Holding company CFO: Communication is still top skill for 2021

Telling the story of the numbers is becoming a critical skillset for finance professionals, according to one CFO.

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.

Paul Gyles, FCMA, CGMA

Paul Gyles, FCMA, CGMA, is the CFO with Shamal, an investment holding company based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where he has lived with his family since 2003. He has worked in finance for nearly 32 years, across a range of sectors, including automotive, healthcare, construction, and real estate, and in a variety of locations, including the UK, Europe, Middle East, and Asia.

His years of experience managing culturally diverse finance teams have helped him pinpoint the essential skills finance professionals should develop in order to succeed.

FM magazine interviewed Gyles to gain insight into the top skills organisations and finance departments are hiring for in 2021, as well as how the pandemic has shifted his approach to accounting and finance.

If you were just starting your career in 2021, which skills would you be focusing on?

Paul Gyles: On the softer skills, communication would be the number one focus area. You cannot be a top-performing finance professional if you cannot communicate effectively. It is such a key skill, whether it is telling the story about the numbers, building business partnerships, managing people, or delivering finance presentations.

On the technical skills side, the focus would be on new technology. The business world we live in is changing so rapidly due to technology progression that accounting and finance professionals must have the latest technology and digital skills to add value to their respective businesses, as well as differentiating themselves from the competition.

This would include expertise and understanding in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotic process automation (RPA), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and business intelligence/analytical systems. Blockchain is another area that could be very exciting and has the potential to completely change the way we do business.

How do you see the role and the responsibilities of finance changing in the next five years? What are the most pressing issues you see facing finance in 2021?

Gyles: Transactional accounting and audit roles are going to continue to reduce over the next five years as much greater levels of automation come into play through more advanced technology. Areas such as data analytics, analysis, and reporting will continue to be a focus but with much greater decision support from AI systems. Managing and embracing the technological change will be a major agenda item for the finance community, and with the pace of change accelerating, we simply cannot afford to get it wrong or we will get left behind.

What are the key skills you are looking for in new talent this year? What are the most important skills and experiences that you consider when bringing new team members on board?

Gyles: Whether this year or in previous years, I would always be looking for new talent with high energy and enthusiasm levels, and they must be naturally inquisitive and to keep asking “Why?”. You are always looking for people who will make a difference, so you ideally want new talent with a track record of success making innovative changes and business improvements, and experience at digital transformation initiatives as this becomes an ever-increasing area of importance.

How are you encouraging skill-building in your current team?

Gyles: I would always encourage finance professionals to take a professional accountancy qualification and ensure they see it through to completion. It's not easy balancing up a busy, demanding finance role whilst progressing the professional qualification, but the reality is your career will almost certainly progress further with a full qualification.

On-the-job training is also extremely important, and I would always encourage finance professionals to get involved in special projects as part of their continuous 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.

In your work, which skills best deal with uncertainty?

Gyles: We have all gone through a major real-life challenge dealing with uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still ongoing. Some of the skills that have helped dealing with the uncertainty and navigating through the crisis have included focus, planning, and calmness. It was important to stay very focused, looking at what could be controlled and managed and accepting those areas we could not directly influence.

Planning was critical, especially multiple scenario planning, so you had already mapped out the worst-case scenarios and knew the actions you would need to take if that materialised. Then staying calm when the pandemic was having a major impact on all businesses and the economy. This was tough going but so important to keep things together.

In your view, which skills are most lacking amongst finance professionals?

Gyles: I would say it’s the ability to present financial information. Quite often finance professionals can produce the numbers but are not always able to distil large complex data and then summarise that into a format suitable to be presented to senior leadership and help drive the decision-making process. They need to be much better at telling the story, and this goes back to my earlier point on communication.

What are your personal upskilling goals for 2021 and beyond, and how are you developing your own skills?

Gyles: I firmly believe we should all continue learning throughout our professional careers, as there are always new things to learn. Last year I subscribed to the CGMA Essentials for 12 months of unlimited access to a library of professional development material. That’s been excellent, and I still have some time left on that subscription. I also recently completed the CIMA Digital Mindset course, which was very valuable training on new technology areas such as AI, RPA, and blockchain. I am a big fan of RPA; it's simple and quick to implement but has an excellent return on investment.

On the job side, we’ve recently gone live with Microsoft Dynamics 365, so there has been plenty of new learning for the whole team to make sure we get the most out of the new ERP and linking that to Power BI for advanced analytics. We have also gone live with Asana as a task management system, and that is already having a positive impact on how we manage projects across the company. I’m enjoying learning new systems and very excited with the digital transformation journey we are on.

Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at