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Nutan Wozencroft: Making an impact

Taking risks on her career path allowed Nutan Wozencroft to pursue her interest in sustainable development. She tells Amy Duff how her latest role as chief financial officer at Unesco is a fascinating step on her journey.

Born in Austria, of Indian origin, educated in England, married to a Brit, and passionate about development and planning. This is Nutan Wozencroft. Her father was an econometrist for the United Nations specialising in health, agriculture and development while her mother’s side of the family were political activists. Could there be a more fitting organisation for their daughter to work for than the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco)?

Wozencroft led a fairly nomadic existence, moving roughly every three years with her father’s job until she settled in the UK for her secondary schooling, higher education and accountancy training at Cape & Dalgleish (now part of Grant Thornton). So it’s no wonder that her own career has taken her around the world from Malawi and Uganda to Bangladesh and Madagascar, working across a fascinating range of sectors and organisations, and culminating in her current role as chief financial officer of the UN’s cultural agency, where she has been since August 2011.

As she says from her office in Paris, she has endured some personal challenges along the way. She recalls her son telling her she was too “unreliable” to help him with his 11-plus after working 60-hour weeks for a year. But rather than give up her career, she broke out of the traditional finance manager mould and set up her own consultancy instead. “You’ve got to be willing to take some risks on your career path if you want to do something different,” she explains.

Her first deviation from the more well trodden path was when she decided to become a chartered accountant rather than do a Masters or join a research organisation after she graduated. (Her degree at the London School of Economics was in trade and development, specialising in national planning and population.)

When I started at Cape & Daglish there were 10 trainees only two were women and I was the only ethnic minority

She then chose a medium-sized firm, Cape & Dalgleish for her training rather than one of the Big Four because she recognised the “huge opportunity” she’d have at a smaller practice. “I asked to be assigned to different types of work,” explains Wozencroft. “I helped with the MBO of a publishing company; I went on secondment to a public company to prepare its interim accounts; I prepared management accounts for SMEs and charitable organisations… Cape & Dalgleish was a mid-sized practice that just grew and grew,” she adds.

By the time she left in 1993 to become the regional accountant for the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) she was partnership accountant reporting to the FD and supervising three staff. After six years at IPPF, which operated in over 156 countries and had an annual income of $120m, she moved to another senior role as financial controller at Marie Stopes International (MSI), a £79m turnover partnership of reproductive health social enterprises operating in 40 countries.

Her gender doesn’t appear to have limited her opportunities. So what does she think of the glass ceiling as a senior level woman working in finance? “When I started at Cape & Dalgleish I think there were 10 trainees, only two were women and I was the only ethnic minority,” says Wozencroft.

“I won’t say there wasn’t a glass ceiling… I got married a month after I qualified and I think there were concerns about what I was going to do next with my life. You can decide whether you’re going to be ‘one of the boys’ or you decide to do it your way. What I would say is that we’re equal but not the same. We shouldn’t be expected to work in exactly the same way.”

Later on in her career – the 60-hour week period where she led a team of 11 accountants for MSI as financial controller on its international programmes – Wozencroft says she took the decision to spend a couple of years focusing on her family instead. She explains: “My youngest was nearly five and my eldest was 11. We’d just negotiated and received a $100m grant (£59m) for MSI and the FD role was up for grabs. I knew those hours weren’t going to reduce. My eldest said he wanted a tutor for his 11-plus because I wasn’t home when I said I would be. I remember thinking, ‘he’s right, and maybe I should do something about this before he becomes a teenager and that’s all he remembers’.”

So in 2007 she took on the part-time role of strategic business advisor to MSI from a base in France. It wasn’t taking her foot off the gas so much as changing her focus. Then in 2009 she set up her own business so she could further develop her skills by focusing more on strategic planning and change management.

That’s how she ended up working as a country director for Malawi, an MSI partner that had a £5m budget, 30 clinics, 60 social franchisees, 370 team members and 740,000 clients. “It was a huge opportunity and a major challenge to manage an organisation that was going through massive change,” she says.

Working in the reproductive health sector, an industry that can attract passionate opposition, Wozencroft learned to hone her communication skills. “You’re expected to stand by the ethics of the organisation,” she confirms. “I was expected to be an advocate at Marie Stopes, to speak to donors, to defend its stance. It wasn’t just a financial role; I was part of the senior management team. That makes you a better finance manager,” she says.

The need for an organisation like Unesco is more important than ever before

She says her accountancy training has stood her in good stead over the last 20 years. Whatever country she is working in, she says good financial management and practice should never be diluted. She adds: “When I was consulting I went to help an organisation to look at its strategic planning and they were in a complete financial mess. The finance manager left two days after I arrived and I had to run payroll. If I didn’t have my [accounting] background, it would have been difficult.”

And now here she is at Unesco, CFO of an organisation with nearly 3,000 full-time and temporary staff members around the world and an extremely “complex” mandate, the main focus of which is preventing a third world war. “Unesco was founded in the aftermath of the second world war in less than a generation,” explains Wozencroft. “The idea of preventing a third is by promoting education to bring down barriers and to deal with the issues that cause wars,” she says. Education is key, but natural, human and social science as well as culture and communication are also important. But with conflicts raging in so many parts of the world today, including Gaza, Syria and Iraq, is it not dispiriting to work for an organisation whose remit is to “build peace in the minds of men and women”?

