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How to make the leap from finance department to FD

13 February 2020: on top of core knowledge, accountants need an array of other skills to make a successful transition from the finance department to boardroom. We outline the skills required to make the journey successfully.

The finance director or CFO role is often seen as the ultimate finance position, responsible for leading a key business function and often the chief executive's key adviser.

Depending on the business, the transformation from finance manager or financial controller to finance director can be a big leap, and one which could take the unsuspecting accountant by surprise.

For Simon Gray, Chair of the ICAEW Business Committee and Founder of coaching business Career Codex, there are a number of key skills required to make the journey successfully from finance department to boardroom.

Internal communication of the numbers

The very fact that you’ve moved into a director-level role means you understand the numbers. However, you now need to take this a stage further. Your audience has now extended to potentially all stakeholders in the business – operations managers, sales directors, whoever else needs to understand the figures that affect them.

Generally speaking, they will not be as financially literate as you, so the onus is on you to take the numbers and interpret them in a way which people without a finance background can do something with. If the business is looking to make an investment, how should the results be measured? How will a hiring decision affect growth? Which KPIs should the business be using?

It’s easy to see a business from a spreadsheet, but difficult to walk the floor and understand what is actually happening – what the impact of those numbers actually is.

Being prepared to get out and gain a strategic understanding is a key part of being a strong FD or CFO.

External communication of the numbers

Once you step into a finance director or CFO role, you’re potentially speaking to an external audience, as well as those within the business. These are people who have taken an interest in your business: shareholders, analysts and investors – to name a few.

Shareholders might stand up at an AGM and ask questions but won’t necessarily understand the numbers. City analysts may be financially literate but are not necessarily interested in the nuances of what you’re doing and will want to get a feel for the company’s future trajectory.

Whoever the audience, this is where learning how to craft and communicate a message to an audience becomes critical.

Put a spotlight on your presentation skills

When you move from a finance manager or financial controller role to an FD or CFO position, arguably one of the most important things to focus on are your presentation  skills. This is particularly true for finance directors or CFOs who work for larger organisations, who are often thrown into the spotlight to present to interested parties from outside the business.

You may have all the technical knowledge in the world but if you can’t engage an audience and present a message coherently, then they’re not going to pay much attention to what you have to say.

I’ve seen a lot of people over the years who are really good at their jobs but present in a way that stops their message getting across.

Be a futurist, not a historian

From a numbers perspective, in a less high-profile role you’re often looking at historical information – producing statutory accounts, reports etc. At director level, you need to be looking further forward and have a sense of what’s happening next.

You also need to have an industry-wide focus, looking at competitors and other factors external to your business to get an indication of what’s coming down the track and what could impact the future of the business.

Look over the hill to see what’s coming, not just at your own patch at the bottom of it.