Business partnering skills: 'You need to understand your counterpart'

The CFO for PepsiCo’s CIS business says finance leaders need to develop professional resilience and business partnering skills and ‘see the big picture’.
Sergey Mamonin, ACMA, CGMA, is CFO for PepsiCo’s businesses in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States).

Editor’s note: This article is part of the “Top Finance Skills” series, featuring insights from finance leaders across industries on skills finance professionals need to have to be competitive in the future. To receive weekly updates on this series, sign up for our CGMA Advantage newsletter.

Sergey Mamonin, ACMA, CGMA, is CFO for PepsiCo’s businesses in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States).

With a remit across 11 countries in Eurasia covering commercial finance, including FP&A and revenue and cash flow management, Mamonin also oversees the controlling function.

The finance team of 200 is decentralised, he explained. “We don't really have a massive central team. We're trying to get as close to the real business as possible.” He sees business partnering as a critical 21st-century skill: the ability to be “a thoughtful business partner who really understands and values what your counterparts are doing”.

The business operates across five product categories — classical beverages, snacks, juices, baby food, and dairy. Food accounted for 55% of net revenues last year and beverages 45%, the company’s 2020 annual report showed. Net revenue from outside the US made up 42% of the more than $70 billion total; the business’s core operating profit was $10.5 billion in 2020, down 1% on 2019.

Mamonin spoke to FM about the skills needed now and in the future to be an effective finance leader.

If you were starting out on your management accounting career, which skills or aspects of finance would you be focusing on to get a competitive edge?

Sergey Mamonin: When you're just starting your career, I don't think that competitive edge at that moment of time is dramatically important.

What is more important is basically to understand yourself, start building your base, seek advice, seek mentorship, explore the opportunities. Don't be afraid to try. Try and fail, and then based on this experience, build up, understand where your competitive edge might be, and then build around that.

We live in a world that is multidimensional, so it's not about one career path that fits all.

Looking ahead, how do you see the role and responsibilities of finance changing? Which skills do you think are going to become the key ones in the next five years?

Mamonin: If you look back, ten years back, you will see that the CFO profile was completely different from the CFO profile of the future, and from what companies are looking for right now.

There are two particular characteristics of this change for the finance professional. One characteristic we're calling “a navigator of change”. Basically, the person should be able to lead through the uncertainty, to lead through change, to lead through the transformation.

Finance has to take a critical role in this because, very often, finance professionals are the ones who, at least from the internal perspective, know it the best.

They have the access to the systems. They know how to use the logical part of the brain to analyse. But how do you use it? How do you navigate through the change? I think that is becoming more and more critical going forward.

The second thing is what we're calling the “catalyst” of the change. The finance function should not work in isolation from the rest [of the business]. Finance should be playing a critical role to drive change not only within our own function, but within other functions as well. So how do you catalyse this process without having any formal power or responsibility over something? That's a very big skill that will be more and more important.

It’s about being able to find a common solution, being able to articulate the common goal [and] maybe to play some kind of intermediary role between the different parties involved.

Looking at new people coming into the finance team — what strengths do you see amongst those people?

Mamonin: The new people joining the company, Generation Z in many cases — I think there are several characteristics that I would like to highlight. First of all, and I think that is something that we as Generation X or Millennials can learn from them, is they are absolutely fearless to explore and experiment.

The new generation is very much open to change. They are keen to try. I'm not quite sure that they are keen to fail, but they are keen to try for sure.

The second thing is technological savviness. Young people are absolutely tech-savvy in all of these [new] applications, know how to install basic programming.

The third thing here is that they are very resistant to — more comfortable with — [the effects of] uncertainty because they grew up in the universe of the small things. Our generation grew up in the universe of the big things — when the big corporations were driving the whole economy. They grew up in a different environment.

When you say to the person like this, look, there is no answer but you have to find it out, usually they are quite fine with that.

What skills do you use to best deal with uncertainty? Can they be learned and how do you learn those skills?

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.

As well as an ability to see the big picture, we shouldn't be doing our job just for the sake of doing the job, we should do it with the purpose in mind.

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.

Collaboration and business partnering: How can finance executives promote that across the business?

