Changing role of the CFO through COVID-19 and beyond
Saras Seth, a career interim of several years, joined Prince’s Trust as Interim Chief Finance Officer earlier this year and has since joined permanently. I recently caught up with him to discuss his experiences of leading as a CFO through lockdown and how the priorities within his role changed during this time.
How did you feel about going into lockdown not long into your new role?
It was as a challenge; I was a new member of the team but as the CFO I was central to most of the decisions being made within the organisation at this time. I had to learn how the organisation worked very quickly. As an experienced interim, I quickly assimilated what needed to be done. I had a similar experience four years ago whilst I was at the BBC. At the time, we had no offices for three-four months, and I had to manage the whole team remotely. Being an interim did not affect how I behaved, you look at what needs to be achieved and endeavour to get it done, no matter what.
How has your role at Prince’s Trust been able to respond to the pandemic and beyond?
Currently the main objective for any CFO is to preserve cash. In the current climate the finance professionals have become the most important cog in the wheel, and they drive the organisation forward whilst also adopting a defensive/ survival mode. Most CFOs will have this skillset and you find yourself almost taking control of the ship, providing guidance inside and outside of the organisation. You find yourself running lots of scenarios and numbers and what the hypothesis are, updating the board and the team constantly. The role becomes critical as it is the only one that can present what might happen in the future.
We discussed the CFO role being the driver for change within organisations. How would you describe your leadership style and how have you motivated your teams during this change journey?
Interestingly, during the pandemic there have been far fewer staff for the business to manage due to furlough. All organisations have their own DNA, processes, and momentum but with fewer people you find yourself trying to navigate a business which is becoming leaner. You make structural changes within the organisation and learn how to operate with less staff. Staying positive is important and to succeed over this period, you must simplify things. At the Trust we looked at what adds value and focused on that. Being clear with the team on what you expect to be achieved and give realistic timelines. It feels more prescriptive (due to remote working) and there is more clarity and centralisation. To keep the organisation engaged, you must know what you need to stop or continue doing to keep the business on track.
How do you think your role might be changing as we emerge from the pandemic?
The role of a CFO will be challenging for the next three to five years. The challenges that will be in place for this role will be one of constant evolution. Mapping forward as far as possible but not committing too far forward in a hard sense. There will be more scrutiny and focus on the delivery of our services and to navigate the future you will need to be as agile and as nimble as possible. Organisations will start to centralise a lot of their processes and then outsource to reduce committed costs.
What changes do you see for finance more generally as we look to the future?
There will be a bigger focus on governance and oversight by the Trustees. It will cover GDPR, risk, forecasting and safeguarding. There will be an increase in scrutiny from the board and specifically the Treasurer in this current environment. My current challenge right now is governance, forecasting, asset management and commerciality.
Give us your insight into what positive changes have occurred due to COVID?
We have found ways of stopping doing things which were not adding value and have focused on the tasks that pay dividends. One of the insights we have had at the Trust is that remaining teams have become focussed more on core processes and Charities will have to find a balance between the value add they require and the amount of resources they want to commit to things ; we may find that many Charities are over-resourced as delivery models change.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Trying to improve processes and quality of insight whilst working remotely. It has been challenging trying to relay information virtually through technology. Working on projects remotely without excellent collaborative digital tools has been difficult.
What have you learned about yourself in lockdown?
I have found out I am not a big fan of working from home and I have learned that the work/life balance line has become exceedingly blurred!
What will be your next priorities at the Trust?
My next focus will be on the improving the quality of information.
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Positive Action Vs Positive Discrimination
One of the first questions I am asked when discussing a recruitment campaign is ‘can you guarantee a diverse shortlist?’ To answer anything other than ‘we will do everything we can but there are no guarantees’ might be disingenuous; nevertheless, it’s hugely frustrating for councils to hear.
It is inevitable that selection panels will be disappointed with homogeneous shortlists. Countless studies have for years confirmed that genuinely diverse workforces are more creative, innovative, and produce better decisions. They also have a deeper understanding of their customers and audiences. We know that councils are persistently under the spotlight as organisations who should be getting this right.
The Black Lives Matter movement has shone a brighter light on social inequality and diversity and will be a powerful catalyst for change. For now, however, we can achieve progress together through the choices we make locally. Doing this properly means gaining clarity on some basic principles.
