Some people say, perhaps uncharitably, that a specialist is someone who knows everything about something and nothing about anything else. And while the word “nothing” is a little strong, there is definitely more than a little truth in this saying.
A subject matter expert, or SME, is someone who has a deep understanding of a particular process, function, machine, technology or material. They are typically sought out by other people interested in leveraging their unique expertise to solve a specific problem, or help meet a particular challenge.
Because their knowledge is so specialised, SMEs in areas such as tax, treasury, risk and internal audit, or financial reporting often find it difficult to leverage their strengths into broader leadership roles. Someone who has bucked this trend is Nick Sutherland, a former treasury subject matter expert for some of Australia's iconic organisations, including Westfield and Goodman Fielder. He is now the Deputy CFO of Broadspectrum, a multinational contracting company that designs, funds, constructs, operates and maintains major projects and infrastructure assets across diverse industries. Previously known as Transfield Ltd, Broadspectrum is a member of the Ferrovial group of companies with an annual revenue of $15 billion.
Like many professionals in the finance community, Nick established himself as a subject matter expert quite early in his career. In his case, the subject was Treasury. He developed some foundational skills in this space that he later managed to leverage and expand into his broader finance leadership roles.
You could say that Nick is a bit of a mould-breaker, which is one of the reasons why we were so excited to interview to him recently on The Outperformer webinar. In this fascinating interview, Nick shared his experience and expertise in:
- Taking the parallels of experiences as a Treasurer into broader finance roles
- Taking on challenges to stretch into new and high-profile roles
- Growing as a people manager and leader
- Using problems as the opportunity to grow
The full session with Nick is available on our webinar page, which can be accessed by clicking the link at the end of this blog. In the meantime, however, here are a few of the most interesting take-outs:
Use What You Know
Nick feels there are definitely a few parallels between what worked effectively for him as a treasurer, and what works for him now as a deputy CFO. He has carried these forward as he’s progressively expanded his remit.
“There are three key areas where skills I learned as an SME helped me be successful in broader roles,” says Nick. “The first is expertise and ability. As a subject matter expert, your company is relying on you. You have to be strong in your field, and you have to deliver. It’s crucial to demonstrate that you can properly manage the function. The second is influence. You can use your specialised knowledge, which people are actively looking to you for, to help make decisions. The third is trust. You have to make the stakeholders trust you. As an SME, I was presenting to the Board, a senior group of people, and they were looking to me for advice. As I moved into bigger companies, these three key areas helped me leverage my detailed knowledge while at the same time performing my broader role.”
Turn Challenges Into Opportunities
Like many SMEs, Nick found that an important development was convincing people he could step outside the SME role. “Someone who hasn’t seen you work, and who doesn’t know what you’re capable of, will find it more difficult to trust you with a broader role,” he says. Nick was fortunate that he had a very supportive CFO who championed him in his quest to make the leap into a more diverse role. “Challenges are not always within your control,” says Nick, “and by giving me a chance, my CFO’s neck was on the line as much as mine.”
Nick believes his CFO was prepared to stick his neck out because he’d seen Nick take on more and more responsibility within his SME role. “I was constantly expanding my skills in steady, incremental steps,” says Nick. “This meant my CFO could see I could be relied on to tackle new things. I had also let him know that I wanted to expand and be given new challenges. You have to communicate this – don’t just assume they know.”
Nick says many people, when faced with a challenge, are simply overwhelmed. This is where perspective and common sense can really save the day! “You need to realise it is a job, not a matter of life and death,” he says. “Take a deep breath and simplify the challenge. Break it down. Be clinical and methodical, and show your stakeholders you have a plan, but you’re not going to fix things overnight. Give progress updates – showing constant progress lets people know you’re on top of things. In this way, you’re buying the time you need to do what you need to do.”
Learn To Lead
It’s important to remember that a manager is a manager of people, of a function, of objectives. They are not necessarily technical experts. Nick is the first to admit that people in his team probably know more than he does about most things – except, of course, for treasury.
“You have to leave your ego at the door,” he says. “When there’s a challenge, it’s not about you being in contest with someone else, it’s about working as a team to solve a problem to get the best result for the organisation. As an SME, I managed small teams, and I was comfortable doing that because I was the so-called expert. I had the most experience, so I could direct and drive the team. Now, as the deputy CFO, I look after 350 people. Nothing really prepares you for that, other than your own common sense and integrity.
“I enjoy leading a big team, sharing our thoughts and ambitions. I also enjoy developing that team, because I’ve had the benefit of some really good development myself from my own bosses. I want people to do their role, but we also want them to learn new experiences and skills so that they can develop and grow.”
This is only a taste of the experience, wisdom, and insight Nick shared with us during his interview. To enjoy the full benefit of the entire talk, click here to listen to the entire webinar.