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Get to know a CFO of the Year

By Adam Neyenhuys | CFO, Webinar, Leadership, Neyenhuys |
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Neyenhuys interviews Paula Kensington about career success, personal branding and the future.

This might take you ten minutes to read, but we're sure you will get some great value out of it!

Delivery

The ability to meet deliverables inside your role is a given. How do you convert delivery aligned with expectation into delivery that is seen as success?

To me, success is something that we need to be clear about what it looks like for all of us.

Firstly, I think we really need to act with clarity and purpose knowing what the rules of the game are. Being clear with each stakeholder's demands. I think managing outcomes that we can influence and deliver in agreed time frames is important. As finance professionals, we need to take the uncertainty out so we know what that success looks like. 

As a CFO, when I talk to a number of people about what my role is, it is clear it is about communication. We need to make sure we manage the filter from the top down and the bottom up effectively. Being really clear and knowing how to deliver the right communication to the right individual, stakeholder or group is really important.

What are the key things that stakeholders look for that defines success through functional delivery?

Obviously everyone is going to have a different agenda, so I think its important to know what each stakeholder is looking for from you so that you have clarity about what success looks like from their perspective. That way, you can deliver the message or the outcome in a way so that they can understand it and expecting it. A group of board members wants a different type of delivery than the management leadership team, so its being clear knowing what success looks like from each different party. 

As a CFO, what are the non-negotiable items that you look for from your team on delivery of outcomes?

Accountability is non-negotiable - they need to deliver. If they say they are going to deliver something they need to deliver it. It doesn’t almost matter the quality of that; depending of who you are talking to; in my team if you’ve got graduates, I want them to deliver me something and then I’m happy to work with the quality, and then you teach them as they go. If I’m asking a peer leadership manager to deliver me something, then I would be a bit concerned if it wasn’t of quality, but then that speaks of something different.

Stretch

What do or have you done regularly in your role that positions you for a possible promotion and how do you communicate that?

I’ve got a really high expectation of myself, so I’m always looking to do the best I can. I’m always trying to do my bosses job. So even from the early days when I qualified as an accountant it was very much going over and above what you needed to do so that you could demonstrate that not only could you do your job but that you found time to do more than that. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career because as a CFO now if I want to be a CEO then I have to help my boss look the best he can and if that means doing things that he should be doing then I’m happy to be doing them. Obviously there is a period of time that you would be happy to do them for, your doing these things in a safe environment, your not taking the accountability of that role, your doing it so that when you go out into the market you can say right now I know this is what I want to do. You have a little bit of experience under your belt from having done it. 

Where are the indicators in a role where you feel that you are ready to take on a new challenge and how often do you assess this?

I think daily. I’m always ready for a new challenge. I get bored really easily, so I know when I have outgrown something I can’t grow within the place I am. I have to go and grow somewhere else.

Before becoming a CFO, what are the actions that you undertook that were key to successful positioning for the CFO seat?

The actions that I took, it’s a good one.

Again it stems back from doing some of the role previously in a financial controllers position your still trying to think like a CFO and still thinking how am I going to do that differently. For me in my first move up to a CFO it was the right time and right place. I was really fortunate that the business I was working for at the time was an ASX listed business and it hit a bank covenant and a lot of people left including the CFO, the Chairman and CEO. They all left within a two week period, so I was found myself in a real sweet spot where I was it. In many ways, they gave me the opportunity to step up, not directly into a CFO role but step up into a Financial Controller's role. Do that for a year, then you can demonstrate that you have taken all of the right actions and are doing all the right things. Yhey’ve got trust in you. I was in that role able to move up after 12 months into the CFO position.

 

Reputation

How do you manage your reputation and your broader network?

Reputation - its all about your brand. I’m a big believer in networking and I guess I didn’t know what that meant when I was in my 20’s, I understood what it meant when I was qualified and in my first 5 years in a finance role, but especially in Sydney, professional networks are so important.

