'You have to take a decision' — Sri Lanka conglomerate group CFO

Decision-making skills are critical, and you can’t just ‘wait for things to happen’, says Aitken Spence CFO Nilanthi Sivapragasam.
Aitken Spence CFO Nilanthi Sivapragasam

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. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With a colonial history dating back to 1868, Aitken Spence is a Colombo Stock Exchange-listed company of around 13,000 employees operating in Sri Lanka and in other countries including the Maldives, India, Bangladesh, Oman, and Fiji. The group’s companies are arranged across 16 business segments in four sectors: tourism, maritime and freight logistics, services, and strategic investments in power generation, apparel manufacture, printing and packaging, and plantations.

Nilanthi Sivapragasam, FCMA, CGMA, is the group CFO heading a core finance team of around 16 employees which oversees group corporate finance, treasury operations, and tax. The group financial shared services centre, company secretarial, and group IT teams also are under her purview. The sector heads of finance indirectly report to her, she is on the group supervisory board, and she also sits on the boards of several subsidiary and associate companies in the group.

Sivapragasam talked to FM about her own and the company’s approach to skills development.

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

Nilanthi Sivapragasam: First you need to decide which type of industry that you would like to get into. Is it manufacturing, services, logistics, stockbroking, or banking? Which would appeal to you most?

Or perhaps even an accounting firm — not for audits, but for advisory and consulting. For instance, many accounting firms provide advisory services to the government for privatisations and to the private sector for new investments, etc.

Everything is open … when you start out.

How do you see the roles and responsibilities of finance changing in the next five years? Which skills do you think are going to become key in that time?

Sivapragasam: A lot of the routine day-to-day accounting work is being taken over by technology such as robotic process automation. What you would require most is strategic and analytical skills, and adaptability of course.

When you see company results, you should be able to put things together and immediately focus on the correct areas, like how has the revenue grown? Why have the gross profit margins dropped? You need to be able to take a deep dive and see what has actually taken place to produce these results. Even managing cash flows. That kind of skill is required still, even though you might find robots taking over some of the work. Financial evaluation of a new investment or a new line of business or even to exit from a business would be an important skill required even in the future.

What strengths in particular do you see amongst new talent coming into the business?

Sivapragasam: All the young people are tech savvy. They have more self-confidence. They communicate better. They know how to make use of the products out there, particularly the Microsoft packages. If they join an organisation that uses ERP systems such as SAP or Oracle, because they’re so familiar with technology and they’ve grown up with it, they find it very easy to pick it up.

It’s been a very uncertain period. Which skills best deal with uncertainty?

Sivapragasam: With uncertainty, you need to be able to forecast different types of scenarios. And constantly. It’s not something you focus on and then put aside.

Decision-making is also very important because, yes, things are uncertain, but finally you need to take a decision. You can’t just wait for things to happen. Sometimes it may not be the best decision. But you have to take an informed decision [that] is the most appropriate in the circumstances. So those decision-making skills are also important.

And, obviously, thinking outside the box, thinking on your feet. Everything can’t be put within a box or the frame as you envisaged. That’s how you’re taught. That’s how you learn. And you think everything works according to a particular pattern. But the reality is very different, and it all can get thrown out of the window. So you need to be able to think outside that box and innovate and look at “what if” scenarios and then take a decision.

And do you think you can learn some of those skills?

Sivapragasam: You can learn through experience and by discussing with your team and your peers. You might be a little bit unsure yourself, but then why not bounce those ideas off somebody who has more experience than you? And organisations are geared for that — nobody works in a compartment. Even finding out how other organisations handle particular situations, and also through industry associations, without sharing confidential information.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it so difficult for that. We are now so removed from people and personal interaction. We do interact online all the time, but there are certain things which you may not be able to discuss or other people are reluctant to discuss unless it’s at a face-to-face meeting. Being in touch and networking is very important.

How can finance executives promote collaboration and business partnering across the business, across organisations?

Sivapragasam: You must have an open mind. Most finance people starting out want to show their knowledge and all the theories they have learned, and want to apply them. With this comes a danger that they try to force it on people and get them to conform.

In spite of everything you have learned, you need to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. For example, there could be a sales person who doesn’t understand the bottom line. Their main objective is to drive the top line and show growth.

You must be able to get him or her to understand that it’s not merely about driving the top line. It’s about cash. It’s about margins. It’s about contribution. It’s about retaining customers. So there are so many aspects that you have to balance. One way you can influence and collaborate with other divisions, whether production, marketing etc., is to put yourself in their shoes. To get an understanding of what they do.

You must have more conversations with them. Without looking at it only from an accountant’s perspective, instead say, “I’m the finance [person] in the organisation, and I’m trying to get this information from you. For that, I want to understand what you do.”

Are there professional skills you’ve learned recently? How have you learned them and have they been useful?

Sivapragasam: I am learning all the time, especially if the company is evaluating a new line of business or if there’s an investment opportunity. It’s important to research and get an understanding about a type of business. But even by talking to people in that particular industry, there is so much you can learn. And then you think maybe that’s a business that we should be in.

How do you support finance team members in their professional growth? Is it formally or informally?

Sivapragasam: We encourage team members to continue professional education. We reimburse their subscriptions, their exam fees, and then we also sponsor them for training programmes, increasingly online. We have been a corporate sponsor of CIMA and other professional organisations which provide opportunities for our team members to obtain free participation in seminars and training programmes conducted by them. In that way we provide a platform for our finance teams for networking, and for continuing professional development.

We also have run off-site programmes for our group finance teams.

I am also on the CIMA Sri Lanka mentoring team, something the members of our own — and other — finance teams can benefit from. This includes advising young accountants how to develop soft skills, how they can improve themselves, and also how to deal with certain problems they could encounter in the workplace.

What would you consider to be your number one current professional challenge?

Sivapragasam: Balancing different stakeholder needs as a group CFO. There are so many stakeholders in the various companies in the group. I also deal with many nonfinancial people at the very senior level. So, explaining financial thinking and convincing them and winning them over can be a challenge. Also, ensuring that the finance input is always sought by people before they take any business decision. To a great extent in our group that culture is prevalent.

Rapid-fire questions

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

Sivapragasam: Good analytical skills.

Soft skills or tech skills. Which are most important for finance professionals to have?

Sivapragasam: Both. Because the problem is a lot of finance professionals think they don’t need the soft skills and they have been getting by with their tech skills and their knowledge. But I think the soft skills are as important in today’s context.

Finally, what’s the most important action a finance professional should take to advance their career?

Sivapragasam: Broaden their outlook. And think outside the box. You need to have an open mind and understand what goes on out there and how other people think.

Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.

Oliver Rowe ( is an FM magazine senior editor.