UK CFO: 'The best way of collaborating is listening'Matt Miller, the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory CFO, says uncertainty requires scenario planning, collaboration, risk management, and listening skills.
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 workforce of just under 1,000 employees across seven UK locations, the National Nuclear Laboratory — an “arm’s-length body” of the UK government, but operating commercially — has revenues of £104 million and a profit of £5.2 million, its 2020 Annual Report and Accounts showed.
Its CFO is Matt Miller, FCMA, CGMA, who leads a finance team of 26 staff that includes a head of corporate finance, who manages statutory reporting activities, as well as a project finance team. Miller additionally has responsibility for a 40-strong IT function.
Miller talked to FM about his team’s and his own skills development.
If you were just starting out in your management accounting career, which skills or aspects of finance would you be focusing on to get a competitive edge?
Matt Miller: Do not underestimate that to get to a senior level in any organisation you need to step back and look at where the business is heading, look at what’s going on in the marketplace, what [are the] external factors. [Then] start comprehending what that means in terms of what do we need to invest in, what do we need to start, what do we need to pause, what do we need to continue.
But equally, you’re only as good as your team, and your team’s only as good as you. All too often I come across peers that talk about people management. And I don’t think you manage people. I think you lead people.
Probably the key skill to get an advantage is influence. Because you can lead people by influencing them. You’re not telling people what to do. You’re influencing their thinking and their activities, and nudging them along.
How do you see the role and the responsibilities of finance changing in the next five years? Which skills do you predict will be most key?
Miller: The Kingman and Brydon [UK governance] reviews have been published, and [there are actions] that are likely to come as a result of previous corporate failures. What I think we’ll be seeing in finance now is more and more controls — controls in terms of assets, controls in terms of liabilities. What does that mean … in terms of cash and … how cash is being managed in organisations as well? And as a result, when you bring [controls and cash] together, that leads me to think that more and more focus on the balance sheet is going to be critical.
It worries me that as we’ve gone through the pandemic, so many companies have struggled because they haven’t necessarily kept an eye on their cash in their reserves.
Getting back to those basics is key. So do you understand what happens when we buy an item of stock, and do you understand the obligations [that are] then likely to happen … both from the commitment, the control that you need to have in terms of that commitment, and what that means in the cash accounting cycle?
What are the strengths you see amongst new talent?
Miller: For early career individuals, no problem is too big. They’re eager to get involved, eager to get going, and absolutely love the challenge.
But because they’ve got that kind of mindset, they’re then very happy to challenge the norm, to challenge the way that we do things today. Which I think is fantastic. What I see is a healthy [reverse] mentoring going on around the organisation. All too often we say, “Get someone alongside you that’s been there, done that, bought that T-shirt,” but what I’m actually seeing, as well, is those individuals are [saying], “I hadn’t really thought about it in that way. How does that give us a different lens to look at the challenge and the problem?” So it’s brilliant to get that fresh thinking coming in.
And do you formalise that, the reverse mentoring, or is it more informal?
Miller: It’s much more informal. It’s the nature and culture of the organisation. We don’t need to formalise. I’ve seen it formalised in previous organisations where I’ve worked. And again, it’s been fantastic, to get people [who] have the battle scars, so to speak, to be challenged in the way they think.
It’s similar to the more international cultures that you get in organisations. You get that same challenge. Because you can’t always land the Western, the US, the UK way of working on someone who’s from Asia or Australasia or the Middle East. It brings fresh thinking. And you can bring some of that thinking back to the UK or the US way of working.
In your work, which skills best deal with uncertainty? How do you learn them? Are they learnable?
Miller: Yes, they are learnable. The skills that you need to best deal with uncertainty are scenario planning, collaborating with others, risk management, and listening.
Risk management is broadly about scenario planning. If you boil it down to, “What’s the risk? What can happen? How do you best [mitigate it]?”
Collaborating with others is what you need to challenge those scenarios from multiple angles and bring in the thinking from others — so an operational lens, or a health and safety lens, or an HR lens.
To really be able to bolt that all together, there’s that listening piece. A former finance director I used to work for always told me, “There’s a reason that we’re put on this planet with two ears and one mouth.” That’s the ratio that we should work on — you should do twice as much listening as talking.
We fail to do that when in a senior leadership position. All of it is learnable in my view, but you’ve got to take your time to really learn those skills.
And then secondly, you’ve got to get it wrong sometimes, so that you can learn by your own mistakes. And provided when you get it wrong, you’re not in a position where you’re getting it wrong dramatically.
So I talk a lot about you need the “battle scars”. It’s fantastic then to lean on those battle scars and those war stories, to have to then think about right, well, how to do it better going forward.