Many people don’t really realise what networking and brand management means. I think its about good manners in a professional sense, where you actually meet people and have relationships with those people. You don’t have to network with everyone. If you don’t have an opening with that person, you don’t have to have them in your network. 

People in your network need to mean something to you and you need to mean something to them. Its important to foster those relationships throughout the 12 month period in the year, not just call them up when your looking for a new job, that’s not networking. So people just get upset by that because its simply rude.

How do you communicate to your network about your achievements?

I’ve never been one to hide my light under a bushel, and so I’m happy to tell people what I’ve achieved. Not bragging about it but just talking about it. I guess initially you can put it out on your LinkedIn profile, but then you talk to people about what it is, the project that you ran, the success. People just like hearing those stories. I went to a lunch this week with really successful women. They are looking at this Champion to Change business. There all in their 50’s and 60’s and I was probably the youngest in the room and everybody had such fantastic stories and journeys. This included serious people like the CFO at Westpac, Technology, the Executive Director at ING, the big hitters. Now I’ve told them my story, so now they know who I am and they will probably remember me because I’ve told them that I’m the only award winning CFO without a university degree. Sometimes you need to tell people something and they go “wow ok, that's the point of difference".

Who in your network knows on your career ambitions, and what do they do to support those plans? 

A lot of people know about it in my network now. I’ve been quite vocal in 2016 of where I want to go in the next 18 months to 3 years. I say to people I want to be a CEO. If I tell people I know its going to happen and the more people I tell the better it is and I'll tell my CEO that that’s what I want. He knows that, I’m not hiding it. I think you need to be honest and open. People in Sydney will help you with that because they see your strength and character and you come to mind when the next role comes up. They will say “I met someone the other day who’s CFO, she wants to get out, do the CEO gig, go and speak to her.” 

Internally, how do you effectively identify high performers that you align yourself with?

Key performers in our organisation are the key performers I’m looking for in the next level under us (the executive team. I’m really passionate about allowing them to bubble up to the surface, so a good leader will automatically allow that to happen. A bad leader is like a mushroom who protects people underneath them so that they don’t bubble up and potentially make them look bad.

In our business, we are "delayering" that. I go out to people in the business that have already stood out for a particular reason. I talk to them individually, have a coffee with them and ask them where their career aspirations are so that if their leader is having that "mushroom effect", I’ve gone around it and met them individually to have a mentor-type relationship. It gives them the opportunity to know they have been seen, because often when your under that mushroom cloud you get frustrated because you feel like your boss is smothering you with his or her blanket of not being able to be a good leader. If that's happening, no one else can see me either.

We do things like creating a "talent pool" as well - it allows people to bubble up. It does come down a lot to the manager because if they think a team member is good then they put them up to the talent pool. 

How did you find your Career Sweet Spot?

 

Clarity

When did you realize and formulate clarity on your ability to reach the CFO chair, and how did you turn this into a reality?

I was thinking about this, and if I’m honest with myself, when I came to Australia, it allowed me a bit of clarity.

I had already taken the previous year off, so that kind of got me thinking differently. I think that’s important if your going to become CFO; you need to think differently and take yourself out of what got you here because that’s not necessarily going to get you to the next step.

For me, when I came to Australia I started doing something I'd never done before, I started meditation. Doing meditation actually stops the "thinking mind". The thinking mind tells you, you cant do something because you’ve told yourself for the last 10 years you cant do something. But if you actually turn that off and listen to your heart and your gut feeling and you know you want to be a CFO, then that’s what you have to listen to. You have to turn off that fear and get around that and stop telling yourself you cant do it because in actual fact, you probably can.

We all have strengths and weaknesses. How did you leverage strengths to achieve in your career? How did you work around and understand you weaknesses at the same time?

I’ve never been one to shy away from telling people I want to do something more. Strengths, I’ve always put myself up wanting to do more and tell people that I want to get involved in things outside of whatever my job description at the time said it was. Being that outward going, sociable type person, I think was unusual 20 years ago in the CFO type role, where you are actually outwardly looking and communicating, I think that’s important. A lot of finance people tend to be a bit introspective. That wouldn’t be a word that I would associate with my behavior.

