King of change

Published in Project 

How can project managers help their organisations navigate today’s most complex challenges? SALLY PERCY spoke to change guru Dr John Kotter for his insights 

In the world of change management, Harvard professor Dr John Kotter is royalty. Widely considered the foremost authority on the topics of leadership and change, he is a prolific writer who has authored 20 books, including 12 bestsellers. His seminal work, Leading Change, first published in 1996, remains the go-to guide on change management. It outlines a practical, eight-step process for managing change, from establishing a sense of urgency to anchoring new approaches in an organisation’s culture. More than a million copies of the book were sold within the first 10 years of publication. In 2011, TIME magazine listed it as one of the top 25 most influential business management books of all time.

The question of why some organisations do so much better than others has fascinated Kotter throughout his career, and continues to do so today. His interest was first sparked 50 years ago when he belonged to a college fraternity at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There he studied electrical engineering, followed by a master’s degree in science in management. His fraternity was a “troubled institution”, he recalls. “We had two pieces of very expensive real estate and 70 members. We were responsible for feeding them, rooming them, tutoring them and organising their social lives. At the age of 20, I started becoming intrigued by what it takes to make this function better.”

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Business is vital in combating modern-day slavery

Published in Accounting and Business

Modern slavery is happening everywhere – and businesses with appropriate governance structures are part of the battle against it. Sally Percy reports

Slavery is not legal anywhere, yet today over 20 million people across the world are effectively slaves, according to the International Labour Organisation. In fact, this could be a conservative estimate. Other organisations put the figure even higher – the Global Slavery Index 2016 estimates 45.8 million.

Governments across the world have taken action to tackle modern slavery, with 124 having criminalised human trafficking in line with the UN Trafficking Protocol. In Europe, the UK is seen as a leader in addressing the problem thanks to the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which is the first legislation of its kind on the continent. It was drafted after the issue attracted the attention of then home secretary Theresa May.

The act gives greater powers to law enforcers to fight modern slavery, ensures that perpetrators receive suitably severe punishments (including life sentences), provides support and protection for victims, and introduces an independent anti-slavery commissioner to improve the response to the issue.

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Not just a figurehead

Published in Dialogue Review 

What’s the secret to leading the finance function of a large public company? Sally Percy reports

Setting aside the seven-figure salary, who would want to be a chief financial officer (CFO) of a major public company? You’re expected to be on call 24/7, have all the company’s numbers constantly at your fingertips, understand how to calm the nerves of even the edgiest analysts and investors, and be ready to jump on to an aeroplane at a moment’s notice to resolve a calamity on the other side of the world. As for your family life… what exactly is that again? All this hassle, and the average tenure of a CFO in the Fortune 500 is 5.9 years, according to executive search firm Spencer Stuart.

You wouldn’t blame an outsider for finding the prospect of being a public company CFO rather unappealing. Yet the CFOs that I interviewed for my book, Reach the Top in Finance: The Ambitious Accountant’s Guide to Career Success, love what they do. And it is this passion for their work that makes up for the long hours, stress and career uncertainty associated with the job.

They like the fact that they get to kick around strategy ideas with the chief executive, commit large sums of money to potentially game-changing projects, and talk to influential people. “It’s a very exciting job where you can make an impact on people’s lives,” says Bank of America’s chief financial officer, Paul Donofrio.

Alongside all the other responsibilities that come with being CFO, the role is clearly a major leadership and management job. Donofrio, for example, presides over a finance function that numbers more than 4,000 people worldwide. And the finance functions of most large companies extend into the hundreds.

Since finance is critical to the smooth running of every major business, a CFO must be able to attract good people to work for them, lead and inspire those people, and manage them in a way that gets the best out of them. They also need to be a coach, mentor and sponsor, and be committed to developing the next generation of finance talent. So what makes someone a great leader of the finance function?

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A crash course in making CFO

Published in The Treasurer

How can treasurers boost their chances of climbing to the top of the finance tree? Sally Percy spills the secrets of successful finance leaders 

Not every treasurer hankers after the CFO’s job, but many wouldn’t rule it out. And neither should they. After all, the route from treasury to the executive suite is relatively well trodden.

Former treasurers who went on to hold the top finance job include Nick Luff, CFO of information provider RELX, Teri List-Stoll, CFO of clothing company Gap, and Keith Nichols, former CFO of chemicals giant AkzoNobel. Other finance leaders may not have had the title of treasurer, but still held treasury responsibilities, such as Paul Edwards, group FD at transport operator The Go-Ahead Group.

Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and group president at US telecommunications giant Verizon Wireless, held treasury roles early in his career. When I interviewed him for my book, Reach the Top in Finance: The Ambitious Accountant’s Guide to Career Success, he explained that he initially studied treasury qualifications while he was working in banking because he saw them as a way to build knowledge and network with corporate treasurers.

Little did he know then that those qualifications would be a crucial step in a journey to the very top of the British business world. Following a stint in treasury, Dunne was head of strategic finance at logistics operator Exel before working his way up to become CFO, then CEO of Telefónica UK, part of the Spanish multinational communications group Telefónica.

Dunne explains his success like this: “I always had the mindset in my career that I am on a journey,” he says. “So I am looking for interesting things that stretch me and help me to develop my knowledge. I have seen every role as a developmental opportunity and a learning opportunity, not just as a job, and I was always very open-minded about where I might find myself.”

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Giddy heights

Published in Accounting and Business

Just because you’ve made CFO or partner, don’t assume that your career has hit the ceiling. Your next step might even be a move away from finance, says Sally Percy

What’s great about a career in finance is that you can reach the top and still go on to do other exciting things. The two most obvious career options open to you if you are a CFO in industry are taking the CEO or managing director job and/or becoming an independent non-executive director with a portfolio of board directorships. If you are in practice with a decent-sized firm, you may be able to secure a senior leadership role within the partnership, and you could also pursue a non-executive career.

Undoubtedly you have some interesting opportunities for progression once you have made it to what other people would already regard as a very senior role within finance, but what do you need to do to seize them?

If you’re a CFO hankering after the CEO’s job, you can take heart from the fact this is a very well-trodden path. According to Robert Half’s 2016 FTSE 100 CEO Tracker, over half (55%) of chief executives of the UK’s largest companies come from a finance background. And there are a number of very good reasons why this should be the case.

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Artificial intelligence: the role of evolution in decision-making

Published in The Telegraph 

As far as decision-making mechanisms go, there is no better example than the human brain, so artificial intelligence must evolve to emulate it. Sally Percy reports

Strategy matters in war. But behind every good strategy is good data. Take Korean War veteran and US Air Force officer John Boyd as an example.

He was tasked with analysing the outcome of dogfights – aerial battles between fighter planes conducted at close range – and come up with a way to save the lives of more American pilots. He did.

What Boyd created was a framework for decision-making that is known as the OODA loop. OODA refers to the recurring cycle of four actions: observe, orient, decide and act. He discovered that the pilots who came out of dogfights most successfully were those who had processed the loop as quickly and as often as possible.

Their experience of reacting to lots of different situations meant they could best adapt their battle strategies to unfolding events.

“What Boyd was telling us was that surviving, learning and adapting were key to winning,” says Antoine Blondeau, the co-founder and co-chairman of Sentient Technologies and the inventor of the natural language technology behind Siri, Apple’s intelligent personal assistant. “Since then, that framework has been pervasive within the US armed forces. If you train, train and train, you go through that loop as often as possible.”

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