Finance leaders spotlight vital skills to thrive in business

Rajiv Chinniah, ACMA, CGMA, CA (ANZ), CPA (Australia), the CFO of Coty ANZ; Jesmin Ehsan, ACMA, CGMA, Ericsson’s business controller for Singapore, Brunei, Philippines, and Pacific Islands markets; and Sergey Mamonin, ACMA, CGMA, the CFO for PepsiCo’s businesses in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States).
Rajiv Chinniah, ACMA, CGMA, CA (ANZ), CPA (Australia), the CFO of Coty ANZ; Jesmin Ehsan, ACMA, CGMA, Ericsson’s business controller for Singapore, Brunei, Philippines, and Pacific Islands markets; and Sergey Mamonin, ACMA, CGMA, the CFO for PepsiCo’s businesses in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States).

As economies gradually bounce back from COVID-19 impacts, finance leaders’ current priorities are to preserve or restore the bottom line while quickening the pace of digitalisation. To succeed, finance leaders must focus on building teams with a diverse set of skills.

In a Gartner report of finance leaders this year, 82% of CFOs surveyed expect to spend more time accelerating the digital skills of their finance functions. But at the same time, 78% of CFOs expect it to be a difficult goal to achieve in 2021.

Skills development must begin with identifying skills that are essential for employees and are specific to their daily work.

In interviews with FM magazine, leaders at organisations from around the world and across varied industries shared their thoughts on the skills finance professionals need as their organisations accelerate digitalisation. Complete reports on their insights in Q&A formats can be found at Top Finance Skills.

These leaders generally agree that traditional accounting skills are still the foundation of a well-rounded finance professional. But strategic thinking and the demand for communication and collaboration with colleagues and clients dictate finance’s essential competencies to help make sense of today’s multifaceted business environment.

Understanding technology enables strategic thinking

James Miln, ACMA, CGMA, said that the ability to engage in critical thinking and keep the bigger picture in focus is paramount. No longer can finance professionals succeed without broadening their scope.

Miln, senior vice-president of finance and investor relations at Yelp, believes that in today’s data-rich world, it is increasingly easy to be siloed with a too-narrow focus. But data can be used to paint a broader image.

“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,” he said, adding that what finance can often bring is an understanding of the bigger picture and the linkage to strategy.

The ability to understand big data and use it to predict scenarios and recommend strategy to management will give people an opportunity to be business partners at the decision-making level, said Rajiv Chinniah, ACMA, CGMA, CA(ANZ), CPA (Australia), the CFO of Coty Australia and New Zealand.

“The finance professional who is able to use the data and be the bridge between finance and the business is going to really thrive,” he added.

Rohit Kharbanda, FCMA, CGMA, CPA (Australia), pointed to the rise of robotics, artificial intelligence, data analytics, and machine learning as an opportunity for finance teams to take on a more forward-thinking role.

As a senior director at InterContinental Hotels Group in Gurgaon, India, Kharbanda is part of the shared services function and is responsible for strategic management and performance excellence at the hotel operator. He believes understanding long-term strategy is the most important skill professionals should develop.

“With automated solutions or robotics deployed to perform transactional jobs, finance professionals should focus on enriching their profile to focus on capabilities like strategic thinking, proactive monitoring of the external trends, and stakeholder engagement,” he said.

Fluidity is key in a dynamic environment

Fluid skillsets that encompass both technology and accounting fundamentals are key to succeeding in the ever-evolving world of business and finance. Leaders understand that fluidity will enable finance professionals to be nimble and adapt to change. The list below shows how learning and development experts ranked workplace skills.

Resilience and adaptability ranked most important

For Darren Snellgrove, a rapidly changing business environment, driven largely by technology, will dictate the skillsets of the future. Taking on new responsibilities and adapting to shifting circumstances is a challenge that finance professionals must get used to.

“[Technologies] like automation, artificial intelligence, [and] data science are the reason why I see [change] only accelerating over the next five years,” said Snellgrove, who is chief finance and operations officer and vice-president of finance at Janssen Global R&D, the pharmaceutical research-and-development (R&D) group for US multinational Johnson & Johnson.

The ability to pull in nontraditional data sources is an emerging skillset that is going to be important, Snellgrove predicted.

Despite the evolution and importance of technology, both Glen Elias, CPA, CGMA, and Magdalena Wereda-Kolasińska, FCMA, CGMA, still rank fundamental accounting skills high on their list of top proficiencies.

Elias, the CFO of Wisconsin-based Precision Pipeline, a subsidiary of MasTec, a global engineering firm in Florida, fully embraces technology. Still, he maintains that finance professionals need a solid grounding in base-level accounting skills and experiences to be successful. The earliest part of his career was spent first in public accounting and then in internal audit.

“I always tell people with an interest in accounting that even if your intent is not to stay in public accounting, it's still a very good starting place,” he said.

As finance director at Unilever Poland AS, Wereda-Kolasińska looks for finance professionals with fluid skillsets who can reflect and respond to the highly dynamic nature of the fast-moving consumer goods sector. In addition to accounting skills, she emphasised the importance of financial analysis, which she said is crucial for establishing a common language with businesses.