What I do every year is set myself up a strategy for that 12 month period. So I have an overall career strategy that’s probably a 3 year plan but every year I set myself up and ask myself what is it that I want to achieve this year. Where do I think my skills gaps are and where do I think the areas where I need strengthening.

Its important to understand where your skills gaps are and weaknesses are and actually do the best you can to work on them.

For example, presentations were not something I was familiar with doing on a regular basis. Now I go out and I do presentations and put myself out there, not just because I like doing them, although I do like doing them, but because the more you do them the better you get at doing them. So that weakness can become a strength.

You really have to work on them. Seeing your weaknesses is important. A lot of people don’t have the emotional intelligence to realize that they have weaknesses that are slowing them down.

High Performance

What were the achievements that you believe became the catalyst to growth in your career?

Getting involved in areas in a safe environment. When I think back to my first finance role after I was qualified, I had a really good boss and mentor who really helped and took time to work with me. They got me involved in things.

At the time, we had a business that bought out another business, and I was involved in the acquisition and integration. All of the really good operationally focused pieces of work and I was doing that in a safe environment because I had a really good boss at the time that allowed that to happen. 

I think that it is really important to get goals in a safe environment because then you are allowed to fail as well. It’s those learnings from not succeeding that really help shape you. I was really fortunate to have a safe environment which gives you the confidence to take on risks when perhaps you would't if you are not in a safe environment. 

Many accountants “achieve”, but how do you ensure you are taking action that serves as “high performance” in the eyes of the business, board and customers?

Achievement for me is about achievement of others. If I’ve done something well it means I’ve given someone else the opportunity to better themselves. When I think of my role here at Regis, its really around the talent of others. What I’m really focused on is helping others be successful in their roles, giving them empowerment and the best frameworks; safe frameworks that helps shape them be the best they can be. There are people sitting out there in Australia in our business who are not getting the right direction and support and are sitting there waiting to be told what to do next. We need to get over that and allow them to feel empowered. These are kids, 25 year olds at the start of their career. You have to try and reach out to and bring them along on the Regis success journey. I think the more points of contact you can have with them in different ways and tell them the same messaging, the more they are going to get it.

Influence

What is your approach to working with people through change? Do you have a particular way of thinking when it comes to influence?

Change is something I’m really passionate about. I talk about that in my profiling. I talk about transforming and change management.

The world’s been changing quickly now for the last 15 years. Its got a bit tiring talking about change management. It’s all about changing every time. And there are still people that really don’t like change. But again, you have to help people see there is a better outcome if you do things differently. Be clear with your messaging and keep it constant so that you keep coming back to basics. What can we do, what can we change in our roles, how can we change business processes and give them the opportunity to bring up those ideas to you about how you can manage change?

When I think back to the role I was doing before at Rubic, we had such a transformation in that 3 year period. We went from such a small entity to a huge ASX listed entity. I liked it at the time. I had a new team, and new teams are a lot easier because they don't have to change, they are just running with change anyway. They don't have to stop something they did before. Then I had 3 or 4 members of the team that had been there for about 10 years. They were the hardest people to get onside so you could actually start running together. You really have to make sure everybody is on board otherwise it can be really draining.

How do you keep yourself focused? When times become tough, which they inevitably do, how do you manage yourself to remain effective?

I think it’s important to keep the eye on the prize. What it is you are actually aiming for. Not to be blinkered but to realize that there is the end goal. Perhaps it has taken a different path, meandered a different way, and that’s ok, but keeping the focus on what you can achieve as a business is what keeps me focused.

Networks

Who are the people in your career that have had the biggest influence on your effectiveness and success?

I spoke earlier about the first finance role I was in and I think my CFO then and finance manager were really instrumental in giving me the opportunity to take on lots of new work. That’s when I got my qualification as well, so that was really important. 

