Story by Laurent Kababbe, CFO of Louis Vuitton, Brazil
For many of us, a career in finance is a deliberate choice, however in my case, it wasn’t originally my target career. It is funny how some decisions we make lead us to a path that we could not have envisioned at the time.
In my case, I ended up in finance as a career following multiple attempts on the commercial and operational side of business. What attracted me to this career was the engagement and involvement across a wide scope, touching all aspects of the organization. At the same time, the high level of involvement in problem solving and analytics that I enjoyed. Besides my controlling nature could not resist getting delighted by having to deliver some news about financial incompatibility or pertinence.
Fast forward 16 years later, today I am a CFO for an entity of a multinational retail brand and this is in fact my first C level experience in an organization. What I would like to share with you is inspired by my own experience of how I moved from being a controller or a support function to a true strategic business partner. When I finally “got it”.
Finance professional stereotype and nicknames
“Bean counters”, “gate keepers”, “control cops”, “number crunchers” – all of these are nicknames generated by many non-finance types that come from various parts of organizations we work in to describe what would a finance person represents to them.
I actually can have many arguments to defend the case of finance professionals and accountants, but the obvious ones would be; finance professionals out there in the world do actually fight against fraud and white collar crime and actually support to sustain a healthy viable organization. These professional do not operate in isolation from the rest of the organizational community – on the contrary they need to exert higher interpersonal skills to establish a constructive and dependable relationship with their partner enough to say No to them at times and still maintain that relation.
Role of a controller and what I have learned from that
I spent a long time in my career (over 14 years) learning to become a good controller. Learning is a key word here, as I always believed that information is power and I have always thought that knowing about all facets of the organization even going into detail at some point - was never too much information for me.
In this time, I was on a mission to acquire all the knowledge I could – I wanted to attend as many meetings, document everything I was exposed to, and volunteer in various cross department projects. I did this because I enjoyed it, but also because I was able to learn more about other functions that related to my success in my role. My mindset was that if I am to communication to a marketing, production, legal, logistics or HR individual, I will need to understand their world in order for me to explain, challenge or manage their expenses. The more I knew the more I can possibly save!
Other than being called the gate keeper and police man by some departments, they could not help but showing also respect as I have actually been able to speak their jargon and understand details that no one outside their department could decode. This curiosity and hunger for learning eventually helped me to contribute guidance and better visibility on both spend, and the feasibility of key decisions and plans.
Becoming a CFO - a daunting responsibility
The moment I got that promotion, I knew that this was a pivotal moment in my career. Finally, I was able meet one of my career goals that is to make it to a C level for a multinational before reaching my forties! When that dream became a reality, I didn’t realize that it also brought along with it some nightmares.
I began to doubt myself, asking “Am I really able to this?”
My saboteur’s voice was piercing thru my head.
I kept feeling like a fraud or an impostor in my role. I thought that if I work harder, later and longer hours I will be able to redeem myself from feeling that way, but alas that strategy did not work at all to my favor.
In fact I had a complete burnout at start – I could not function, nor stay focused. A skill I had normally viewed as a strength.
How was I going to move out of this phase?
I really had to go back to what I knew best. That is becoming first a great controller of the entity that I was in charge of. I reflected back to learning about everything and anything that my mental capacity can grasp, by going back to basics.
I started by appreciating the value chain flow of the entity; how everything connected and how we produced revenue. Then, to the complex; tax systems, information systems, data flows. Getting into the mechanics of my function allowed me to feal at ease with the information I was dealing with.
Then, I moved to focusing on connecting with the other departments outside of finance and I got to learn what they do as well. My curiosity motivated their their interest to share more with me, and consider how we could partner of different plans and projects they were working on. From a previously overwhelm state, I’d progressed to generating impactful conversations across the business and now was being invited to meets that finance had previously not been invited to. In fact, I very quickly shifted to the “trusted advisor”; being asked for opions, insights and perspectives on a range of topics and issues the business was dealing with.