Mamonin: In order to be a great business partner, you need to understand your counterpart. You need to understand what drives them and what they are trying to achieve rather than just drive your own agenda. Then it will be much easier for you to be a thoughtful business partner who really understands and values what your counterparts are doing. For me that's probably the most critical building block of any good business partnership model that I've seen.

Collaboration, is that a similar skill?

Mamonin: It's actually more an answer to the question “How?”. Basically, understanding the common goal is about the what, and collaboration is about the how.

I think the 25 layers of the organisation, basically that we have seen in [the] 1980s and the 1990s, will be gone at some point in time, and people will be working in cross-functional teams which are organised by the matrix principles. How do you organise yourself within such a team? Collaboration is the most important element of that.

People need to learn how to work not only with the finance department. From the very early stage of their career, they should be able to work with the supply chain, with marketing, with sales, with the general management, with corporate relationships.

What is important is how we're using our asset of having an independent view of what’s happening. If the finance function is perceived to be not trustworthy, for me that's a very big red flag, and the CFO and the finance executives have to fix it first. Trust is the basic thing that you need to have in the organisation.

Have you learned any professional skills recently? Any new skills?

Mamonin: I think 2020 and especially 2021 teaches us resilience. Usually, we perceived resilience as the personal skill rather than the professional skill. It's becoming more of a professional skill because we understand that in the years like 2020, well, many bad things can happen.

Resilience to drive the business world forward, and not give up on things, be flexible on how you achieve the goals is dramatically important, and I think all of us are learning. But it's a great time as well because it allows us to implement the things that we have never thought about before. For example, take working from home, was it possible to work like this one and a half years ago? I would say no, it's impossible.

Right now, yes, we can make it work this way. For me, everything starts with the mindset, the ability to see the opportunities, the ability to see the open doors even when the crisis comes.

How does PepsiCo support finance team members in their professional growth?

Mamonin: We see that finance professionals, with the changes in the world economy that are happening right now, will need to move towards the role of the navigator and the catalyst of change. Towards the role of the strategic business partner to the organisation.

Of course, once we have understood that, we're adjusting all the more classical tools like training, mentorship, sponsorship, all of those things, to fit into this particular goal.

What we're trying to do in PepsiCo is not to leave the tools floating in isolation from everything else. We are trying to give a purpose first, and this purpose is to create a much more strategic organisation and a much more business partnership-oriented organisation that drives commercial value.

Because people are different, you would choose the different type of tools to drive him or her towards this goal, depending on the personal circumstances.

Have you seen in other organisations how they do skills and career development — is there anything to learn from that?

Mamonin: One of the great examples that I've seen, and I don't really know why but it's not widely applied by the market, is in McKinsey.

I worked for McKinsey for more than six years, and I think it's an absolutely amazing company because it forces you to develop and to race against yourself all the time.

One of the tools that I have seen there is the secondment. Basically, the organisation is very open to have a discussion: If someone feels [they] want to have more experience in an area, but can't get it within the particular organisation, [let’s] agree that I'm going somewhere else outside the organisation for, let's say, two, three, four years [and] will learn something and will return back.

What do you see as your number one professional challenge at the moment, and why?

Mamonin: The right people with the right capabilities in the right places.

On the one hand, the requirements for the finance professional are changing massively, and even our educational system is not designed to cope with the fast change.

The second problem is that there is an increased competition for the talent. It's not enough anymore to have a big brand or a big company to be very successful on your talent acquisition strategy.

Tech companies are extremely competitive. Retail companies are extremely competitive. Consulting or startups is a massively important area for the people who are just joining the labour market right now.

So combining these two things, that makes our life much more difficult, but on the other hand, that will make us stronger. Competition always makes the participants stronger.

Rapid-fire questions

What’s the number one skill a finance professional should have?

Mamonin: The ability to see the forest behind the trees — the big picture.

Soft skills or tech skills, which are more important?

Mamonin: Both are important. That's for sure. Ten years back, I would say tech skills were more important. Right now, both.

The most important action finance professionals should take to advance their careers?

Mamonin: Find your own competitive advantage and leverage up to the max.

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Oliver Rowe ( is an FM magazine senior editor.