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Finance leadership doesn’t need the F word

Philip Green

Chris Morrison Big 4, CFO, Senior Finance...

Unlike many boys, Philip Green enjoyed Maths and Physics at school. In fact, he was already writing basic code at the age of seven, but his father, an accountant, also influenced his early years and as a result he went to university to study accounting and finance rather than maths or physics. However, as he explained, that was to prove a blessing…

“I knew I should have done maths, but because I studied accounting (slightly reluctantly) I ended up getting a poor degree. This meant that I had no chance of a career with one of the Big 4, so I went into the commercial world.  If I had ended up in, say, EY, my life would have been very different.

“My interest in and enthusiasm for maths and computing meant that I got into financial modelling, analysis, optimisation, etc. in the last 1990s, at a time when not many finance professionals in the UK were doing this. In fact, it’s still relatively uncommon today, but back then it helped propel me into more senior-level forums where I met and was influenced by – and began to influence – some real decision-makers.

“I was fortunate to spend some of my early career with great companies such as Iceland, where there was a very flat structure and visible leadership from the founder. I worked for a guy called Andy Birch and we’d geek out and build relational databases: for example, in a few weeks we built a complete system for integrating the entire Booker range and publishing it to our website. One thing I realised fairly quickly is that you don’t have to be an accountant to work in finance.

“This became even more obvious when I joined Amazon as Finance Director for EU operations.  Here, I worked with Brian Olsavsky: a truly great CFO - and an engineer by training. Amazon was/is a phenomenal company with fantastic people, which is why it’s where it is today, and Brian typifies its spirit.

“In the UK, you’d be pushed to find a FTSE 100 company with a CFO who is not an accountant.  Our country is traditional in that we have accountants who don’t really understand business but get pushed into conventional finance roles and consequently become box tickers, operating in a right/wrong world. Typically, such accountants have commercial analyst roles, which is a job that often doesn’t fit their personality type and as a result they don’t enjoy it.  To make a real difference you must understand the company and the environment in which it works, and then you’ll understand the role you can play in making it successful.

“Most finance people prefer a world of certainty. While I would certainly not encourage a gung-ho approach, when you shift to a calculated, risk-taking mindset you become far more valuable to your company. That said, you do need to be careful. As a CFO, you can play a commercial role by being a strong tax or accountancy person in the way you structure things, manage deals, add commercial value etc. but that doesn’t mean you go out and sell alongside the sales-team.  To be a great CFO you need to understand what you are good at.

“The difference a good CFO makes can be huge. A lot depends on your relationship with the CEO – both of you have to be a good counterbalance to each other.  At times, it’s putting the brake on, telling the CEO to slow down, but sometimes the message is to speed up. In many companies, the FD or CFO is regarded as the person who usually says “no,” but a good CFO will shape resource management – the allocation of people, cash, resources – and say “yes” to giving the right people access to more resources and then putting them in the right place to let them do their jobs.

“I said that to be a good CFO you need to understand what you are good at. Equally importantly, you need to hire people who are better than you in the areas you are weak.  I firmly believe that you then win as a team.  And while some won’t understand or appreciate this, your key task as a leader is to make yourself effectively redundant. If you don’t turn up for three months your team should still be able to deliver. 

“In my opinion, when it comes to leadership the inclusion of the word Finance in a job title creates a problem. The finance function itself doesn’t help here: there’s no budget, no results, you are not obviously in the driving seat at the front of the business.  This separates finance people from the others, who then think that finance doesn’t understand (or appreciate) what they do and how they contribute. It helps if, as CFO, you think of yourself as a leader who just happens to run finance. And remember, you’re a leader, not a manager.

“Depending on the size of the company, as you move up the ladder in finance you get more exposure to the internal vs external issues which affect the company. Often, it’s only when you get the big job that you really get to see how this all fits into place. Just remember, what got you where you are today won’t necessarily get you where you want to be tomorrow!

“Finally, do remember that leadership isn’t about being an extrovert.  You don’t actually need to be charismatic to be a leader: but you do need to have a sense of proportion.  To illustrate this, when I worked with the military (as a civilian) I remember being at a dinner party. One of the officers looked a bit lost, almost vacant. I remember asking him, “how was your day?”   His reply puts normal business into context.  He said, “I lost someone today. I made a mistake and they died.”  Yet the leadership and team ethic of the army is such that they pulled together and got on with it.  If you can recreate that leadership and team ethic, but without the life and death risks of a military life, you’ll do well.”

Interview, Chris Morrison, Cedar