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.


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.

How to write a feature pitch that will grab editors – every time

With digital and content marketing now becoming the bywords for business promotion in the financial services industry, it can be easy to overlook more traditional methods of spreading the word.

Yet earning coverage in a publication that is read by your client base can help to raise awareness of your business among your clients and promote you as a leader in your field. So how can you ensure that your feature pitch is going to be snapped up by the ‘must-read’ publication in your area of financial services?

Know the publication

It may sound obvious, but you have more chance of getting a commission if you know the publication inside out. For a start, you want to ensure that the article is of interest to the readers. Secondly, you want to know that you have got the timing spot on.

For example, there is no point in pitching an article on the challenges or benefits that fintech is going to bring to your area of financial services if an almost identical feature appeared in the previous edition.

On the other hand, if you have read an article on the challenges that fintech is going to bring to your sector, perhaps you could pitch a feature arguing how you think a new technology could make financial firms such as yours thrive?

Have a unique angle

Even the hottest topics can reach saturation point in the press. But editors are always eager for a new viewpoint.

There is an argument that the UK tech industry could suffer greatly due to the lack of domestic IT programming expertise. So, could you survey the tech firms you advise to see how a curb on immigration would impact them, putting a fresh slant on the Brexit/migrant debate?

Make the pitch as engaging as the article

Once you have your unique angle, you need to summarise it as succinctly as possible while leaving the editor hungry for more. Editors get bombarded with emails.

According to the Harvard Business Review, journalists at NYtimes.com, TheGuardian.com, and CNN.com receive more than 38,000 emails a year – three times that of the average worker. Almost two-thirds (26,000) of those emails are sent from people trying to get press coverage.

So the first step is to make your subject line stand out. Don’t make the subject of your email ‘Feature pitch’; instead it should be ‘Feature pitch: How Brexit could put 80% of our tech clients out of business.’

Once you have intrigued the editor enough to convince them to open the email, you should give a brief summary of what the feature will entail. The summary should include some top-line stats and an engaging quote.

You want to make the pitch short enough for the editor to be able to read quickly while leaving them wanting to know more. A pitch that is around 100 words in length, or three to four sentences, is ideal.

 Know who you are pitching to

It doesn’t matter how unique your angle is, and how engaging your email subject line, if you have pitched to the wrong person. A single publication may have a senior editor, managing editor, features editor, digital editor and commissioning editor. So you need to know which one to contact.

If you have sent your email to the wrong editor, you shouldn’t rely on the fact that it will get forwarded on to the right one. At the very least, you should find out exactly who has responsibility for commissioning features and articles before sending a pitch.

A better approach is to find out who that editor is and try to build a relationship with them. That may be a coffee meeting to discuss what sort of features would be of interest or even engaging with them on social media.

If an editor knows who you are, this will decrease the chances of your feature pitches sinking to the bottom of their sea of emails.

Don’t be afraid to chase

Once you have sent your pitch, don’t write it off if you haven’t heard anything back. Even if you have taken all the above steps, there are a number of reasons why the editor may not have got back to you. They may be going to press with the current issue of the publication, for example, or they may like your idea but not have space for it at the present time.

A quick follow-up call will determine whether the editor didn’t see your email, has already filled that month’s magazine or wasn’t interested in the pitch.

If it is the latter, then you can thank them for their time and then pitch to a rival publication.

Fighting for the future of women: The day I made a difference to the world

The fantastic thing about being a journalist is that it offers you a great opportunity to make a difference.

Sadly, however, as a business journalist you tend to find that such opportunities are rather more limited than those of your peers who are reporting from the front line in war zones or investigating abuses in care homes.

Those opportunities do still come to business journalists, as Robert Peston will attest, but on a day-to-day basis you don’t usually feel that you are rocking the world as a result of the work you do.

That’s why I was so delighted that EY asked me to be involved in its Women³. The Power of Three forum, part of its Women. Fast forward platform, which aims to speed up the rate at which gender parity will be achieved in the workplace.

The forum has brought together leaders from corporate, entrepreneurial and government organizations from across Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa to find practical ways of achieving gender parity sooner.

This week, it launched its initial white paper – Who holds the key to closing the skills gap? – at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. I am very proud to say that I wrote the white paper with the team at EY.

I began working on the project in the early days and have been privileged to meet a number of very inspiring and dedicated women and men as a result of my involvement in it. These individuals – who were both from within EY and a wide range of external organisations – have really opened my eyes to the huge challenges that women face in the workplace today. As a woman, I obviously did have an appreciation of the issues involved beforehand, but I now realise that the problem is far worse than I had previously comprehended.

So what have I learned?

I have learned that while women theoretically enter the workforce on an equal footing with men in many countries, they immediately face barriers to progression.

