Today’s finance professionals need to combine specialist knowledge with all-round skills to make their way to the top, argues Ian Guider
This article was first published in the September 2018 Ireland edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
The book Beancounters by Richard Brooks is a history of the growth of the accounting industry for more than 100 years. Many readers of these pages may have already had a look to see if they recognise any of the anecdotes and its portrayal of individuals, either fairly or unfairly! At its best, it charts the rise of a global, multidisciplinary industry and the changes that have taken place. You can agree or disagree with his comments, particularly over his coverage of the latter years, but it’s still a fascinating read.
I wonder, though, whether the skills that led the founders of these firms are still relevant today or has the world moved on too much? Now that the pace of change and the impact of technology are disrupting many organisations to the core, what makes a great leader?
I’ve had the privilege to meet, interview and observe some major global business figures. One of them was the legendary Jack Welch, the former General Electric (GE) chief executive, who has written a dozen books on management and culture within organisations based on his decades of success at GE. The structures he put in place there have been replicated in many other companies.
Another was Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, a former accountant, who is as comfortable negotiating multi-billion dollar aircraft orders as he is helping out baggage handlers or acting as a one-man PR machine. He might make it look easy, but many who attempt to copy fail.
I mention these examples as they each have their own unique style – other executives will fit somewhere in between. But what I observe from most leaders is that they cannot exist in the silos that they did in the past. The tax, auditing, HR or marketing expert will not develop the skills to become a great leader without exposure outside of their comfort zone.
A few years ago, a well-known Irish company replaced its CEO with its finance director. An adviser to that company asked me whether the incoming boss would go down well with the media, as someone with little exposure to it. As it turned out, the person was fine. But what it showed was the importance placed on engagement with external stakeholders.
Recently, I spoke to the CEO of a fast-growing Irish start-up. His background had been spent mostly in the finance department of a large multinational. He decided to abandon a planned MBA in favour of an overseas position in a challenging market. The benefit, he explained, was gaining exposure to more parts of the organisation.
If you look at succession planning in publicly-quoted companies, more and more chief executives come from a finance background. Knowing the figures is clearly important, but it will not be the sole determinant. What great leaders bring is a knowledge of finance and everything else, including, increasingly, technology.
Change is still taking place. A lot of what makes an organisation great comes from its culture. It’s an intangible that is hard to measure but it is becoming increasingly important to internal and external audiences and is another item in the finance professional’s toolkit.
Ian Guider is markets editor of The Sunday Business Post
"The tax, auditing, HR or marketing expert will not become a great leader without exposure outside of their comfort zone"