Future finance: Employers increasingly seek IT-savvy executives with strategic skills to lead the financial function © FT montage

An accountancy background was once essential for aspiring chief financial officers, but if Daryl Wang is hiring for his team today he is more likely to favour a candidate with strategic skills who can advise leaders within the business.

As organisations increase their use of technology, finance chiefs have been freed up from number crunching, which is crucial as the role becomes ever more strategic. Digital transformation also means the skills companies are looking for in a finance chief have changed, and the pool they are recruiting from is becoming wider.

Daryl Wang

“I’m a numbers-driven person. But throughout my career I’ve seen technology as an enabler,” says Mr Wang, chief financial officer for PwC’s consulting arm in south-east Asia. He was hired two years ago to lead the overhaul of the firm’s financial systems and processes.

A lot of what the job used to entail can now be automated, he says, which places a greater emphasis on other attributes such as open-mindedness and a collaborative, “can-do” attitude to supporting business initiatives.

“In a professional services firm, we have a lot of leaders with innovative ideas. To manage this we need people who are more agile,” he says, and willing to learn. This means spending more time using data to help assess opportunities and advise on risks.

“I always tell my team we need to articulate the risk, make sure business leaders are aware of those risks, and then help mitigate them,” he says.

Jenna Fisher

Until about 15 years ago finance chiefs mostly came from accounting backgrounds, says Jenna Fisher, a managing director at Russell Reynolds Associates, the executive search firm, in San Francisco, who specialises in recruiting chief financial officers. But today, about a third have a Certified Public Accountant qualification, she says, and it is more of a “nice to have”.

This is partly because the role has been split, with many larger companies now appointing a chief accounting officer alongside a finance chief, she says. But producing financial statements is also the less appealing part of the job. “The fun part is being the strategic business partner,” she says. “I’m seeing a trend in people moving from public to private companies because the compliance, accounting part of the role is not the fun part.”

Michelle Palmer, founder and chief executive of UK tech recruiter The Difference Engine, says that shift aligns with what companies are increasingly looking for: “CFOs with strong strategic opinions, to enable optimal decisions to be made and businesses to react quickly.”

Brian Montgomery

For aspiring chief financial officers who are interested in tech, digital transformation is opening up opportunities, says Brian Montgomery, finance director at Workday, an HR and financial software provider.

Technology’s potential to transform finance functions has become the most exciting part of any finance role, he says. “Doing things the old way was very much that hamster wheel of going through processes. When the business came to you and wanted something different, that was an additional stress. The tech means you go from ‘please just leave me alone’, to ‘bring it on’.”

Finance chiefs should be “pretty hands on” with the data analysis tools that are making their jobs easier, says Mr Montgomery, who is based in Dublin. “They should be writing the reports, tweaking and doing the basic configurations — because they know the business, they know the accounting rules.”

In hiring for his team, it helps if candidates have some experience of systems change. However, “you don’t need to know how to code — you don’t need to be that data-driven expert,” he says.

When it comes to finding candidates for top roles, Christian Schmidt, head of recruiter Egon Zhender’s chief financial officer practice for the UK, says finance chiefs do embrace digitalisation, but few are enthusiastic about roles requiring them to take a lead on overhauling IT, process and systems.

“Many CFOs have told me, ‘look I’ve done this once before, it’s really painful — it’s a lot of internal grinding, people are afraid of change’,” he says. “For the CFO to be attracted to that kind of role they’d need to have a strong enabling team or partner in the IT function.”

However, companies still need finance chiefs who are IT-savvy and can ask the right questions of specialists reporting to them, while not displacing the core skills. “Ultimately, the CFO still needs to stay on top of all of these things — they still need to understand controlling, auditing, reporting, risk management.”

Most finance professionals already have a strong foundation in these areas, says Mr Wang, but many of the younger generation lack the leadership skills to enable strategic change. 

One criticism often levelled at chief financial officer candidates is that he or she is not strategic enough, says Ms Fisher. “There has always been a mismatch between supply and demand, but at no point has that been more true than it is today,” she says.

Chief financial officers often move on to sit on boards or become general managers and chief executives rather than taking on another CFO job, which means candidates with top-level experience are in short supply. Those one step down, in a divisional role, tend to lack investor relations experience, she says, and in a time of digitalisation many clients want somebody who has overseen some sort of systems transformation.

The greater emphasis on data means, she predicts, that the next cohort of finance chiefs will come from computer science backgrounds or management consulting as well as the more traditional disciplines.

As for Mr Wang’s career path, around five years ago he was working as a management consultant for PwC, advising finance clients on digital transformation. To gain more commercial experience he moved to Credit Suisse to run the bank’s Asia-Pacific change management programme, and then on to lead digital finance at one of Temasek Management Services’ subsidiaries.

When he rejoined PwC’s south-east Asia consulting practice in 2018, it was embarking on its own finance transformation, making him a perfect fit to lead it internally, aided by his knowledge of the organisation. As chief financial officer he is also responsible for overseeing finance operations and supporting regional business leaders.

Technology can be a double-edged sword, he admits. “If the finance function does not evolve, a lot of the traditional finance operations will cease, as in many cases the robots can do a better job. That drives me to help finance functions evolve,” he says.

Budding CFOs: What companies look for

A positive attitude
Gone are the days of the chief financial officer always saying no. “You have to have boldness and a disruptive vision,” says Kate Smaje, global leader at McKinsey Digital, and “a level of experimentation” to create the conditions for success.

“The CFO’s role as an arbiter of value has become ever more important. This means understanding how value is being created in the business and how the economics of this are changing.”

Leaders who collaborate

“CFOs need to be world-class internal collaborators within finance and the rest of the business,” says Christian Schmidt. “Interpersonal skills are really key,” says Brian Montgomery. “If you’re going to implement data-driven change you need huge buy-in across the business.” 

Empathetic leadership skills are crucial, says Jenna Fisher. “These skills are ultimately more of a predictor of success. I spend more of my time assessing these aspects.”

Appreciation of data and ability to ask the right questions
“To succeed as key advisers, CFOs have to have a good handle on the importance of digital transformation in business,” says Michelle Palmer. “Strong finance leaders keep current on tech trends, and encourage their teams to do the same.”

Chief financial officers need a keen grasp of what data they have, how it is governed, how people use it, says Ms Smaje. “Ask the right questions of the business to make sure they are going in the right direction, such as: what have you learnt from this pilot? What data are you using and what additional data do you need?”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article