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The Future of the Finance Profession: A CFO Perspective

By Brad Eisenhuth | Leadership, CFO, Eisenhuth |

In its report ‘Finance Matters: Finance Functions of the Future,”[1] PWC identifies four areas it believes will drive the evolution of the finance function, and dictate how the profession will look by 2030. It terms these: Navigation, Mediation, Resilience and Connectivity.

In this context, the terminology might be a little unfamiliar, but the report's conclusion is crystal clear. The accounting and finance profession is changing and “the new hypothesis involves the CFO and finance leaders playing a much more dynamic and facilitative role.”

According to some of today’s CFOs, that means emerging finance professionals need to embrace organisational change, be flexible in their career choice, invest in the right skill set, and play a central role in driving innovation.

Be Part of the Transformation

Historically the finance function has been more ocean liner than speedboat, notoriously inflexible and slow to react to change.

But according to PWC the finance function of the future will be defined by flexible and adaptive processes, near real-time reporting, and predictive analytics. Finance will be at the centre of organisational performance and to get there will mean responding to transformational pressures current finance leaders are already witnessing.

The biggest pressure on the finance function today is the increasing need to demonstrate value to the business, according to Luke Austin, CFO at Huawei Technologies (Australia) Pty Ltd.

“The business is asking everyone to justify their value add,” he says, and that means being proactive.

At Huawei, teams join projects and are assessed by the project leader, not their line manager, on the value of their contributions. It’s an incentive for staff to get involved in the wider organisation that also triggers a need for improved stakeholder management and interpersonal skills.

Developing and managing a network of key stakeholders is something Luke Austin admits wasn’t always a high priority but which he now agrees is vital for today’s finance function.

“We did an exercise at Huawei where we mapped out all our key stakeholders then recorded the amount of time we spent with them over a week,” says Austin, “the result was a heat map that visually demonstrated where we needed to spend more time.”

For Allan Tait, CFO at Melbourne University, the biggest challenge facing the finance function is the need to be more strategic.

Globalisation, the speed of decision making, and increased competition are all putting pressure on the finance function to be more collaborative, says Tait.

“There’s a trend towards a broader range of responsibilities,” he says.

And that means being better informed about the business and the drivers of the business.

Technology, as well as a deeper involvement in the business, is also at the heart of the transformational change facing the finance function, according to David Malek, CFO at Brisbane Airport Corporation.

"We are looking at utilising technology to enable staff to be more productive", he says.

New accountants used to cut their teeth in roles with a high level of repetition and manual process. As technology takes over grads and young accountants will be expected to hit the ground running.

“Technological change will force grads to be skilled enough to analyse data”, says Malek, “they will need to start asking ‘what do I see in the data?’”.

For Austin, technology is a pressure in as much as it’s changing people’s mindset.

“On-demand and subscription services are changing people’s expectation of the support function”, he says, “There is an expectation of more real-time reporting, issues addressed immediately, and constant communication with the business”.

Future-Proof Your Skill Set

The finance function of future will be expected to see beyond the numbers. Month end reporting will become real time and ad hoc, and finance teams will be under pressure to collaborate, form partnerships, and offer insights not just information.

Informal communication and a constant flow of information will replace formal monthly management meetings. Young professionals will need to have the breadth of knowledge, commercial understanding, and interpersonal skills to offer genuine business solutions, says Austin.

 “The industry will attract those that are flexible and quick to learn,” he says. The finance function of the future will no longer just be the gatekeeper.

Tait agrees, “Traditionally the finance function has been seen as a watchdog, not a problem solver.”

For finance professionals repositioning themselves as a strategic resource this will mean thinking more broadly about their role in an organisation, he says, whether its exploring opportunities within the wider finance function or the business as a whole. Emerging professionals need to seek early exposure to all aspects of finance in practice.

Having a plan to build capability and being agile and flexible in your approach to learning will also be crucial, says Austin. Recognise your long term career path probably lies with more than one organisation, so start building a network early.

“Over the years you learn about what networking works for you,” he says, “but you can’t just go from nothing to something overnight on tools like LinkedIn, you need to build it up over time”.

