- Mark Sacco CA and Tiffany Slater CA are two of six winners of the AFR’s 2020 Boss Young Executives awards.
- These awards are given to young executives who demonstrate leadership skills in a variety of areas.
- Being sceptical and inquisitive, and working smarter not harder, can help CAs grow beyond an accountant role to an executive.
By Stephen Corby
One of the hardest days of Mark Sacco CA’s working life came when he wasn’t actually working – just pretending to be. He was applying to be considered one of the Australian Financial Review’s 2020 Boss Young Executives, and it was a lot more arduous than sending in a CV and a convincing cover letter.
The personality-testing phase and the interview wasn’t so bad, but the big test was when he had to act as the CEO of a non-existent company for a day, while some slightly cruel people in another room, and some actors, set out to test his corporate mettle.
“The whole thing is designed to put you under maximum pressure and take you to the edge, to the point where you’re ready to give up, and it was one of the hardest work days of my life – you just get hit so hard,” Sacco explains.
“The whole thing is designed to put you under maximum pressure and take you to the edge, to the point where you’re ready to give up, and it was one of the hardest work days of my life.”
Sacco, 35, and Tiffany Slater CA, 34, are two of the six winners of this year’s Australian Financial Review’s 2020 Boss Young Executives awards, awarded to promising young executives who demonstrate leadership skills in a variety of areas. Previous winners include Nicolette Maury, managing director of Intuit Australia, Mozo founder Rohan Gamble and Michael Rebelo, chief executive of the Publicis Groupe.
Picture: Mark Sacco CA.
Sacco, chief operating officer at Light Project, which sells premium lighting products, believes his scepticism and inquisitiveness helped him succeed during the intense process of CEO role-playing, which he describes as being like “two weeks’ worth of work jammed into one day”.
Skills learned while studying for his CA designation came in handy, such as remaining calm under pressure and throwing himself into roles that he thought were beyond his ability.
“Obviously all the hard work I’ve put in has paid off. All the baptisms of fire I’ve thrown myself into have been worth it, because that’s the only thing that can prepare you for that level of pressure, those situations where you don’t have time to think, you just have to do, react and be yourself.”
Tiffany Slater, the other winning CA, is general manager of the women’s elite program at the NRL.
Acuity pointed out to her that the testing day sounded like those scenes from Apollo 13 where the astronauts are in the simulator, being mildly tortured by mission command with potential problems.
“That’s a great analogy because the simulation was actually quite realistic,” Slater says. “I mean, if every day at work was that hard, it would be difficult. But I’ve been through days like that, where you’re just in front of the laptop and the pace is so fast that you have minimal time to stop for anything.
“I had expectations that it was going to be intense, and it definitely was. It was mentally taxing, with back-to-back meetings, and I was pretty brain dead that night, but I really enjoyed the whole process. It was a real privilege to go through it and the people I met were fantastic.”
Picture: Tiffany Slater CA. Photo credit: Cameron Bloom.
While being put through the wringer, constantly aware that your performance and your leadership style are being assessed, was invaluable experience, Slater says the real pay-off came with the feedback – a 90-minute detailed debrief from the people at leadership development company DDI, which runs the testing.“That’s the gold – the feedback you get on your leadership style and strengths,” she says.
“Being a CEO, or being in any executive role, requires you to be a multidisciplinary leader and you’re required to work in an ever-changing, fast-paced dynamic environment, and this whole experience was definitely reflective of that.”
“That’s the gold – the feedback you get on your leadership style and strengths.”
Preparing for the top
Despite describing it as the sort of day he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy, Sacco says it was hugely beneficial. “You log into the simulation at 8am and there are already 20 or so emails ... and you don’t know it at first, but you find out that at 4pm you’re going to have to present a whole business strategy to your boss,” he says.
“Then they drop a meeting on you at 1pm, when you’re supposed to present your vision to your whole team. And then you have to performance manage one of your team members.
“Then there’s another surprise meeting, with a strategic partner company that’s thinking of pulling the plug, so you’re in damage control, and you have to save the relationship in the half-hour you have.”
Sacco says becoming a CEO is something that’s always been in the back of his mind, but before completing the program he didn’t feel ready. He says his boss is now talking about fast-tracking his progression to being a partner in his business.
“It’s such a huge confidence boost to win this award, and being given so much praise has been humbling and overwhelming.”
Mark Sacco’s advice for a young CA to grow beyond being an accountant
- Be sceptical and inquisitive – ask more questions.
- Learn all business processes, don’t assume it’s the same everywhere.
- Embrace making mistakes – the quicker you fail, the quicker you will succeed.
- Focus on the process, not just the results.
- Don’t undersell your skills: you don’t need to go backwards to go forwards.
Advice for a CA aspiring to be an effective young executive
- Never accept the status quo – drive continuous process improvement.
- Inspire others to have a growth mindset and a positive ‘can do’ attitude.
- Have a positive impact across all business functions, not just finance.
- Don’t build any resentment towards your colleagues – make your boss and everyone in your team look good.
- Working hard doesn’t mean you’re doing a great job; work smarter not harder, learn how to delegate and influence others.