- Chartered accountants are highly sought after as candidates for non-executive roles.
- Being an effective director requires skills beyond accounting, so accountants may wish to delay taking on a director’s role until they have optimised their existing career.
- Non-executive directors need to understand their complex duties and liabilities.
By Fiona Smith
Including an accountant on a corporate board is generally thought a “must do” and CAs often chair finance, audit, risk and remuneration committees. But accountants who are aspiring directors can no longer rely purely on their strengths as the ‘numbers person’ to win them a seat around the board table.
Heidi Mason CA, a board recruiter with Korn Ferry, says that accounting and finance executives keen to launch a career as a non-executive director now need to supplement their technical expertise with either hands-on experience of running a company or a history of working in a variety of companies and industries to show their breadth of leadership skills.
“What tends to come naturally to accountants and to finance professionals – and often gets them into the discussion around board opportunities – is that really strong understanding of finance and risk. There is an almost innate understanding of the technical part of the performance of a business,” says Mason, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry in Sydney specialising in board recruitment and CEO succession.
“The further you climb in your executive career, the more prominent your board portfolio will be. If you want to be a Top 100 director, ideally you will have worked in a Top 100 company – not necessarily as CEO, but in an executive role.”
It helps if you have faced adversity, she says. “Those times in challenging businesses or new markets or new industries teach us to take the expertise we have and think about it in a different way.”
Accountants looking to build a non-executive director portfolio need to learn to think more broadly about what the numbers are telling them about the performance of the business, emphasises Mason.
For some a professional company director course, such as those offered by the Australian Institute of Company Directors, the Governance Institute, or the Institute of Directors in New Zealand, can be an excellent step to get an understanding of the legal duties and responsibilities of a board career. These courses help explain governance requirements and how a board works in a technical sense. This can be a helpful addition to the professional training and standards that equip chartered accountants to serve on boards.
“I’m yet to find anyone who didn’t find that a useful course to do,” says Mason CA. She notes that even people who have been CFOs of large listed companies, very familiar with the workings of boards, get a lot of value from being in a cohort of people doing similar things.
But she adds that one common mistake accounting and finance professionals make in their career planning is to try to make the move to a non-executive role too early. “You have to make sure you rise to the top of your field. Optimise your existing career first.”
“I’m yet to find anyone who didn’t find that a useful course to do.”
Murray Lapworth CA, the chief financial officer at Rātā Foundation in New Zealand, completed the week-long company directors’ course offered by the Institute of Directors in New Zealand in October 2018.
“From my perspective, it was the most significant professional development that I've done in my life,” he says.
“It was the interaction with the whole group, eating together, staying together. Relationships were developed and the content and the calibre of presenters was outstanding.”
Lapworth – who is also on an advisory board to Morrison & Co Public Infrastructure Partnership Funds – says the course gave him a clearer view of concepts such as the four pillars of governance: determining purpose, effective governance culture, holding to account, and effective compliance.
The day after he finished the course, he began working through a four-page action list he had prepared during the week. “That list is still providing value six months after the event and probably will for the next year or so,” he says.
Penny Diamantakiou spent nearly six years at Yahoo7 Australia and New Zealand as group executive CFO before her appointment to the board of trustees of the Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands in September 2018.
She completed the AICD Company Directors Course in 2012, and describes it as a “great refresher” of her MBA.
“I think it's unusual that a 30-year-old would do the AICD course. I just don't think they would get the value of it because at that stage in the cycle of their career, they are still too far down the food chain and they are still learning,” she says.
“Whereas, when you are in your 40s and 50s, it is a great opportunity because you have more life and professional experience and have solidified whether you are a people leader, a subject matter expert or the head of a function.”
In 2015, Diamantakiou followed up with the AICD’s Boardroom Mastery four-day residential course. She says it gave her a “heightened sense of awareness” of the issues facing directors in Australia today.