Hiring managers often demonstrate unconscious bias when placing young women in roles. Also, women themselves make career choices in anticipation of the fact that they may want to have a family later on – because they believe that compromising on their career is the only way they will be able to achieve both.

Furthermore, there is a sad dearth of senior female role models in many organisations around the globe, which unfortunately gives young women the message that it is extremely difficult to reach the top.

Women who are in the middle stages of their career must often balance a wide range or responsibilities, both inside and outside the workplace. Unfortunately, however, most workplaces are still structured in a way that makes it difficult for them to balance those responsibilities.

Working hours can be rigid and some types of organisations are still defined by their macho “long hours” cultures. Childcare can be expensive and if travel costs are also taken into account, it may not be financially viable for a woman to work.

Finally, policies that are intended to help women in the workplace are often not properly monitored or enforced. Plenty of organisations like to claim that they are supportive of women, but just how supportive are they in practice? There can be a big gap between the PR spiel and the reality.

The biggest eye-opener for me in the whole project, however, was the terrible situation facing experienced women in the workplace. Women make up half the world’s population and we are all getting older every day. Yet there is an appalling lack of women aged 45 or over in senior roles and in visible roles (eg in the media). It seems that we just disappear off a career cliff once our childbearing years are behind us.

This is an extraordinary waste of talent and experience. Older women have a huge amount to contribute to the workplace – there is nothing like raising a family to hone your negotiation and time management skills, for example – and in an age of skills shortages, why are we allowing them to simply vanish?

Research by the McKinsey Global Institute has found that if women played an identical role in labour markets to men, as much as $28 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025. That’s an increase of 26%!

The fact of the matter is that gender inequality comes at a cost to us all. In the foreword to EY’s white paper, Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders, says: “The economic empowerment of women is absolutely critical to business innovation and productivity, poverty eradication, the formation of progressive social policies and the creation of a world that is richer in every sense.”


I really hope that the work done by EY, including the white paper that I helped to write, will start to break down the career barriers that hinder women in all parts of the world – for the sake of everyone who is alive today and everyone in the generations to come.

As a journalist, it’s hard to imagine making a bigger difference than that.

Click here to read: Who holds the key to closing the skills gap?

Sally Percy is a freelance journalist and managing director of Love Letters Publishing, a specialised content agency for financial services businesses. http://www.loveletterspublishing.co.uk

Five essential accessories for women who want to get to the top in finance

Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, has been quoted as saying: “I could never have got to where I am in my career without my husband. The choices I made, he worked around.”

Her words will resound with many professional women and they certainly echoed the words of the female panellists I heard at a Women in Treasury forum hosted by Treasury Today.

That event – along with other events for women in finance that I have attended over the years – inspired me to put together this article on the five essential accessories required by women who want to reach the top of the finance profession.

Accessory #1 – A house husband

Some truly incredible women manage to get by without one, but the truth is that behind every successful woman, there is usually a supportive man who is prepared to stay in the shadows while his partner searches out the limelight. Not only that, but he is brave enough to face the crowd of mothers waiting outside the school gates day after day and explain that being the primary carer really is his full-time job. Not every man can do it.

Accessory #2 – A supportive boss

These are possibly even harder to find than a supportive husband so if you already have one, you are one of the lucky few. If you don’t have one, you need to seriously think about trying to find one. Apparently men who have daughters tend to be strong supporters of women in the workplace. What you need is a boss who appreciates that you are not a threat. Instead, when you do well, you are making him/her look good.

Accessory #3 – A mentor

Sometimes nothing quite beats being able to seek out the wisdom of someone who has “been there, done that”! That’s why a mentor is an invaluable accessory for any ambitious woman in finance who is aiming for the top. If you have a mentor, you have the opportunity to discuss your own career, along with important business issues, with someone who has a wealth of experience and a fresh perspective.

Accessory #4 – Black high heels

When I was editor of Accountancy magazine, I was once criticised for putting a pair of black high-heeled court shoes on the front cover to represent women in finance. Now, I have been to a lot of industry events over the years and I can honestly say that black high-heeled court shoes are not only commonplace – they are virtually de rigeur. I have two pairs myself. I would not think about attending a finance event unless I was wearing them. I’m not sure I can give any logical reason as to why, except that they mean I’m closer in height to the men whom I’m talking to!

Accessory #5 – Self-confidence

This is the accessory that many women in a wide range of fields notoriously lack. But it is the essential accessory to getting ahead in your career. If you’re not naturally self-confident, you need to invest in your own personal development so that you become more self-confident – perhaps by doing life coaching or training in personal speaking. Either that, or you need to learn to be a very good bluffer!