She considers management accounting rules and financial accounting basics very important, and knowledge of the financial tools to make assessments and decisions can’t be left out.

Snellgrove, who views data science as an instrument of change, sees value in blending financial knowledge with data science.

“I would say data science is almost becoming a new sub-function,” he said. “If you have finance skills and data science skills, you’re going to be in high demand.”

Collaboration is paramount for managing risk

In an increasingly complex and uncertain business environment, finance leaders said that the ability to collaborate with colleagues and clients to help make your organisation run smoothly is key to managing risk and solving problems.

Sergey Mamonin, ACMA, CGMA, the CFO for PepsiCo’s businesses in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), believes the now obsolete multi-layered business models from the 1980s and 1990s are making way for a modern environment where people are working in cross-functional teams. The ability to collaborate is crucial.

“People need to learn how to work not only with the finance department. From the very early stages of their career, they should be able to work with the supply chain, with marketing, with sales, with the general management, [and] with corporate relationships,” he said.

UK National Nuclear Laboratory CFO Matt Miller, FCMA, CGMA, took Mamonin’s advice a step further, adding that the most cohesive teams are those that are collaborating, listening to one another, and addressing challenges from different angles and different perspectives, because greater diversity of thought fosters better collaboration.

Miller explained his philosophy that all employees of an organisation need to accept that collaborating is the right way to work together and to perform across functions. The best way to foster collaboration is to arm people with the right skillsets, especially the skill of listening, he said.

Communication skills are still important in 2021

Analysing data and understanding complex business concepts are among the key skillsets finance professionals are expected to master. But often the communication skills needed to convey the story behind the numbers is lacking.

Not only is effective communication important for collaboration, but colleagues and upper management rely on accurate delivery of important information to make decisions. Most of the finance leaders in the series listed soft skills, particularly communication, as a critical challenge.

Jesmin Ehsan, ACMA, CGMA, Ericsson’s business controller for Singapore, Brunei, Philippines, and Pacific Islands, acknowledges her biggest hurdle is conveying the complexity of issues she faces to busy senior executives. She relies on the art of storytelling.

“My task is to summarise a super complex thing in layman’s language, and to make the numbers talk and become relevant and alive for everyone’s understanding,” she said.

At Shamal, an investment holding company in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, CFO Paul Gyles, FCMA, CGMA, also considers communication his number one focus. He views the ability to present information as the skill most lacking amongst finance professionals.

“You cannot be a top-performing finance professional if you cannot communicate effectively,” he said. “It is such a key skill, whether it is telling the story about the numbers, building business partnerships, managing people, or delivering finance presentations.”

When Sameer Joneja considers the important skills and experiences he seeks when recruiting new talent, he takes a balanced approach, weighing technology acumen alongside the willingness to embrace change and the ability to communicate.

Joneja, the South Africa-based head of the finance operations and transformation programme at Absa Group, a financial services company, also places a high premium on qualities like passion for finance, perseverance, and vulnerability, which he considers an important leadership trait.

“Being vulnerable is not being afraid to say you don’t know but that you want to learn, [and you’re] not afraid of bringing emotion into the workplace,” he said.

How companies build finance capabilities

Finance leaders said that to build a finance team with diverse skillsets, their organisations are investing in professional development to help employees grow. Here are some examples of the training provided.

Johnson & Johnson offers a wide range of educational programmes, including certification assistance and support for earning advanced degrees like the MBA.

“We do an amazing job of developing our finance professionals,” Snellgrove said. “We have an experienced-hire management development programme, … enterprise leader programmes, [and] an outstanding succession planning process.”

The chart below indicates the importance of offering varied learning formats to help build workplace skills.

Digital learning seen as most suitable learning format

At Coty, finance professionals are empowered to develop their own individualised learning journeys with a dual focus on learning from experience and learning from others, supported by the internal Coty Academy and other external institutions. The finance department is structured around two core functional teams — a co-pilot team that focuses on financial planning and analysis, sales, and brand finance, and a custodian team focusing on statutory reporting, compliance, and procure to pay.

“We provide a rotation of jobs between the two teams,” Chinniah said. “By rotating roles, they’re doing different tasks and interacting with different teams, thereby upskilling themselves.”

Shamal, the holding company in the UAE, offers on-the-job-training, which Gyles touts as one of the best ways to gain a wide range of skills and knowledge. He urges finance professionals to participate in corporate projects as part of their professional development.

“Getting involved with any special projects in the technology area is always highly encouraged, as finance professionals will gain very valuable new skills and knowledge,” he said.

At Yelp, the leadership team has created a system of formal professional development building blocks to help the finance team develop a clear vision of its role within the corporate structure. Then leaders create functional and development goals, along with a set of competencies for them.

“[We are helping] our team build a career map so they know ‘OK, if I’m on this journey of developing in these areas, here are some things that I should be good at to be more successful,’” Miln said.

Yelp also has a reimbursement policy for education, and a process in place for ensuring that development goals are an ongoing conversation.

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Alexis See Tho, an FM magazine associate editor, at