process automation. Read any article about the future of finance these days and you are likely to come across all of these technological terms – plus many more besides.

Setting aside the differences between individual technologies, the overriding implication of these articles is this: the finance function of the future will be far more automated than it is today – perhaps to the extent that it doesn’t even have any real finance professionals in it, not even the CFO.

The fact that the finance function is set to become much more automated is beyond doubt – although how quickly this will happen is not clear given that spreadsheets are still the tool of choice for many finance functions.

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of medium and large businesses in the UK still use spreadsheets for budgeting and/or forecasting purposes, according to YouGov (even though poor spreadsheets have caused 17% of large businesses to suffer financial loss).

Still, despite the prevailing fondness for spreadsheets, there is nothing to say that we won’t have some kind of finance ‘Big Bang’ sooner rather than later. All we need is a few pioneering CEOs with ambitious ‘finance transformation strategies’ that aim to enhance operational effectiveness and boost shareholder returns by dramatically improving the efficiency of the finance function.

The next thing we’ll know is that all the bog-standard processes will be automated – expenses, invoices, month-end reporting – and robotic software will be responsible for producing the annual accounts. Finance, meanwhile, will need to completely reinvent itself as the data interrogation department.

OK, so that makes finance sound like a 21st-century, high-tech version of the Spanish Inquisition. Maybe I should say ‘the data analysis department’. The overriding consensus seems to be that the finance professionals of the future will be accomplished data analysts who are able to instruct software on which queries to run, make sense of the reams of data that our state-of-the-systems will spit out and investigate anomalies – all with the purpose of giving their organisations a crucial competitive edge. In that respect, they will be the frontline troops in the next world war – the Data War.

The good news, then, is that finance professionals will still have a job – even if they have had to rebrand themselves and reskill themselves.  So what about the CFO? Will he/she still have a job or can they expect to relinquish their seat at the board table to the Chief Information Officer (CIO)?

The outlook for the CFO

With all the talk that is flying around about what data will mean to the finance function of the future, it is easy to forget the fact that finance has always been about data. The data produced by finance teams – even if it is on unwieldy, unreliable spreadsheets – has long been used to inform business decisions and strategy and to provide crucial insight into the health of an organisation. All that has changed is that we can expect to see a lot more data in future and we will be able to do more with it.

So data actually fits as comfortably into the remit of the CFO as the CIO. But I think there is another important reason why data will help to preserve the CFO’s role at the board table – ethics. CFOs – or at least those who trained as chartered accountants – have usually had a solid grounding in ethics as part of their training. It is also the CFO who tends to be seen as the ‘ethical’ face of the company by outside stakeholders – the person whose word is taken as gold by analysts, investors and shareholders. We almost expect the CEO to be a little economical with the truth – they are the exuberant ‘salesperson’ for the company, after all – but we want the CFO to be the sensible person who we can trust to do the right thing.

In a world where we are giving away more and more about ourselves than ever before, we need to trust that the organisations we give our data to use it in an appropriate way. Sure, there are plenty of rules about data protection, but this is not just about disclosing our information to third parties. This is about how we are marketed and sold to, which products and services we are exposed to, and how information that we willingly – but perhaps unwittingly – disclose about ourselves can be packaged up and used by the organisations we do business with.

Recently, I attended a presentation on how the Facebook advertising service works and it made me very aware of how much information about myself I willingly give to Facebook, information that advertisers can use to target me with their products. Now, it could be argued that they are providing a helpful service by targeting me with products that I’m interested in.

But what if one day an organisation uses information that I’ve provided to target me in a way that I don’t find helpful at all – what if I find it a nuisance, upsetting or even sinister? We are only just starting to realise the huge possibilities of data. Given the sensitivity around financial information, in particular, I think the ethics of the CFO will be a crucial component of boardroom governance in the years to come.

Data is not the only reason why we still need the CFO. Long-regarded as the right-hand man or woman to the CEO, they are the person that the CEO will typically bounce ideas off. The best CFOs are prized for their discretion and fine sense of judgement. That judgement will become even more critical in future –for example, when systems come up with data in support of a business decision that seems perfectly logical on the surface but management fears somehow isn’t quite right. Then we will really need the CFO.

Utopia?

Of course, it is entirely possible that we may one day end up with a world where none of us has a job and where computers end up doing all our work for us and taking all the difficult decisions (hurray, I hear you say!) In that case, there may be no CFOs, but there will be no other job roles either. Personally I hope that day never comes – not just because I think work brings a sense of purpose and fulfilment to many people’s lives – but also because human nature being what it is, there will always be someone, somewhere who is in charge of the robots. If that person doesn’t operate under the watchful eye of the CFO, we should be afraid – very afraid.

Banking regulations impacting businesses

Published in Raconteur’s Corporate Treasury supplement in The Times 

Since the 2008 recession, regulation of the financial services sector, backed up with big fines, has introduced caution, slowed up lending and had a knock-on effect throughout the economy. Sally Percy reports

Falling foul of regulators can be expensive as a string of banks have learnt to their cost. Research from policy resource centre Good Jobs First in June found that banks and other financial services firms globally had forked out more than $160 billion in fines since 2010. And that was before Deutsche Bank was told to pay $14 billion for misselling mortgage securities in the United States.

Companies are far less likely than banks to be hit with a fine the length of a telephone number. Nevertheless, treasurers still need to navigate the world of financial regulation carefully if they are to spare their employer bad press, strategic risks and unexpected penalties.

“Regulation is omnipresent,” says Richard Abigail, group treasurer of engineering consultancy Arup. “Much of the regulatory pressure on us comes through the banking sector. Regulations on the banks transfer on to corporates. We have to do more and more to be regulatory compliant.”

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