Three reasons why businesses should settle their bills within 15 days

Small and medium-sized businesses in the UK are owed £67.4bn in unpaid invoices, according to the Asset Based Finance Association (ABFA).

That’s up 8% from £62.5bn last year and 36% from £49.5bn in 2011.

Previous research from the ABFA revealed that SMEs are waiting an average of 72 days for invoice payment, up from 61 days in 2009.

It seems that despite the economic upturn, businesses are actually getting worse – not better – about paying other businesses. Is that right? No. Is that fair? No. So why is this allowed to happen?

Partly I blame the recession for encouraging businesses to string out making payments for as long as possible in order to boost their own cash flow. I can see the logic to that, but the problem is that if we all adopt this strategy, what happens? Ultimately, we all end up waiting longer to get paid.

As the owner of a small business myself, late payments are something that I care passionately about. And I think I’ve come up with a very simple solution to the problem:

All businesses – large and small – should settle their bills with one another within 15 days (unless there is a genuine cause for dispute) or face a (very big) financial penalty.

There are three big benefits to this as far as I can see:

  1. The cash flow of the entire UK business community would improve dramatically, sparking economic growth. If businesses could feel confident that they would be paid within 15 days, they could plan better and react more quickly to opportunities. They are also less likely to need to borrow money.
  2. It would save a lot of time and money. Chasing unpaid invoices is costly in terms of both time and money. Just think what business owners could do with that time and money if they could channel it into other areas of their business.
  3. It would cement relationships. Unsurprisingly, businesses tend to like working with businesses that pay them on time – funny that! When a business pays on time, its supplier is more likely to see it as a valued customer, which means that it should enjoy a higher standard of service than its competitors.

As far as I can see, the business case for paying within 15 days is overwhelming. So it would be great to see some large, well-known companies that claim to embrace sustainability adopt this approach. In doing this, they would be enhancing the sustainability of their supply chain and setting a good example to the business community as a whole.

Why digital media will transform financial services

Digital media has had a major impact on the way businesses interact with each other and their clients. Some industries have been able to harness the power of digital more effectively than others, however.

The financial services sector is one that has often been labelled as slow to take advantage of the benefits of digital marketing. While this is perhaps true, it’s worth bearing in mind that ours is an industry that is more heavily regulated than others.

And when you take into account some of the scandals that have rocked certain segments of the industry, from the sub-prime crisis, to Libor rigging, to the mis-selling of payment protection insurance, it’s no surprise that many players have decided to err on the side of caution when it comes to the endless potential of digital marketing.

That may change substantially in the coming year.

A recent study conducted by Econsultancy, which provides research, data, analysis and training to the digital marketing industry, reveals that the financial services sector is heading towards a period of digital transformation.

Compiled from a global survey of more than 200 financial services and insurance executives based mainly in North America and Europe, these are three of the key insights from Econsultancy’s ‘Digital Trends in the Financial Services and Insurance Sector’ report.

63% of responding companies will be increasing their digital marketing budgets this year

Econsultancy’s research suggests that marketers will continue to invest heavily in digital marketing over the next 12 months and beyond. Almost two-thirds of responding companies said that they would be increasing their digital marketing budgets this year, compared with just 6% who said that they would be decreasing their budgets.

According to Econsultancy, those financial services companies that intend to increase their digital marketing budgets will do so by an average of 21% in 2015.

On average, Econsultancy found that financial services companies invest just over a third (35%) of their total marketing budgets on digital-related activities but this increases to 43% for European companies. The average for US respondents is 33%.

33% of respondents say that customer experience is their major focus

A third of Econsultancy’s respondents said that customer experience (known as CX and described by Forbes as “the cumulative impact of multiple touch points over the course of a customer’s interaction with an organisation”) represents the single best opportunity for their company to deliver on their priorities for 2015.

This compares to an average of 22% across all other sectors. With customers more willing to shop around for the best deal and change providers (particularly with bank accounts and credit cards) than they did even five years ago, it’s no surprise that this is a priority for financial services companies. What perhaps does come as a surprise, though, is that while customer experience was stated as a priority for financial services companies, customer retention wasn’t.

Only 40% identify and track mobile-specific key performance indicators

Mobile banking has been an innovation that has caught on extremely quickly, particularly when compared with the slow burn of internet banking. When it comes to tracking customers’ mobile interaction with an organisation, however, financial services are lagging.

According to Econsultancy, financial services companies are more than twice as likely as their counterparts across all sectors to say that they don’t know what proportion of their traffic comes from mobile (12% compared with 5% across all sectors).

Less than half (45%) claim that they understand the nuances of how customers use smartphones and tablets differently.

So while the industry is heading towards a period of digital transformation, it appears that, as a sector, there is still a lot to learn.