How can finance executives promote collaboration and business partnering across the organisation?
Miller: Firstly, everyone in the organisation needs to accept that collaborating is the right way of working together. That we work together and we work across functions. [That] tone is set from the top. You also then need to arm people with the right skillset to be able to collaborate. The best way of collaborating is listening.
You’re trying to basically put into numbers the challenges that other management teams [are] currently experiencing. What’s the story behind the numbers? If you can get that mindset, you’ll deliver the best business partnering approach.
The most cohesive teams are those that are collaborating, listening to different dimensions, and challenges from different angles, different perspectives. The more diverse that thought, the better.
Are there professional skills you learned recently? If yes, how did you learn them and how are they helping in your role?
Miller: I’ve been quite fortunate — I’ve had development recently. I’ve been on the Financial Times Non-Exec Director Diploma programme. So, whilst my two sons were doing home schooling, so was I but from a different context.
I was partnered up with someone who was based in the US. It’s a blend of classroom-based [learning] plus working from home study. I’ve got an executive board role. But [it’s useful] having the lens and the ideas of what a nonexecutive is looking for — What’s really their role? How should they be challenging? What should they be doing? How should they be working? What are they really listening for when executives are presenting?
The total programme was over nine months. It was a mixture of classroom work, on-the-job training, and I had to do a 15,000-word [case] study on another company — Rolls-Royce. And then there was an exam at the end as well. Pretty challenging.
Every day should really be a lesson in some shape or form. We’re never the refined full version.
How does your company or organisation support finance team members in their professional growth?
Miller: So specifically from a finance perspective, we really sponsor the CIMA designation and we’ve just been [made] a CIMA Training Quality Partner. We’re not a massive organisation, but to have that accreditation is fantastic.
We’ve got two CIMA apprentices who are going through their studies in the formal apprenticeship programme as well. So [we] really are supporting that. That’s not to say that we don’t regard the other qualifications in the same light.
We’re now looking at how does that replicate across the other accreditations as well, across finance.
We also do some really good training across the organisation on other skills and capabilities. So cyber training, cyber resilience, for example, as well as general leadership and general management-type skillsets as well. A real healthy balance, both direct and indirect finance training.
Is there an interesting way you’ve seen other organisations do skills and career development?
Miller: Some of the other organisations I’ve observed [have] some really good broad networking opportunities, which I think is really good to promote. Engaging with other organisations perhaps in the same geographical area, and industry perspective. It’s difficult to do with other nuclear businesses. There are not many nuclear businesses to partner with.
But then there are other things that I’ve seen that are really good if you can afford [them], and if it’s right for the organisation. Things like team-building activities, working with charities to blend the day job with an alternative skillset.
If you’re working in a commercial organisation, you go away and work with a charity for a few days. It really turns a different light bulb on as to different challenges and different organisations. But not everyone can afford to do that. I’ve seen that work really effectively.
My last organisation was BAE Systems, [a] major Plc. The benefit of having such a massive organisation was on-the-job training to supplement your technical training you’re getting through your studies.
When you’ve got a business like mine where you’ve only got 25, 26 roles, it’s really difficult to do that. So hence you’ve really got to supplement the skills with other opportunities wherever possible.
So if you really want to get yourself ahead in that respect in the smaller organisations, you’ve got to be thinking about agility and being “fleet of foot” to take alternative opportunities as they come up, to get those leadership opportunities.
What do you consider your No. 1 professional challenge? What’s the current one?
Miller: My No. 1 challenge for me personally is a soft skill. But it’s pace. I know I’m a fast thinker. The issue that then generates is I can quite often be in danger of leaving others behind, because I’ve gone off down a [particular] route.
So I have to hold myself back on a regular basis to allow others to keep up or allow others time, even though I think I know where we’re going to end up. And allow others that time and space to get to that same conclusion that I’ve already got to.
COVID-19 has helped me a little bit. Because I often talk about sitting on my hands. I can physically sit on my hands — it helps me just to slow myself down a bit.
Rapid fire questions
What’s the No. 1 skill a finance professional should have?
Soft skills or tech skills, which are more important for finance professionals to have?
Miller: I believe the soft skills are more important, because they bring the technical skills to life for others.
What’s the most important action finance professionals should take to advance their careers?
Miller: My key advice here really is I would set a goal. I’d then work to that goal. Reflect on that progress. And then refresh. You then go back to the start, set another goal, work to it, reflect, and then keep going. So, you’re continually pushing your ambition.
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— Oliver Rowe (Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com) is an FM magazine senior editor.