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Student Insights

Becoming a finance leader: meet Alina Cummins

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 29 Feb 2024

Alina Cummins, Head of Finance at Serpentine, young woman standing in front of wall mural colourful
Atta Kwami, Dzidzɔ kple amenuveve (Joy and Grace), 2021-22. Installation View: Maria Lassnig Prize Mural, Serpentine North Garden, 6 September 2022 – 30 April 2024. Courtesy of the Estate of Atta Kwami. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.

Alina Cummins, Head of Finance at Serpentine, reflects on her route into the arts and charity sectors as a finance professional, and the importance of championing diversity and inclusion as part of her work.

Since completing the ACA qualification in 2012, Alina Cummins has worked for some household names: from the Natural History Museum and ZSL London Zoo to Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. Now, Alina combines her financial skills with her love of art by working for Serpentine, a world-class contemporary art gallery set in the leafy surrounds of London’s Kensington Gardens.

As Head of Finance, Alina is focused on strengthening Serpentine’s finance function and using technology to streamline processes and enhance quality of service. “I find it exciting when I’m working on something transformational,” says Alina. “This is an organisation that is doing a lot and pushes me further.”

Serpentine consists of two galleries, North and South, as well as the famous Serpentine Pavilion, which is commissioned to a different emerging architect each year. Alina’s office sits directly above the South Gallery. “Often, I use my lunchtimes to look around the gallery,” she says. “It’s important not to lose sight of what a wonderful place I work in. At the Natural History Museum, I’d be passing through the Earth Gallery, which has this huge, beautiful globe suspended in it, and I’d hear a group of kids saying, ‘Oh that’s amazing’. And it was amazing. I’ve always wanted to work somewhere I can feel really excited about.”

The pace is fast. Serpentine mostly showcases living artists, so putting on an exhibition is a complex and collaborative process, not only with the artists themselves but with the individuals, corporate partners, trusts and foundations that the Gallery relies on for funding, ensuring exhibitions stay free and accessible to all. As a result, Alina completes forecasts every two weeks. “It was quite a difficult thing to get into the rhythm of, but now I’ve got the structure in place, it’s not such a surprise when it comes around.”

Alina Cummins, Head of Finance at Serpentine, young woman standing in front of Serpentine building columns north

Finding the right path

Alina started her accountancy journey at school, when her mum, spotting her talent for maths, suggested the career. “I didn’t really know what being an accountant meant at the time,” she says. “But I did an accountancy A level and really enjoyed it, so I followed it with a degree in accounting at the University of Birmingham.”

As her degree came to a close, Alina focused on finding an ACA training position. “There was a lot of competition to get a corporate role at one of the Big Four,” she recalls. “It didn't feel like the right fit for me, however, so I joined Buzzacott in their charity and not-for-profit team. It was such a friendly, supportive environment.”

Since qualifying, Alina has consistently worked with creative and innovative organisations, and she was a particular fan of Serpentine before joining. In particular, she was moved by seeing Rory Pilgrim’s Rafts project - which was nominated for a Turner Prize and brings together storytelling, poetry and song - at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne.

Alina Cummins, Head of Finance at Serpentine, young woman standing inside a modern building curved column glass windows

The responsibility to lead

Alina is also proud to be working somewhere that is committed to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). “Serpentine has pledged to promote an open, collaborative, supportive and diverse culture. It’s part of our strategy and written into our policies and processes.” There are also regular EDI training for staff on topics such as exploring gender and using pronouns for example. “These start conversations,” says Alina, “which flutter across Serpentine and influence everyone.”

Championing EDI in her role is not only the right thing to do, Alina believes, but makes financial sense by ensuring staff are happier and healthier. “As I get older, I’ve felt more responsibility to act as a role model,” she adds. “I try to invest in my development and leadership training and be fair and transparent in things like decision making. I want to be seen as someone who works authentically.”

As well as strengthening your technical skills, Alina strongly recommends developing your ‘soft’ skills. Communicating, active listening, coaching and collaborating all help create a more diverse and inclusive culture in the workplace. “As a chartered accountant, you’re always going to be seen as a professional and as a leader,” she says. “That’s what the ACA taught me: a sense of professionalism. People are expecting you to be an expert, so that affects how you behave.”

What Alina would like to see now, from all organisations, is more monitoring of EDI initiatives. “Most organisations have EDI strategies in place, but are they working? Are they actually improving diversity and inclusion?” she questions. “I’m part of the senior management team here at Serpentine, so I have the power to bring these questions to the table and open conversations to find solutions.”

Alina Cummins, Head of Finance at Serpentine, young woman standing in front of modern glass building plants trees

Join ICAEW’s Diversity and Inclusion Community for more insight on supporting the diversity agenda.

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