As recently as August, Unesco director general Irina Bokova appealed for schools to be kept out of the conflict in Gaza, after a number of United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools serving as shelters were hit, resulting in civilian casualties and fatalities. Wozencroft treads carefully.

“The need for an organisation like Unesco is probably more important than ever before,” she says. “There are so many areas of emerging conflict. But Unesco is one of the places where inter-government dialogue and building through consensus is encouraged. There is a common understanding that this is an organisation where resolution and consensus are sought.”

Coincidentally, it is Palestine that presented Wozencroft with one of her biggest challenges so far as CFO. Unesco suffered a major loss of funding in 2011 when it became one of the first UN organisations to recognise Palestine as a full member state. “As a result,” she explains, “the Americans (who continue to be on our executive board) had to suspend their payments because of a law that prevents them paying any organisation that includes Palestine as full members [before an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is reached]. That was almost 23% of our funding (an $180m reduction in our bi-annual budget) cut with eight weeks’ notice.”

It was a challenge, but for Wozencroft it only served to focus her mind on what had started to happen within the organisation already: reform. Bokova, whom she describes as a “reforming director general”, had plans to streamline the organisation as part of a five-year plan. Out of necessity, they had to do it in two.

Despite these pressures, Wozencroft describes the last few years as “a good time to be in the UN”. She has had no problem getting to grips with streamlining an entity of the size and stature of Unesco. By cutting back on recruitment and putting in place more efficient management tools and systems, the organisation has learned how to make better, quicker decisions with smaller teams. She says they had a roadmap within three months of what needed to happen in the following two years. They built a “rapid review mechanism” that identified at all levels of the organisation what could be done to immediately reduce costs and become more efficient.

There was some resistance to change, but also an acceptance among the teams that the funding cut meant they really had no choice. “In those circumstances the CFO is an essential part of the senior management team,” she says. “The information you bring to the table is what determines the operational strategy of the organisation.”

So far, she’s satisfied with progress. “We’re ahead of the curve on reform,” she says. “We’ve moved from stringent cash forecasting reviews to looking now at where we invest. We closed our budget last year without a deficit, having reduced it by 20% and raised funding to cover the remainder.”
But she’s by no means finished. After the suspension of the American payments, she says Unesco’s funding base has changed and it now pushes much harder on what she calls “extra budgetary fundraising”. That has grown, she says, by 5% or more over the last three years. A more daunting task is to try and reform the very nature of the organisation in order to prioritise the activities that will, crudely, get most bang for their buck.

Wozencroft explains: “In the days when we had 70% of our funding secured, we co-financed in many places. Now we have to be more careful in what we do. In view of scarce resources, we’ve prioritised what we’ll implement in terms of results.”

Unsurprisingly, the organisation is seeking to increase funding through the private sector (although it is still predominantly funded by government sources). And it is also working on how to maximise revenue from the assets it owns – “we’re one of the bigger events sites in Paris,” Wozencroft points out.

But amid all this streamlining and administrative reform, there are human beings on the ground doing essential work in countries such as Syria and Afghanistan. As much as she’s driven by good management information systems, Wozencroft is also finely tuned to the social impact of her decisions. “In a not-for-profit you have to balance the decisions you make – the impact on your beneficiaries – with the cost aspects,” she says. “From an operational perspective I can see it. I have to try and ensure that our financial regulations allow the level of flexibility they need while maintaining the control systems we need.”

The UN has adopted International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS), adds Wozencroft, as the standard by which it will prepare its financial statements. “Part of that is greater transparency and comparability,” she says. “We had UN-specific accounting standards but this will be based on IFRS. We are still reaping the management benefits of that.”

She sees no move onwards or upwards just yet; she likes to see out a cycle. “To see the UN addressing all the areas that lead to sustainable development is an exciting place to be,” she adds.

She has, she admits, a much better work-life balance than she did in her 40s. She spends her free time reading fiction (“I have enough reality in my day to day life”) or chatting with her boys. They travel to India a lot and enjoy exploring Europe by car.

Asked what she’d still like to achieve, she returns to her sustainability message. “If you’re making a commitment you need to ensure that it’s sustainable, either in the community you’re making a commitment in or by another organisation that takes over,” she says. “If you’re going to move into new areas you have to withdraw from old, and that’s the challenge. That’s what I mean about the social impact of the decisions you make. Sometimes, it’s not easy.” But she’s up for the challenge.


Career highlights

1985 Joins Cape & Dalgleish

1993 Joins the International Planned Parenthood Federation as regional accountant

1999 Joins Marie Stopes International as financial controller

2007 Becomes strategic business advisor for Marie Stopes

2008 Sets up consultancy business providing institutional development support for Marie Stopes

2011 Joins Unesco as chief financial officer

Originally published in Economia, August 2014.