Date posted: 10/02/2017 6 min read

Paula Kensington-success at all costs

Award-winning CFO Paula Kensington has come a long way in a working life that began as a 16-year-old retail assistant

In brief

  • Paula Kensington was awarded CFO of the Year 2013 in the Thomson Reuters Tax and Accounting Excellence Awards
  • Use coaching, networks and social media judiciously to develop your own brand
  • Paula Kensington describes the CA ANZ-ACCA strategic alliance as “fantastic”

By Peter Williams. Photography by David Silva.

In many ways Paula Kensington should be seen as an outsider. She is a senior woman in what is still a male-heavy profession, with a CV that shows she has switched sectors. She is a Brit carving out a career in Australia, and an award-winning CFO who has never been to university.

But Kensington is also forward thinking – consciously developing her own brand through the judicious use of coaching, networks and social media.

Her achievements are all the more remarkable against a backdrop of tragedy in her personal life, which would have placed the career hopes of a lesser person on hold. Perhaps, though, she did have two advantages.

The first was insight into the accountancy world as both father and brother are Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) qualified. She is now a Fellow of the ACCA.

The second is that her first finance role was at a printing company, a sector where women were more likely to be adorning calendars by the presses rather than making decisions in the finance team. Prosper there and you could prosper anywhere.

Prospering Down Under

In her 30s, after a career based in London, Kensington decided to travel.

Arriving in Australia in 2007 she was so struck by the beauty, space and the relaxed pace of life that she applied for a visa.

She found a short-term contract job with payment provider KeyCorp but “the wheels fell off the company”, with a banking covenant breach prompting CFO, CEO and chairman to depart.

Kensington took up the role of financial controller. Within 12 months she stepped up to CFO.

“It felt like the loneliest time, like being on top of the iceberg with no one to help you.”

As CFO I am the communicator between the board, stakeholders and the business.
Paula Kensington, CFO ANZ, Regus

After Keycorp had been partly sold and the rest re-organised, Kensington was looking for a new role. She then suffered a blow. Her partner died suddenly in 2010. (She has subsequently married – on the 12th of the 12th month 2012.)

At fintech start-up Rubik Financial she won CFO of the Year 2013 in the Thomson Reuters Tax and Accounting Excellence Awards. The win recognised her role in turning around the loss-making quoted company, transforming the share price from 4c on arrival to 53c a share.

Paula Kensington, CFO ANZ, Regus.Kensington was determined to leverage that success and become more strategic over her career. Each January she asks herself “What do I want to do this year?” One of the answers was to become a CEO.

Overall only 5% of CFOs become CEO. But Kensington is determined to be one of the few. Her personal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis revealed communication was a weakness – “at school I was enamoured with maths, less so with English literature and language” – so she took a communications course at Sydney university, which covered rhetoric and storytelling.

“As CFO I am the communicator between the board, stakeholders and the business.”

Inspiring leadership

As well as communication, Kensington sees the CEO role as being about leadership and providing inspiration for others. So she has hired – at her own personal cost – a virtual assistant to put her brand onto social media.

As well as the forthright blogs, other strategic steps include speaking at conferences at least once a quarter and aiming twice a year for press coverage (so this article is another tick on the list).

Further research told Kensington that exposure across multiple functions increases the likelihood of making it to CEO. Her current role as CFO at Regus includes COO work.

“Knowing what goes on at the coalface is going to help to get me to a CEO role,” she says.

This role has “lifted the blinkers” as she currently has 12 sales people reporting to her. As a leader she’s determined to sit down with them and help them get to where they want to be.

“I’m going to get a better outcome than if I just asked them if they had met their KPIs.”

On purpose

Leadership for Kensington is about being the best she can be and helping others to do likewise.

“That is my purpose. I work with a business coach, and she spent 12 months trying to get me to articulate my purpose and I became frustrated and wanted to move on.”

The coach argued that once Kensington knew her purpose everything else would fall into place. People know in their heart what their purpose is, says Kensington.

“Losing my partner seven years ago showed me the fragility of life and that it is a gift. And we should live each moment as if it were our last. That doesn’t stop me running around like a headless chicken, but some people don’t realise that until they are on their deathbed.”

She makes little of gender differences, perhaps because of her two brothers.

“We all did our best to kill each other when we were kids.”

I left school at 16 with the only clarity that I did not want to be an accountant.
Paula Kensington, CFO ANZ, Regus

As part of her personal development, Kensington is involved with a “workplace ready” scheme at Macquarie University in Sydney where industry partners talk to accountancy students about what it is like to be a CFO.

“Both male and female students ask me how to become more confident, so I don’t believe that is a gender issue. But I do think that being female can help in the battle of egos. I will get what I want but do so in a softer way.”

Her advice is to find mentors away from work who can hold up a mirror to weaknesses and offer diversity by being from different professional backgrounds.

When going for a new job, she says the inner voice will challenge her capability for the role, but Kensington says it is a test of confidence to resist.

“Don’t listen to that fear-based voice that says you can’t do something.”

What about her 2017 personal targets? She wants to improve on influencing and continue working towards a CEO role. Turning 50 in 2020, she aims to have made CEO before then, or at least made a clear step towards it.

“Being an accountant I’ve even put it on a spreadsheet.”

The Chartered Accountants ANZ connection

Chartered Accountants ANZ and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) have announced a strategic alliance that aims to bring benefits to the members of both bodies.

The alliance aims to raise the profile of ACCA and CA ANZ members among employers globally, broaden the range of training and events available to members of both bodies, enhance the voice of bodies globally and bring together a network of 788,000 current and next generation accountants.

Australia and New Zealand are popular destinations for ACCA members and Kensington describes the strategic alliance as “fantastic”.

“As ACCA we’re not statutorily recognised in Australia so we can’t sign accounts. But this relationship is key not only on a practical level but also in helping give the profession a really strong voice and greater ability to influence. And it is vital that a professional association can articulate its values.”

For Kensington, accounting has provided a pathway into a globally-recognised profession. But it is not a path she expected to take.

“I left school at 16 with the only clarity that I did not want to be an accountant.”

Her first job after leaving school was in retail – which made her look at accounting in a different light.

“The ACCA gave me an opportunity without having a degree. I have been embarrassed by and silent on my lack of a degree for most of my career. I felt it wasn’t going to get me places. But now I have got places I realise I should be proud to have got there without the normal pathway.”

For more on the collaboration between Chartered Accountants ANZ and the ACCA, read our recent interview with Chartered Accountants ANZ CEO, Lee White, and ACCA CEO, Helen Brand, now.

Further information on the CA ANZ-ACCA collaboration be found on the CA ANZ website, or watch a video featuring CEOs of both organisations.

Peter Williams writes for the ACCA’s Accounting and Business magazine. A version of this story appears in the February 2017 issue of Accounting and Business.

This article was first published in the Feb/Mar 2017 issue of Acuity magazine.