“I think we need to recognise that the CFO role can mean a lot of different things in different businesses. It really depends on the type of business, their strategy and the type of skills they want the CFO to lead on.”Dan Wells, CFO at GrowCFO
Charisma. Persuasive. Powerful. These are qualities we often equate with leaders of the past. But times have changed. These days, leaders are expected to have empathy for everyone in the organisation. They are expected to have a vision and be able to communicate that vision.
Yes, they need to have charisma and be able to persuade others to follow, but more that, they also need to have competence and be able to show capability – be able to roll up their sleeves and do the work they expect others to do.
A common trait of many of the finance leaders FutureCFO spoke to during the course of the FutureCFO Excellence Awards 2023, is the quality of leading by example – by guiding through example, they inspire others to be the best at what they do.
Arguably outstanding leaders come out of the woodwork during times of crisis facing challenges head-on and leading their teams in the trenches.
The most challenging aspects of being a finance leader
Admittedly, it is not easy to face crisis after crisis, to keep one's head afloat as he or she swims through a myriad of challenges, many outside their control.
Chote Kiatruangamala, finance director at Supernap (Thailand), noted that during 2022, with the global inflation many firms had to downsize and realign themselves more closely to their business volumes while concentrating on improving cash flow. He commented that the ability of CFOs to drive these critical adjustments determines the success and surpasses the challenges.
"Given the dynamic (nature) of digital transformation, although finance professionals are often trained to have an eye for details, it’s essential to be able to interpret various small details into a more meaningful bigger picture to drive the business into a proper direction."Chote Kiatruangamala
He acknowledged that the role of finance professionals shifted from safeguarding assets to business support/partnering. "The ability to strike a balance between profitability and sustainability has become a key challenge for a finance leader to be effective in the current economy," he added.
For Boo Hui Yee, group chief financial officer at Malaysia Aviation Group (MAG), the extended border closures due to COVID-19 delayed market recovery. Coupled with high fuel prices and weakening FOREX these created a very challenging business environment for the aviation industry.
"Due to the fluidity of the situation, as a business, we had to dynamically manage operations and re-allocate resources to optimise the business outcome," she confided. "Inflation and supply chain disruptions resulted in higher cost of doing business. Cost management and discipline became very key in mitigating these higher operational costs."
Then there is the talent issue. "The pandemic saw many talents leave the industry as it was one of the hardest hit industries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bringing them back presents challenges on its own in part due to the slow recovery from the pandemic," she added.
One lesson from 2022
MAG's Boo admitted that post-COVID-19 the market dynamics and business environment have changed. "Markets are likely to remain volatile, supply chain network has shifted, and consumers are embracing digitalisation at an accelerated speed."
"As a business, we need to accelerate digital transformation and leverage on new digital technology to harness big data and provide timely and comprehensive end-to-end business analytics/insights/forecast to drive the right strategic decisions."Boo Hui Yee
She acknowledged that digital transformation is also critical to drive enhanced customer experience and operational efficiencies. "As a Finance Leader, it is imperative for us to support and help drive the digitalisation agenda to harness big data, enhance customer experience, drive process improvements and cost efficiencies," she added.
For Kiatruangamala, these past few years have taught him that a finance leader must have in place preparedness and a recovery plan for any decline in global economic activities, which can happen at any time, due to a financial crisis, a pandemic, or a war.
"None of us have a crystal ball, but there are several plausible scenarios, and some of them will happen. The companies which will succeed will be the ones with a visionary CFO ready to embrace changes," he conceded.
Success is not an island
A common theme among the leaders FutureCFO spoke to is the importance of others, both internal and external, in contributing to their success. "No leader can become successful without support from the team and I’m fortunate to have worked with many competent people in our organisation.
Kiatruangamala acknowledged that education and training as an accountant, in and of itself, could not possibly help him "navigate a data centre company with the world’s most advanced technology through its construction and commissioning stage without support from my fellow colleagues who are extremely instrumental throughout the journey."
"It is the team’s success, not mine alone and of course, it was only made possible with the support from many stakeholders which includes the MAG Board, my superior and peers," said Boo. "More importantly, support and commitment from my winning finance team who believed in the leadership."
Kiatruangamala recognised that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and the commodity and energy price volatility will perdure and impact further supplies globally.
"In Thailand, many organisations are still going through their digital transformation which the CFO need to incorporate into the corporate strategy financial planning and business process, and yield at maximum potential," he elaborated. "Lastly and not least, and to maintain a bit of optimism, 2023 could also be the right year to get companies ready for a potential rapid growth once upbeat economic conditions return."
Talent acquisition and retention will remain a challenge for the aviation industry, according to MAG's Boo. "Finding people with the right skills remains a challenge for the aviation industry after the COVID-19 pandemic," she confided.
Like Kiatruangamala, she sees the risk of recession in some major economies and continued financial market volatility impacting demand and business recovery. And specific to aviation, competition from new entrants to the industry will challenge incumbents like MAG.
Makeup of a successful finance leader
Kiatruangamala believes that the role of a CFO is to maximise the use of a company’s financial resources, ensuring the financial planning required to carry out the organisation’s strategy and goals.
"Often the right hand of the CEO, supporting him in strategic decisions, the CFO must be a big-picture thinker and detail-oriented simultaneously, especially for compliance and due diligence, among others, while being well-rounded with industry insights," he continued.
Conceding that 2023 will be another challenging year for the company, Boo said a CFO needs to be agile and nimble, innovative, as well as be credible and able to build trust.
Advise for aspiring finance leaders
Supernap's Kiatruangamala offers the following advice: "Be curious and talk with your peers and seniors. Understanding the business that you are in, the industry, the global and local economy, different strategies and outlooks will enhance your data analysis and assessments, enriching your capabilities to forward thinking and adapting to shifts in the market."
Boo outlines what she believes are attributes that will be important to becoming a successful finance leader. These include:
- Having a growth mindset to seek and gain as much exposure and experience/ knowledge in different areas of finance and other industries and embracing continuous improvements
- Having a customer-centric and value-creation mindset
- Always upholding the highest level of integrity
- Strong business acumen and technical competencies
- Ability to connect the dots and provide multi-dimensional insights to help drive business strategies and decision-making
- Ability to motivate, develop and inspire your team
- Ability to build trust and strong credibility
- Strong communication skills
* Editor’s note: Malaysia Aviation Group and Supernap (Thailand) were shortlisted in the FutureCFO Excellence Awards 2023 in the category of Leadership in Competencies and Capabilities.
* Editor's note: FutureCFO is inviting submissions to the annual FutureCFO 2024 Excellence Awards. Click here for more information.