"Automate dull and repetitive work where possible, focus on activities that add value." It's a mantra not many in finance teams will disagree with. Cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP), advanced data analytics, robotic process automation, and artificial intelligence (AI) are no longer elusive technologies of the future; they have become prevalent in finance and accounting departments' digital initiatives. The ongoing pandemic is also intensifying this digitalisation trend. In a Gartner survey earlier this year, board directors said funding IT and technology investments is a top priority to enable agile strategy-setting and real-time risk assessment and mitigation, and to drive growth.
But in this digital age, conversations about finance teams' skills should not be solely about technical competencies. According to the most recent Future of Jobs report by the World Economic Forum, soft skills dominate companies' attention. Organisations surveyed said top skills in the lead-up to 2025 include analytical thinking and innovation, complex problem-solving, and leadership and social influence.
As organisations work to preserve or restore their financial health, how can they build a team with the needed digital and people skills, an appetite for continuous learning, and the mental strength to deal with future uncertainties? For individual finance professionals, what are the skills to focus on today if you aspire to advance to more senior roles?
FM magazine spoke to finance leaders from across the globe from varied industries to find out what they are doing to enhance their own and their teams' skills. Here, we feature insights from some of them.
Are there professional skills you've learned recently and, if yes, how did you learn them and how are they useful in your current role?
James Miln: One thing I've really enjoyed over the last several years is getting into the investor relations role and that side of finance. What that has given me is the ability to interact much more closely with people on the board, the executive team, investors. I think it really helps on two levels. One is that outside-in, bigger-picture perspective that you get to what you're doing operationally, internally to the business. Second, one of the key things I've had to reflect on and consciously think about it is how to communicate information in that environment very clearly.
Coming back to this very data-rich world, I think it's increasingly easy to be too siloed and too narrow. I see this in analysts and managers and even directors today. You're very much amongst the trees, but you're not always looking at the forest. I have sought out opportunities to take on responsibilities of related areas like investor relations or to manage business projects, and this has enabled me to demonstrate my ability and my leadership potential. So if you look for those opportunities, they help accelerate your career.
Rajiv Chinniah: One of the key skills that we must have now as finance professionals is to think critically and analytically, and think outside the box. Over the last 18 months, we spent a lot of time trying not to be fixated on numbers but to also understand what the long-term strategy is going to be. As we progress into bigger and more senior roles, it is vital also to continuously develop our soft skills in areas such as leadership, influencing, collaboration, and communication.
At Coty, there is a strong focus on experiential learning such as working on key projects, taking stretch assignments, managing change, and taking lateral moves, as well as learning from others via coaching and feedback, mentoring, and networking. Darren Snellgrove: I've learned a lot about vaccines in the past year. That's been a real journey.
There have been a lot of financial pieces to the puzzle for us with the vaccine. We did something called not-for-profit pricing, which is kind of a new financial construct within the context of pricing. We've had a lot of involvement with the US government and government funding, negotiating with the government, working through all the situations on the vaccine.
We also have this pandemic. We've got demand from geographies around the world all at once. Everyone wants the vaccine yesterday. We had to invest a huge amount of money and manufacturing at risk without even knowing if we had a vaccine. And then it's never quick enough. Everybody is saying, "We need it yesterday. Where are you with manufacturing?"
What skills do you use to best deal with uncertainty? Can they be learned, and how do you learn those skills?
Matthew Hurn: I don't think you can learn it. I think it's a soft skill. It's about resilience. I think it's literally not being defeated at the first opportunity, and being OK with not being OK, and being OK to ask what you don't know. If [we've learned] anything the last 18 months, we realise we don't know the answers to everything, and therefore, we have to just admit, "I don't know". People come to you as a finance [person and ask], "What's going to be the impact of this?" The truth is we just don't know. We can help you run some scenarios and it could be A, B, or C, but in order to do that, we have to have X, Y, and Z to go through.
To cope with these things now, you've just got to let people feel empowered, and also show that there's a certain support mechanism for people, and really help them embrace a certain amount of resilience — and that's physical, and mental, and social resilience, and that's not easy because people deal with things in different ways. But I think having empathy as a leader for staff of today is probably one of the greatest qualities that you can get, and unfortunately, it's not taught in many books.
Sergey Mamonin: We need to concentrate on two things in order to navigate the organisation through this uncertainty.
First of all, it's the ability to forecast what will happen. Classically, we were more keen as finance professionals to look only at the big trends. Whereas right now the economy is becoming a little bit different. It's not the big trends; it's rather a combination of the small trends, which get into patterns.
The ability to work with these patterns is becoming more and more critical in order to fulfil the forecasting role; the ability to explain what is happening on the market in very simple terms.
The second [skill] is that no matter how good you are at forecasting things, there always will be an element of unpredictability, and we need to be able to build the systems that are flexible enough in order to cope with this uncertainty.
