Date posted: 22/02/2021 5 min read

How to progress from CA to the C-suite

The rise to CFO is not solely about financial planning; it also takes empathy, courage and resilience. Can that be learned?

In Brief

  • Being a good communicator is one of the key skills CAs need to reach the C-suite.
  • Nearly all the soft skills a CA must have to progress to senior roles rely on self-knowledge and awareness.
  • Modern-day mentoring involves teaching soft skills that complement technical knowledge and expertise.

By Matthew Brace

As CFO of Commonwealth Bank of Australia, a financial services group worth A$140 billion, David Craig FCA was responsible for leading about 2500 people across the finance, treasury, property, procurement, security, internal audit and investor relations teams. He was CFO of the bank from 2006 until he retired in 2017; a decade-long stint that, two years in, was struck by the turbulence of the global financial crisis.

“All of a sudden you need to know about all these elements, plus banking relationships, credit rating agencies and more,” says Craig of the CFO role. “You may well also have to lead an IT function and deal with the board and customers, as well as acting as a relationship manager across all of these areas.”

But Craig says CAs who want to advance to the C-suite need to “get good at leading across a much broader range of functions, rather than being the technical expert in their narrow specialism”.

A former CFO of Australand Property Group and partner at PwC Australia, Craig is now president of the mentoring organisation, Financial Executives Institute (FEI), which connects Australian and New Zealand corporate professionals with CFOs in ASX- and NZX-listed companies. The aim is to mentor these professionals to develop connections, communication skills and valuable networking skills.

It’s to prepare them for what Craig calls “the shock that can come with promotion to senior levels and ultimately CFO level”.

Nearly all the soft skills a CA must have to progress to senior roles “rely on self-knowledge and self-awareness, which you need to be a great leader,” says Craig. “Good mentoring programs make mentees aware of this and help them broaden and develop their leadership skills.

“Great leaders have to be authentic and for that they have to know themselves and be consistent and prepared to expose and acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses,” he says.

Why soft skills are in demand

It’s not as if mentoring is anything new. For millennia, Indigenous cultures have placed an emphasis on the teaching and wisdom of elders. ‘Mentor’ was a character in the ancient Greek poem The Odyssey charged with minding and guiding Odysseus’s son while the hero was away.

In the past 20 years, however, mentoring has transformed from a less formal, unstructured activity into a prescribed and accredited element of professional development.

Modern-day mentoring involves teaching soft skills that complement technical knowledge and expertise. Those soft skills include everything from empathy to authenticity, courage to resilience, effective communications to networking.

There are three main factors driving the demand for these skills. First, COVID-19 has severely tested the empathy of business leaders, to say nothing of their courage and resilience. They will need those skills for future pandemics and other crises.

Second, the growing importance of environmental, social and governance standards (ESG) has shone a much brighter spotlight on how leaders lead by example. Third, increasingly ‘woke’ younger employees are demanding higher standards and more transparency of their current and future employers.

The importance of aligning values

Underpinning these soft skills is a CA’s ability to understand who they are and how they tick. In other words — to echo the Ancient Greeks again — “know thyself”.

Nikki Thomas, a mentor at Business Mentors New Zealand and founder of Winning in Work, says: “If you don’t know who you are then you don’t know what you want to gain from your mentoring; neither do you know what you’re looking for.

“Knowing yourself also means knowing your values and whether your mentor’s values align with yours. If you get a mentor who has different values to yours, you’re not going to be able to connect with them or get as much out of the mentoring.”

This is particularly true of Gen Y, says Thomas. “Having grown up as mentoring became more and more formal, Generation Y and Z employees really value it, ask for it and are much more focused on the values of leaders and companies,” she observes.

“[There are] more jobs than there have been before, so smart CAs have more choices. I know plenty of younger CAs who have walked away from a company because of their values and policies.

“One of the big things now is about attracting and retaining the best employees. In order to do that, companies need to be seen as the best, not just because they are big, rich businesses but because they are also, for example, looking after the local community or the environment,” she adds. “The better coached or mentored a CFO is, the more likely he or she is to promote the values of the business. This, in turn, helps to make the company more attractive to talent.”

This was certainly true for Amy Ng CA, commercial and operations finance manager at GrainCorp, who completed the FEI program in 2019.

“When I am considering a position, my number one thing – before pay – is what values my manager (and mentor, if there is one) have and if they align with mine,” she says.

Through mentoring, Ng learned “that as a modern-day CFO you need to have an open mind”.

“CAs are very much on the technical and compliance side so mentoring helps you expand your mind beyond those technical skills. This is vital because being a CFO is much more than that,” she explains.

“Also, I learned that the path to CFO is not linear. There are many paths to reach that role but many CAs may only realise that once they go through mentoring.”

Amy Ng CAPicture: Amy Ng CA.

“I learned that the path to CFO is not linear.”
Amy Ng CA, GrainCorp

Why communication is a vital skill

David Lamont CA, BHP’s chief financial officer, has been a mentor for more than 15 years. He ranks communications as possibly the most valuable soft skill an aspiring CFO can learn.

“Years ago, I had a mentor who insisted PowerPoint slide headlines could be no more than four words. He told me a busy audience would read my headline and expect me to explain the rest of the information in my presentation. It made me understand how vital it is to communicate clearly and simply.

David Lamont CAPicture: David La.mont CA

“Years ago, I had a mentor who insisted PowerPoint slide headlines could be no more than four words.”
David Lamont CA, BHP CFO

“You must read your audience not just by listening but also by observing what’s going on in front of you. Are people engaged? Are they losing interest? This gives you a good idea of whether you’re hitting the mark or not, or whether you need to change tack.”

It’s a skill he has used ever since and it has worked well for him and his teams throughout his career.

For the five years before he joined BHP, Lamont was CFO at CSL, the Australia-based, global biotechnology leader and vaccine manufacturer. He was responsible for managing the financial aspects of CSL’s strategy, including financial planning and investor relations.

“At CSL, I had a communications person who helped write the messages but that person was a part of my leadership team, not someone I just brought in from time to time,” he says.

“They understood the nuances of what we were trying to say and I found that to be very valuable in keeping things clear and simple.”

How to build team culture

What this all leads to is a wish list of required skills for CAs who want to progress to the C-suite: a clear and open mind, a steady hand even in adversity, and an acute awareness of themselves, their teams, their organisation and the wider world of work.

Caleb Firth CA, finance manager with the Activate Faith Community Trust in Hamilton, New Zealand, and a recent CA ANZ Mentor Exchange ‘graduate’, says his mentor helped him develop professional leadership skills.

“Talking to an experienced CA mentor I got some real gems of wisdom which I have been applying since,” he says.

“One in particular was building team culture. We now have regular stand-up meetings to discuss how people are doing personally and professionally. The team members have really benefitted from these.

“Coming out the other side of COVID with a strong team working well together with a good strong culture is a real success. I put that down to the output from my mentor.”


The soft skills every good CFO needs

  • Know yourself
  • Let others be smarter than you
  • Communicate clearly & simply
  • Listen well
  • Be curious
  • Pay it forward

Read more:

Financial Executives Institute Mentoring Program

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