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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Leadership journeys, expertly navigated
Penny Ransley joins Starfish Search as Director, Local Government.
Penny will lead the firm’s latest specialist executive search practice. Penny has worked closely with local government members and chief officers to recruit to their leadership teams for 15 years. Her genuine interest and desire to understand local authorities and the communities they serve has secured her reputation as a trusted partner across the sector.
Yomi Johnston and Catherine Kift will work alongside Penny supporting the Local Government practice offering Interim Talent solutions.
Leadership journeys, expertly navigated.
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.
To find out more contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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Spotlight on: Martin Allen Morales
I’m the co-founder of a new organisation which aims to bring funding, skills, expertise, community and network to sustainability start-ups, impact investors and purpose-led professionals.
I’ve had a fun career so far having worked for the last 20 years in both private and non-profit sectors at an operational and leadership level. I’ve launched and run businesses for Apple, Disney and EMI and ran my own sustainability focused food business called Ceviche which introduced Britain to Peruvian food for the first time. I’ve won GQ’s Innovator of the Year Award, the UK Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Best New Sustainable Restaurant Of The Year Award and recently became a bestselling author. I still can’t believe the latter btw. I hold Board roles at Recovery Focus, Big Issue Invest and Future Fit Foundation and I once managed The Muppets. Long story.
Juliet Taylor and her team at Starfish Search approached me for the NED role at Recovery Focus (aka Richmond Fellowship) as they were keen to find someone with a blended commercial, charity and social enterprise background and who had been successful in tech, entrepreneurship, team and brand building. I was drawn to Recovery Focus’ 60 year heritage and their national scope of truly life transforming mental health, domestic violence, substance and gambling abuse services. Juliet guided the selection with precision, transparency and gave me full confidence and trust in the process throughout. I was lucky to get the role and feel privileged to serve Derek Caren and Helen Edwards, CEO and Chair respectively. Making people happy, particularly vulnerable people, is my life mission so RF aligns perfectly with that.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? I would build a tax system that rewarded business leaders who channel some of their companies’ profits and personal financial rewards towards eradicating childhood poverty, climate change, environmental damage and unjust working conditions. This tax system would give them the opportunity to receive high praise and feel great pride in their selfless, collaborative, transparent and empathic approach towards the way they run their lives and their companies.
What is the question people ask you most often? How come you’ve achieved so much in such a short space of time? Answer: I work fast, with my heart full of joy, my mind full of wisdom, my team full of passion, and I make some mistakes along the way. I learn to be better from these, refine my work, develop and share the learnings.
Who has inspired you the most on your own career journey? There is no such thing as a career; there is just a life journey where we have balance or not, work or not, passion or not, purpose or not. My life companion is my amazing wife Lucy who inspires me every day and I’ve also had the good fortune of working with Steve Jobs whilst at Apple and Bob Iger whilst at Disney. Steve taught me how to truly understand the customer journey by crafting it meticulously with no switch offs. Bob taught me how to create a brand and maximise its potential through a broad variety of avenues, revenues, businesses and experiences. But on this journey at the moment those who live and inspire me are Dame Ellen MacArthur and her Foundation, Tom Szaky at TerraCycle, The Drake-Knight Brothers at TeeMill, Thick Nhat Hahn and Greta Thunberg.
And every few days I also remember the many others who have inspired me such as Maya Angelou, Miriam Makeba, Ruth Buendia, Fela Kuti, Nicomedes Santa Cruz, Muhammad Ali, Jackson Pollock, Pablo Neruda, Julia Butterfly Hill, St Francis Of Asisi, Peter Tatchell, Martin Luther King, Manu Chao, Pele and Eckhart Tolle among others.
What words of wisdom have resonated with you that you now find yourself passing on to others? “One should never be nervous about being asked to tackle anything. One has all the power necessary to achieve everything within oneself. It is only necessary to remember the power. If people are nervous it is because they forget their potentialities and remember only their limitations.” HH Shantanand Saraswati
Starfish Search. Leadership journeys, expertly navigated.
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.
Starfish Search. Leadership journeys, expertly navigated.
Spotlight on: Natalie Campbell
Natalie Campbell is an award-winning social entrepreneur and co-founder of A Very Good Company (AVGC), a global social innovation agency. On 1st March she took over the role of CEO at Belu Water, who give 100% of their profits to the charity WaterAid to help transform lives worldwide with clean water.
2020 has been called The Lost Year, but what have you gained or discovered that you would otherwise have missed? I had not heard of the ‘Lost Year’, it does not apply to us at Belu as it has been busy with all hands on deck. Team Belu has evolved so much over the past few months and as a new CEO I was given the ‘gift of time’ to work with my team when people were not bogged down in day to day activities with no headspace to innovate and collaborate in a different way.
After the initial crisis management phase – when we realised our distribution would stop and our income would rapidly decline – we decided to stay pragmatic but positive and shift our thinking to a ten-year planning cycle with a new strategy called ‘Belu Project 2030’. My team had clearer diaries so we worked together to think about what sort of business we want to be in the future. We knew we were over reliant on one industry for our income and for us to grow and future proof we needed to think about diversifying our income streams. Our team has also had the space to develop their own relationships with supply chain leads giving us the opportunity to talk to more people about our brand and what we stand for. Of course, it’s been challenging at times having little income, but we now have a platform for growth, and we have been able to develop this at pace with a fully engaged and consulted workforce. We have also had time to think about the expansion of our filtration system offer, how it takes the sustainability agenda forward and how we will grow this offer over the next ten years.
Regarding our partnership with WaterAid we have had to think about how we can deliver impact not only through financial giving. The best corporate-charity partnerships are about thought leadership, collaborative disruption and making people lives better at a systems level, a lot of which is about more than the financial transaction.
Our challenge moving forward, when things are returning to normal as the HORECA sector has re-opened, is ensuring that my team have the space and time to innovate. It has been a blessing as a new CEO to do be able to do a full review of our operating model and analysis of our financial sustainability. We are emerging from lockdown in a strong position and I am grateful I have had time to make the best strategic decisions for the future of Belu.
What is the question people ask you most often? I am often asked ‘How did you get here’ often in reference my age and being a Black woman, people are surprised at what I have done in my career. A lot of people ask me to mentor them, but I have more impact as a sponsor I like to help people to achieve what they want rather than mentor them.
What qualities do you most respect in others? Curiosity, Honesty, Straight talking – getting to the point quickly. Be a nice person, it is underrated these days.
What do you wish you had known five years ago? Do not put too much pressure on yourself, live your life, relax, and have fun. I always felt like I would have to do a billion things to be a success in a few, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I am at a phase in my life now where I do fewer things and am so comfortable doing less. I am a CEO of a brilliant company and I am here to deliver a new 10-year strategy, this is my focus. I still have two NED positions, but I have scaled this activity back. I am focused on being the best role model for the team, I feel so positive about the future of Belu and the journey we are going to go on.
Starfish Search. Leadership journeys, expertly navigated.