The [further] skill is don't be afraid to try and don't be afraid to fail. Not all of the tools coming up are as big as SAP. There are a lot of good, nice, small applications which make your life much easier.
If you were just starting your career in 2021, which skills would you be focusing on?
Miln: I'm going to say two very contrasting things: manage the complexity of data but keep an eye on the strategic bigger picture. First, I think data skills seem increasingly important when we're clearly in a very data-driven world now. My career started at Unilever, went to Yahoo!, eBay, and now I'm at Yelp. Even for Unilever, I'm sure they're seeing more commerce online, more engagement with their consumers online. They're tracking more than I used to be able to do when we were trying to run marketing mixed models and find out which form of marketing would have the best ROI.
You can imagine at Yahoo!, eBay, and Yelp everything is like that. When I did my CIMA back in the '90s, IT or technology was one of the modules. It was sort of like, "What's this?", and it seemed very boring. Now, in my career, the ability to understand concepts around the governance and application of digital data as a young analyst, to have the skills to be able to manipulate and analyse alongside data scientists and analyse other functions, I think is really important.
Second, what finance often can bring is an understanding of the bigger picture and the linkage to strategy. If you want to stand out, you've got to be that person who can connect the dots and see the bigger picture.
Snellgrove: It's always important to start with a broad base of skills early in your career and get lots of diverse experiences and training and education. But then you want to zero in on those skills that are going to make a difference. The ones I would pick out would be strong analytical skills and particularly evaluation and risk analysis. Learning a variety of different techniques and approaches to financial analysis and risk analysis and knowing when to apply those can be really important.
The right type of analysis at the right time for the right situation to really influence the business decisions is what gives you a competitive edge. And the other thing I would say is if you can take that a step further and use analysis to understand value creation and what drives value for your business, then that's going to be a game-changer.
What are the skills you look for in new hires?
Magdalena Wereda-Kolasińska: I am interested in having team members with advanced knowledge of management accounting, Excel, BI tools; and an open-minded approach with the ability to "connect the dots", which are usually not very obvious.
I think that especially in today's circumstances — in which we are working virtually — we need to adapt to this new world as fast as possible. We need people with a mature approach to responsibilities, good "people skills" (such as having empathy and listening attentively), the ability to support other team members, and a focus on personal development.
How do you see the role and the responsibilities of finance changing in the next five years?
Jesmin Ehsan: Since I work in a technology company, it's very important to understand how the technology is moving and growing, the importance of AI and digitisation. We used to do a lot of things manually like downloading reports and creating tables. Now we have an automation department, which downloads the reports for all management users and adds comments to the reports. So instead of focusing on the history, I can look at the trends. I can focus on the future.
So automation and digitisation, these things will change our work, and we need to keep learning and evolving. We cannot say this is not finance, this is operations, or this is sales, or this is sourcing. We must understand what these guys are doing because, at the end of the day, how our company is performing is reflected in their numbers, and we are the responsible party. We have to know what is generating the financial numbers.
Rohit Kharbanda: Artificial intelligence and blockchain are pushing us to reinvent our work. Artificial intelligence will become the new foundation. There are different skills we'll have to incorporate in our talent model and our workforce.
We have some intelligent systems available that support analytics. Data governance is now more system-based with the new ERPs and integrated solutions. The basic finance transactional jobs are slowly and gradually being taken over by the bots. What we increasingly expect of a finance professional is leadership, judgement, and insights.
Different roles will emerge with these changes, the likes of business solutions architect. These people will create the artificial intelligence, and then you need the workforce to work with this artificial intelligence. This includes financial data modellers, business planning analysts, etc.
While working with artificial intelligence, we must maintain the financial and regulatory requirements. That is a separate skill to maintain and nurture.
The big data available can be utilised to bring outside perspective into your organisation and influence the decision-making. We will need a workforce of data miners and data scientists.
Leadership skills are also going to change. As leaders, we'll have to have new skillsets to manage this kind of a blended workforce.
Top 5 skills for 2025
Companies expect these skills to become vital in the coming years:
1. Analytical thinking and innovation.
2. Active learning and learning strategies.
3. Complex problem-solving.
4. Critical thinking and analysis.
5. Creativity, originality, and initiative.
Source: Future of Jobs survey 2020, World Economic Forum.
Reskilling and upskilling: ROI time period
The largest portion of companies expect ROI on reskilling and upskilling to be between six and 12 months.
Alexis See Tho is an FM magazine associate editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at Alexis.SeeTho@aicpa-cima.com.
"Top Finance Skills" is FM magazine's series on skills needed to further professional development in finance and accounting. Full interviews with all finance leaders are available at fm-magazine.com.
Business Partnering in the Digital Age, a thought leadership report that explores how business ecosystem change and new technologies, accelerated by COVID-19, are transforming business models and affecting the role of the business partner; available to members at futuremindset.cgma.org.
Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA provides help with finding a job or recruiting. Visit mycareer.aicpa-cima.com.