First, what is positive discrimination? An employer falls foul if they appoint or seek to appoint an individual based purely on a protected characteristic rather than experience or qualifications. Protected characteristics include race, gender, age, disability, religion, and sexual orientation.
It is illegal under the Equality Act 2010 to set quotas to recruit or promote a specific number of people with a protected characteristic. There are of course some occupational exceptions e.g. a women’s refuge can apply a requirement for its staff to be women.
Second, what is positive action? Positive action became legal in 2011 and comes into play when an organisation is deciding between candidates who are equally qualified. In this situation, an employer can choose to appoint an individual from an underrepresented group if they are as qualified and fit for the role as the other candidates.
Positive action can also include employers taking measures to address issues within their organisations to support employees with a protected characteristic to overcome disadvantage and discrimination.
In an effort to leave unsuccessful diversity recruitment strategies behind, many organisations are now implementing targeted development programmes for existing staff. These can be very effective in progressing fourth and fifth tier managers whilst enhancing the reputation of your organisation. Councils need not work in isolation; you could partner and work within regional clusters to develop talent and OD programmes that extend opportunity and choice for our future leaders.
As experienced recruiters we are already playing a valuable role in enhancing diversity in different sectors. Coaching and guidance on navigating unfamiliar recruitment processes is a small part of the puzzle but has enormous impact in helping to fulfil potential.
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2020 and the rise of the wholehearted Board
The longer–term implications on boards of 2020 will not only affect the way they operate in future, but also how they are built and how they are led. Both the Covid-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement have shone a light brightly on some longstanding issues that many suspected were already there. The transition from the pandemic now forces positive change and growth. While governance structures, and trustee selection and utilisation, are ripe for review, for some boards the events of 2020 have already led to a much more fundamental look at the board’s role and capability. Here, thedevelopment of those teams is perhaps based on a realisation that experience and skills alone are not enough to govern well. Instead, resilient, sustainable boards require people who bring their whole selves to the board room to participate: diversity in its truest sense.
Perhaps the four biggest questions boards are now asking themselves are:
- Are we still relevant? Even for boards that have previously championed inclusion and diversity, this remains a massive question. In order to govern their organisations effectively, and to have rich and rounded debate, boards must be able to reflect the experiences and perspectives of their audiences and client groups. Inclusive and balanced boards with diversity that reaches through and beyond the most talked about or visible protected characteristics is essential. Painting by numbers on a board is not enough: boards that move with confidence into the future will be diverse in a three-dimensional way – their background, their experiences and their engagement. They will be supported by a board culture that sets the conditions for true diversity to flourish and reach its potential in terms of creativity, insight, ‘connectedness’ and challenge power.
- Are we still talking about the right things? One of the mistakes many boards make lies in forgetting to take a step back and review whether they too need to change in line with the executive they are overseeing. Executive leaders are looking to their boards more than ever before to support them in navigating uncertainty, and to help them innovate and seize opportunity in a challenging transition phase. Boards are exposed and their organisations vulnerable if they are unable to provide the right gauge of leadership at the right moment. Boards that have come through Covid successfully have been adaptable as a team and as individuals, able to assess quickly the implications of environmental factors on service users and audiences, and have had the visibility they need across huge swathes of the operating environment to make connections.
- What does this mean for our people? Boards are rightly asking themselves whether they are still equipped with the right skills, experiences and perspectives. Plans for board succession may now change radically, or be further defined in a way that takes a broader range of qualities, values and attributes into account. Subject matter expertise,capacity to support and scrutinise in key areas (such as data or legal, people and finance) and leverage and influence will still be valued by boards to a greater or lesser degree. However, the broader life experiences that have until now been viewed as somehow separate to professional value will gain in importance, with the rise of a new and more rounded view of what it means to be an effective board member.
- Who are we choosing to walk forward with? A time of crisis, of review and then of consolidation will emphasise the importance of friendships and alliances. This is a time to think laterally about those partnerships that will count in delivering impact. There is no doubt that the events of 2020 have been a catalyst for new conversations; while competition for resource will intensify, there is a major opportunity to break down unhelpful barriers between organisations where they share common goals. Now is the time when finding willing partners and embracing innovation and creativity together can be more valuable than ever – and more fulfilling.
While pre-2020 many boards have looked great on paper and felt good in practice, there is now an unrivalled opportunity to move to a new way of being. After all, a year of tough decisions, of unprecedented demand on time and potential, must mean something positive in the end. It is precisely this challenge that the spirit of many trustees and their chairs was always meant for.
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