Investment CFO: Empathy is one of the greatest untaught qualities

Matthew Hurn, OBE, FCMA, CGMA, says finance leaders can ‘actively model’ themselves on others to develop empathy.
Abu Dhabi-based Matthew Hurn, OBE, FCMA, CGMA, is CFO for the Disruptive Investments platform at Mubadala Investment Company, a United Arab Emirates government-owned company investing globally across all sectors.

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.

Abu Dhabi-based Matthew Hurn, OBE, FCMA, CGMA, is CFO for the Disruptive Investments platform at Mubadala Investment Company, a United Arab Emirates government-owned company investing globally across all sectors. The sovereign investor has offices outside the UAE in London, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow, New York, San Francisco, and Beijing. With approximately AED 90 billion ($24.5 billion) of assets under management, the Disruptive Investments platform, which invests across sectors and asset classes, is one of four Mubadala platforms that together invest in more than 50 countries.

The finance team of more than 100 staff operates a hub and spoke model — the business finance team led by Hurn is “outward facing” and relies on “core, deep, subject matter experts” in its statutory reporting, management reporting, and valuations functions.

Hurn explained that his role includes imparting “historic knowledge and experience on to the organisation, into the economy, and also to help train and develop UAE nationals … to acquire the skillsets, and experience, and expertise that it [needs] going forward”.

Hurn spoke to FM about the finance skills required for the future, ways to build empathy, and how to become an authentic leader.

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

Matthew Hurn: The advice I’d give first [is] get qualified. So that has to be condition number one. You have to seek a professional qualification, and stick to it, and get it done.

Then I think if you’re starting out, you want a deep, broad experience. I wouldn’t try to become a subject matter expert too early on in a career. I think understanding drivers of value is what you always have to have in the back of your mind.

The question I’ve always asked throughout my career is “why?” I think it’s the most powerful question. [Having] that inquisitive mindset of always thinking of the what if, the why, that’s probably the best advice I’d give to my younger self.

Looking ahead in the next five years, how do you see the roles and responsibility of finance changing and which skills do you think are going to be key?

Hurn: Change is the only constant and I wholeheartedly believe that. If I think of the change I’ve seen in my career, whether it’s driven by financial disasters, or global economy meltdowns, or COVID-19 … change is constant, and therefore, I think it’s more important we have a change mentality. You [need to] have a mindset that is flexible and able to accommodate so you understand what’s going on.

Going forward, all of us have to embrace data more. It’s the data analysis, it’s the AI, and it’s what …  the data [is] going to do … to enable you to make better decisions. I’m a big advocate of data, but not data for data’s sake. Sometimes we have this kind of analysis paralysis where you’re given too much data.

And what do you see amongst new people coming into the finance team? What are the strengths you see there?

Hurn: Young entrants coming in now have a far greater social consciousness. They really want to understand the impact they’re having in society, on the environment, which I think is great, and that all links into ESG. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re new into this or whether you’re a seasoned investor, I think that ESG principles and those guidelines are going to become more and more important. [People coming into the investment industry] want to understand what your company is doing to tackle some of these significant social issues, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s food security, poverty, whatever.

It’s really helping to mould that enthusiasm and energy into how would [they] become a significant valued partner for the organisation.

Everyone’s talking about the uncertainty of the last year or so. What skills do you see as best dealing with that uncertainty, and how do you go about learning them?

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 anything [we’ve learned in] 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.

You talked about resilience. Are there ways that you can build resilience either for yourself or your team?

Hurn: I’ve always used an analogy that I saw [used] many years ago, that you can always “eat an elephant”. You’ve just got to cut it thinly enough and chew it. And that’s how I take all things. It could be the elephant in the room. I’ve got to get through it and I’ve got to be very methodical about how I do it. Therefore, have things that you can break down … where you can celebrate success for quick wins, and then don’t be daunted by things. No one’s looking for an immediate answer. Take the time to reflect, to consider, to contemplate things. Be methodical, be a planner.

And how can finance executives promote collaboration and business partnering across the business?

Hurn: What I’ve seen in my career is [that] finance [has] moved from being a back-office operation to a thought-leading value partner, and I’ve seen even iteration. Are you a cost centre? Are you a value-added cost centre? In today’s society, if finance can’t be strategic or [a] value-added business partner with a seat at the table, then you aren’t demonstrating what you’re capable of producing and [how you are] supporting the organisation.

That means you need to understand the commercial drivers. It means you need to understand the business language. And I think the hardest part is being able to articulate in simple terms what the finance impact is.

