Much has been written about how the role of finance is changing and becoming more entrenched within business and the broadening responsibility of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). With this in mind, it has been interesting to see a number of senior finance professionals gaining experience outside of their primary profession before returning to finance leadership roles.
We asked Kevin Kearns to share his thoughts on this subject, having had first-hand experience of this situation on more than one occasion within complex, global, matrixed technology organisations. Kevin has held a number of senior finance and operational roles operating at board level, leading multidisciplinary teams of up to 200 people across multiple countries. He currently holds a VP and divisional CFO position at Colt Technology Services and has held VP and regional CFO positions at the US IT services organisation, Computer Sciences Corporation.
How has the role of the CFO evolved in your experience? What are the key concerns or challenges in today’s market?
I believe the role of the CFO has evolved where they are an active front line contributor to the business, who are cognisant of all the stakeholders’ requirements. Their finance expertise is almost secondary in importance to actively pushing and guiding the business in achieving its goals. The most successful CFOs I have worked with have been excellent business managers with a financial specialism. They recognise the importance of the “team” and that effective leadership is co-ordinating all of the activities of the business to achieve the optimal result. The challenges in 2016 are all about delivering the maximum return on investment, in many cases it is trying to understand and anticipate the changing dynamics within the market and then balancing investment and control. Managing the short term pressure for business returns with long term sustainability, is increasingly challenging.
You’ve had a couple of opportunities to step away from finance, what were the roles? How did these arise?
I have performed the role of Chief Information Officer, Commercial Transition and Chief Procurement Officer. At various stages in my career I reached a cross-road whereby a specific long term assignment was ending and there was not a natural progression or a “finance” role which attracted me. My prior performance and track record demonstrated a range of managerial skills and the ability to engage, earned the trust of senior management so they had confidence that I could adapt and bring a blend of skills to the roles which in turn would achieve the objectives of the business.
Why did you take the move away from finance? What was the thought process?
Let’s be honest, it wasn’t a big jump more of a transition. I made the moves because I could see a specific business problem or opportunities which could be addressed. It gave me time to develop and test if some of my approaches used in my Finance Director roles could be successful. I obviously took advice from my senior management but ultimately if they showed the confidence in me – I took that as a very positive sign and I looked at them as learning opportunities
What adjustment did you have to make from finance leader to a CIO or CPO position?
I suppose at a basic level I did not have 20 years of experience in that discipline and that I had to understand and appreciate the E2E process and not come at it from a certain perspective but to understand the business context and drivers – also I probably developed greater listening skills. However, this should not be a long drawn process – I think you need to listen actively but then respond with a solution or program of how the function can move forward.
How do you feel this has benefitted or hindered your finance career and how?
It has benefitted my career as I have since taken on roles where those functions have reported into the Finance Director/CFO and I had a greater appreciation of what the potential business issues and opportunities could be. At a very simple level the greater experience you have in managing different skill sets the more it informs you going forward. Individuals and teams make things happen it is not only because of the executives’ actions.
Conclusion – would you recommend a secondment outside of the finance function? What are the key things to consider in assessing what the right role to take is?
Yes, test yourself. Take a chance as it puts you into scenarios and environments with different groups of people where you can influence and understand what their goals are. Also, very importantly, it gives you the opportunity to be able to inform them of the financial/business impact of particular issues they face. The more people within an organisation who have a wider view of the dependencies, constraints and opportunities this presents to the stakeholders, the faster and more efficient decisions are made.
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