Principles for leadership, and building a career beyond "accountant".
He may describe himself as introverted, but successful CFO and General Manager Jonathan Peters has enjoyed a career – and indeed, a life – that is anything but. Originally from New Zealand, Jonathan is a true citizen of the world, having worked in the UK, Japan, America, New Zealand and, of course, Australia. He is currently the GM for fast growth business, The Real Pet Food Co, which was recently named as one of the most innovative companies in Australia - the only FMCG company on the list.
In an enlightening webinar with The Outperformer, Jonathan shared some of the wisdom learned during his over 30 years in finance and business. Included in his vast experience is being part of the New Zealand team that won the America’s Cup in 1995 - which, Jonathan says, is where he learned a lot about leadership simply by observing how it works in a successful sporting team.
In his interview, Jonathan shared his experience on transitioning from "accountant" to leader. He also shared his philosophy on thinking strategically and commercially as an accountant, and outlined what an executive is looking for from the accounting function.
Some of the key points Jonathan raised as he spoke to us about his journey and leadership principals were:
- Being empowered to come up with solutions that may not be perfect
- Partnering - understanding the difference between "noise" and "value"
- Leveraging the power of collaboration and tools such as town hall updates
- How to make the transition from CFO to GM "easy"
Perfection Is Overrated
Most people view finance professionals as fixated by details and obsessed with perfection. But does perfection actually serve a finance person when it comes to steering a business? Jonathan believes that it does – but only in certain instances.
“There are definitely areas of finance that have to be perfect,” he concedes. “Monthly numbers, reporting, tax and so on – those have to be accurate. But when it comes to looking to the future, and for planning strategically for the business, it can sometimes happen that you get so lost amongst the spreadsheets and the detail, and you’re focussing so hard on trying to make it accurate and perfect, that you miss the whole picture.”
Jonathan says finance people need to tell their leaders what they really want to know – and that is, what action needs to be taken to get back on par, for example, or to accelerate growth.
“Getting that insight as quickly as possible is important,” he says. “Many accountants come from an auditing background, where it’s all about being perfect. Perfection is right for those roles, but when you make the transition, while we don’t want to lose sight of the important of accuracy, let’s not make it Priority One. Speed, and having the right discussions happening, are more important. “
So, having been a CFO and Managing Director, what are some of the traits he wants to see in his own CFO when in the role of MD?
“Bring the facts, be on top of the trends, and don’t just tell me about potential things that could happen, but bring me solutions as well,” says Jonathan. “Just don’t spend two weeks doing it! Because in two weeks’ time, the situation has either changed, or we’ve lost the opportunity. I need someone with the confidence to bring me something that’s not perfect, but that we can look at and take action on if needed.”
Jonathan says it’s vital for a CFO to not be too ruled by numbers. “They need to be able to think about the cause and effect,” he says. “I have a very open door policy to encourage this. It’s important that they feel confident enough to come and talk to you. So, if you don’t like what they’re saying, don’t shoot the messenger. It’s not about assigning blame and making them feel like they can’t come and chat to you again. You can’t be everywhere and you don’t know everything - this is why getting insights from the team is so important.”
The Difference Between Value And Noise
Everyone in finance can be a business partner, and everyone wants to add value. But there is a difference between value and noise. So, how can you tell the difference?
Jonathan believes it’s absolutely critical to have a thorough understanding of the business you’re in. In this way, you can critically review information in the light of how it relates to the business. “Numbers will tell you a lot of things, but they won’t give you everything you need to find a solution,” he says. “You need to combine them with business knowledge in order to add value. And you can’t learn about the business from your desk. You need to get out there and touch and feel it.”
Transitioning from CFO to GM
Jonathan believes a key part of his success is thanks to his having experienced a lot of the sides to a business from a grass roots level. “I’m very practical, and I’ve learned a lot of things hands on,” he says.
There comes a time in the careers of most finance professionals where you find yourself at a level where you’re acting as a true business partner to the MD or GM. You end up managing the business with the leadership team, and you’re actively involved with business discussions.
“By the time it came to me taking over as GM, I had already worked alongside GMs, and had acted as a GM in an interim capacity,” he says. “You could say that I found the transition from CFO to GM easy because I had been on what was effectively a training programme for the best part of 10 years – without even realising it!”
Listen to the full interview on our webinar page, which you can access here.