Finance professionals also need to build skills and competencies in areas that might not traditionally be part of the finance function.

The spread of digital technology including systems and software that replace manual work as well as the emergence of Fintech such as blockchain applications that disrupt traditional mechanisms for doing business will demand a more diverse skill set.  

“The technological evolution will expose a lack of skill and capability”, warns Malek.

Education and training to build these skills will be demand led, he says, University curriculum will evolve, and there will be more emphasis on work experience and internships that give exposure to emerging technologies.

Building the skills and knowledge to add real-time value to business decision-making is the challenge for the next generation of finance professionals. For current CFOs, whether they are ready for and excited by that challenge remains to be seen.

Stay Curious and Committed

Accounting and finance professionals of the future will become key drivers of the performance of every organisation they work for.

They will be expected to thirst for knowledge about the business, and bring passion and commitment to collaboration that are not the traditional hallmarks of a career accountant; not everyone will adapt. 

 “The feeling I get is that accounting graduates have gone into accounting because they are good at maths and they’ve been told there are some good opportunities’, says Austin.

Though there are exceptions, some still view the profession as a means to an end, he says.

Tait agrees that young professionals with a flexible mindset will achieve more than those who are just targeting a future finance manager or financial controller role.

Being flexible about the future will lead emerging professional on a non-traditional route through their career and build the key skills they need to meet the demands put on them by organisations of the future. The trick will be balancing that with the need to build the basic skills that are still part of what it means to be a good accountant.

“Those who have a grasp of first principles are better able to understand and deal with complex issues,” says Tait.

The risk is as emerging technology takes the grunt work out of entry level accounting jobs, young professionals lose the opportunity to build basic skills at the start of their career.

That will also change the emphasis on entry-level skills and has the potential to expose a lack of capability, says Malek. Graduates need to be prepared to come into a role that expects them to be analytical, questioning and curious. It will be a transition as those skills evolve.

At the same time, someone who can build rapport with the business will succeed, but that depends on softer skills which are harder to teach, he says.

If the need for a higher level of interpersonal skills and a better understanding of the business, coupled with the ability to understand first principles and deal with emerging technology all sounds like a huge challenge that's because it is.

It’s also a huge opportunity to be part of a profession that will be lucky enough to find itself at the heart of the action in every organisation of the future. Those who benefit most will be those who grasp it firmly with both hands.

Embrace and Initiate Innovation

Despite the apparent popularity of disruptive business models such as Airbnb and Uber, lasting organisational change tends to be incremental.  In reality, the finance function of the future won't suddenly appear overnight.

But it will appear, signalled by innovations that today’s CFOs believe will be led by emerging professionals and current leaders.

“Younger professionals will be more open to change and utilising new technology,” says Austin, free from “the burden of old approaches and old technologies”.

Emerging professionals will be the game changers; they will apply new tech to new ways of working and new business models will evolve from a generation of professionals who have grown up with information at their fingertips, he says.

While Tait agrees that emerging professionals have a role to play he also believes current leaders need to leverage their skills and experience to challenge the status quo.

Senior leaders will have to learn to lead a diverse team of individuals with technical skills that don’t necessarily overlap with theirs, he says, while emerging accountants will lead innovation through a holistic commitment to personal and professional development.

For Malek innovation is driven by everyone, but wholesale cultural change has to come from the top down, or it doesn't always get traction.

“Innovation means continuous improvement as well as a fundamental shift in the way things are done”, he says.

Emerging finance professionals will shape the finance function of the future, adapting their skills to meet the new demands of key stakeholders. It will also be a reflection of the changing nature of the world of those professionals.

To succeed in this new future emerging professional will need to embrace change, upskill, and take full ownership of their career.

 

The Outperformer provides accounting and finance professionals with the tools and support to reach their version of success, and enhance their career journey. Start building your skills, knowledge and network today at www.theoutperfomer.co

 

[1] http://www.pwc.com/us/en/increasing-finance-function-effectiveness/publications/finance-matters.html

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