Following this period of intense learning and bonding – my confidence level rose significantly. At first, I was scared of being perceived as an impostor because I had not taken the time to really “own” my new role. In fact, I was really scared that I may not be able to rise up to my own expectations, which stopped me from initially doing the things that I was very good at in the past. It took some time and a lot hard work, but I had moved to being able to “live” the CFO role.
Reporting to a non-finance person
What I found quite interesting at the beginning of that role is that I got to talk many more to non-finance people. As you would expect in a CFO role, I was actually reporting to a completely commercial person. It didn’t dawn on me at the beginning that I was working with a boss who does not understand financial statements and the accounting principles, and it really wasn’t his interest either.
How did I perceive that difference?
Initially, I was just getting frustrated with not being able to get through to him and really have him interested in the subjects that I was raising to his attention. I kept thinking that he is just not interested in knowing about the financial performance of the company or any risk that can possibly arise – be it a risk on taxation, some compliance matter or anything beyond the top line and bottom line. Unfortunately, I kept repeating the same mistake by pushing the information to him in the common format that any finance professional would understand – as a traditional P&L, cash flow statement, some various KPIs on operating expense. I was really adamant to know how to get through to the CEO by continuously changing the format of the “kick ass” pivot or excel tables.
It didn’t work.
After working through this situation in my mind, I decided one day to actually follow his marketing background. To help him become interested, I started putting more focus on headlines, introducing graphs, colors, traffic light reporting, and really presenting less data and more story telling.
His attitude changed, quickly!
What is really the difference between reporting to a finance person and a non-finance person?
When engaging and dealing with a Finance person; you will find it much easier to use financial jargon. They feel comfortable talking about consolidations, cost of sales, margin elimination, reconciliations, depreciation etc.. Additionally, the conversation is more systematic and oriented towards controllership, validation, approvals and tying up loose ends. As a fellow finance professional, you should normally feel completely at ease with the details and/or the complexity of the information, which usually makes this “peer to peer” conversation more fluent.
On the other hand with reporting to a “commercial” person; it is almost exactly the opposite. You need to be mindful and selective about the terms used in presenting an idea. You may not necessarily want to go into complex and detailed financial analysis. In fact, most of this is just noise to them, and they prefer to keep the conversation short and direct to avoid losing sight of main purpose.
Having been through this learning curve, I always work out a way to link the discussion or argument to the impact on the bottom line or cash flow in order to substantiate the effect of what you are attempting to put forward. This instantly grabs attention and drives action.
Last but not least, I move my focus to the big picture and headline messages that help illustrate the most relevant stories. Often the CEO want to understand how the message is branded and how it influences big picture issues, rather than the details or analysis behind it.
What did I learn from my partnership with the CEO?
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.” – Bruce Lee
I love this quote as it really summarises most of my learning from this experience.
Do not cling to what you already know. You may start as an accountant or controller, and master that function, but as you climb up your career ladder you will need to focus less on what you’ve already mastered in order to give space for new skills and interpersonal traits.
This can be more applicable indeed to finance professionals, as it is the type of career that initially has you highly detail-oriented, and requires you to be on top of your technical knowledge around compliance, taxation rules, IFRS and so on. As you get the chance to grow into bigger roles, you will need to balance your financial knowledge with focusing more on what many overlook; interpersonal and communication skills.
In doing this, I believe there are three key shifts you will make:
- It is important to demonstrate uniqueness, leveraging an amalgamation of years of experience and exposure to different ideas, challenges, emotions and decisions. Taking this experience will help you build your brand and impact others with the value of the knowledge you hold.
- At the same time, you will become more involved with people, understanding both your business’ customers and your internal customers. Each will have their distinctive “receptive language” and therefore you will need to be “shapeless” to deliver the appropriate expressive language to make best impact on them, and for your own achievement.
- Finally, you will need to demonstrate more flexibility, often considering multiple perspectives and understanding what would another leader will want to know, why they want to know it, and how it will impact their thinking.