You can get lost in the bamboozlement of jargon and it sounds really clever. But unfortunately, your customer won’t understand a word you’ve said and will either feel demoralised or just stupid because they don’t understand it. So how do you articulate in that elevator pitch the key bullet points that demonstrate: “I understand the issue. Here’s a way of looking at it and I think this is the value we can add if we adopt one, two, and three.”

Are there professional skills you’ve learned recently, and how did you learn them and how have they been useful in your work?

Hurn: [In] the past 18 months I’ve developed more soft skills than I have technical skills. I think the more you mature in your career, that’s more the case. I think I’ve learned a lot of my soft skills from my wife and also my business leader here, [the] CEO.

One is empathy. Growing up, and in my early career years, [I] probably didn’t have enough empathy. I was too driven.

And in the current climate, that’s just not possible. … I’ve now got greater compassion and greater consideration for the people in my team. We have a much better understanding now of people’s domestic issues, whether they’ve got children at home. They happen to be a teacher in the morning before they become a finance professional in the afternoon. We’re all, in this part of the world, living away from our [extended] families, and our friends, and our support network. That takes its toll on people, so [you need to have] greater empathy, understanding, compassion, consideration. The best way to learn it is to actively model yourself on someone who you’ve heard who you [thought], “That was good. I value that contribution.”

I don’t think you can learn it from a book because I don’t think it becomes very authentic. The challenge you have then when you have these soft skills is … how do you try them out in a safe space? If you had a certain management style for years, and then all of a sudden, you try to become this empathetic, caring [leader], people don’t know who you are and then that creates a little bit of hesitancy — “I’m not sure if this guy is sincere, whether he’s authentic.” You’ve just got to work with your team and say, “Let’s just try these things. Let’s try to be more open, and you tell me if I’m doing a good job, and I’ll tell you if you’re doing a good job.” And that really comes down to [an] engaging, open, two-way dialogue.

How do you support finance team members in their professional growth?

Hurn: We offer CPD … in anything from understanding finance jargon … to how to make better presentations, or how to be a strategic influencer, how to be a more effective communicator.

We have coaching that’s available and we have counsellors available. Certain organisations say that human resources are the most valuable asset, but it’s almost lip service. We want to make sure that we really deliver that.

Wellness is fitness — your access to gyms, yoga sessions — but also access to wellness counsellors. It’s completely confidential. [We] make these connections for you and your family, and it could be about anything: relationships, money, just stress.

And then we’ve had, for senior people, coaching. We leverage external coaches, because sometimes training people and developing people yourself has a certain limitation. You want people to have access to an external influence, an external source of information for which they can then understand themselves a bit more. As you get more senior, you have to look inside yourself a lot more to understand who you are, and then how you’re perceived.

And therefore, to me, that’s the “eureka moment”. If you’re being perceived in a way that you think you’re portraying yourself, then it becomes very authentic and sincere, and I think you get the most from it. And I think external coaching helps you achieve that.

Looking outside your business, are there other interesting ways you see organisations do skills and career development?

Hurn: I think what we do now is probably leading edge, and I think many organisations probably pick and choose a few of those things. But I think the other part is really important: It’s just having a good sense of comradery, a good sense of team spirit, and collaboration. I think organisations that understand one another, that collaborate, that are able to engage better, will actually deliver much better, stronger results.

What do you consider your No.1 professional challenge at the moment and why?

Hurn: Strategic influencing — how do you strategically influence those that you need to influence to help make better decisions? You’ve got to earn a seat at the table and you’ve got to keep your seat at the table, and therefore, you need to stay relevant. You constantly need to work on that sphere of influence as well. It’s not just one person you need to influence. Leaders like to garner opinions from a group of individuals, and therefore, you need to start work on that strategic influencing, that messaging, and making sure that you don’t try to give all the messages all in one go because they’ll get lost as noise.

What are the two, three really salient points that I’ve got to get across and get people to understand? Strategic influencing is linked very much with effective communication. And effective communication is not how you say it. It’s more a case of where you say it and why you say it.

Rapid-fire questions

The No.1 skill a finance professional should have?

Hurn: Integrity.

Soft skills or tech skills. Which are the most important?

Hurn: If you’re starting out as a junior, tech skills. The more senior you get, soft skills. Soft skills without tech skills are not much use.

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

Hurn: Always be open to learn new things, focus on continuing professional development, and get to understand [yourself] better, and to help manage your expectations — don't over promise and under deliver. It’s not going to help you.

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Oliver Rowe ( is an FM magazine senior editor.