You never stop learning in your life, and I think that its really important to realize that. In the last 3 years since I won the award CFO of the year in 2013, its been instrumental in me realizing that I have got to work on "Paula the brand". I now have people in my "tool box" or network whom I keep in my inner circle. I have people in my outer circle and then I have got 2 or 3 or 4 people in my inner circle. One of those is a coach and a communications and strategy person.

Monthly, I work with the communications coach building up my profiling and trying to think about writing blogs. Setting up those tasks on an annual basis of what I want to achieve in the year. She helps me keep myself honest if you like. Having those monthly meetings with her will ensure that I keep building my personal brand. Otherwise, people will say I never have time for that because life is busy, you never have time to do it unless you sit down and force yourself and make the time. 

What relationships have you built outside of your business that still support and add value to your career?

With my ACCA accounting body. When I came to Australia I met another ACCA member from Ireland. We met through work, and he introduced me to this panel and they met quarterly. I realised then that if I was going to join this panel which is the bridge between the members here and London (which is where the head office is), that I actually wanted influence over it. I wanted to be the Chair, so I actually got onto the panel and then got myself voted as Vice Chair, and then you get yourself voted as Chairman. Now, I will be chairman for the next 2 years. That allows me to go back to London and go to the International Assembly and meet the ACCA Executive and meet other panel representatives from other global countries. Now I’ve looked at it and the next steps are going onto global council and potentially the next step then is presidency.

That could be a 10 year strategy for me that started off as going along to a panel meeting when I came to Sydney.

Those networks are really important. I met someone yesterday at the lunch I was talking about. She was the Deputy President for the IFOAB International Federation of Accounting Bodies. If ACCA is here then IFOAB is here. So I was talking to her about my journey through the panel and how I now want to President of the ACCA and she said “don’t worry about that you can be President of IFOAB.” 

All of this is happening outside of my day job and none of this is paid work. I guess I’ve got into it because I’m a passionate ACCA member and I wanted to make sure that I future-proof the accounting profession and that I support the next generation. Its also about growing a person as well. There are lots of different goals in there, but I don’t get paid for any of that. You have to make investments along the way for the greater good and a better journey.

The Future

What excites you about the future in your career? What are you hoping to see more of from the accounting and finance community?

My career is exciting. I think my next move will be a CEO move. I’m not sure where yet. I haven’t honed in what type of company I’m looking for but I know that will be my next move and that will probably be the next two or three years time. Its exciting.

I'm passionate about growth of other people and the business. The numbers and adding up financial accounts and delivering a set of monthly accounting really doesn’t do it for me anymore, I want to get involved in the bigger picture of running the business and I think I’ve been doing it for the last three years anyway. Finance is a really good platform to bounce off and go into operational type roles, so I’m not sort of saying that I should never have done a CFO role because that’s what’s gotten me to where I am today.

What do I think is going to happen to the accounting and finance industry?Obviously its going through turmoil at the moment. I’m involved in talking at to Macquarie University about the future of accountants and what does it look like. It does worry me about all this offshoring and what are the graduates going to do. If you don’t learn something through experience how are you ever going to get a knowledge base that a lot of CFOs today have got. I’m not sure how that’s going to pan out.

I think a lot of business will do a full circle within a 5 year plan. What’s exciting now is offshoring and in 5 years time it might all be about bringing it back and doing things differently again. I heard this week that KPMG have set up a university in the UK, so that’s quite an interesting disrupter. It will be interesting to see what happens over here.

I think the future of work generally is changing. Gone are the days of busting your gut working from 8.30-6, 5 days a week for the same company. It is so old fashioned. We talk about technology as being a disrupter over the last 12-24 months. I think employees are going to be the next disrupter. 

Gone are the days of plodding to work and doing your job 5 days a week. People want to be excited.

We talk about collaboration, and I get the feeling that one person might work for 3 companies in one year at the same time. Its not about being a consultant. Its going to be today I work for company X, Wednesday I work for company Y and then Thursday and Friday I work for company Z. They might be in the same sector, they might not be. But there is that flexibility that’s going to come into the workforce. I can really see it and I think employees are really going to be the next disrupters.

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