If you were the CFO of a global business, would you stand in a park outside Sydney’s Central Station and sing to passing workers? The suggestion is not as farfetched as it might seem. As the Australian and New Zealand CFO and COO of Regus, the world’s largest provider of flexible workplaces, Paula Kensington did just that before going to a singing exam. It was an experience that emboldened her to further step outside the customary role of a CFO.\
“I stood there in the morning at 8am and I sang three songs that I had to practice for this exam and no-one even batted an eyelid. That gave me the strength to know that if I could sing to a whole lot of strangers, I could stand up in a board room and I could talk to anybody. It gives you so much confidence. What does it matter if you fail, go and do something that gets you out there,” she said.
Kensington is a strong believer that CFOs need to break their customary shackles. “It’s no longer about crunching the numbers. It’s about rhetoric, speaking, communication and storytelling. If you are going to be a CFO you need to get really close to those kinds of attributes.”
Neither is she alone in encouraging CFOs to market themselves and their careers as brands – a practice more commonly known as personal branding. A CFO can build a personal brand with the way they treat and interact with staff, peers and customers. It can also mean mentoring others, sharing your thoughts and expertise through social media, talking at conferences and being generous with your time and knowledge. Ranked by media company Thomson Reuters as CFO of the Year in 2013, she has set herself the goal of writing one blog a month to strengthen her personal branding through social media.
Personal branding is not just a “me-too” exercise. This September the benefits of a CFO having a strong personal brand were brought into sharp relief as it emerged that both public accounting practices and commerce are struggling to find sufficient top quality candidates. National unemployment figures might have been down, but that was not the view of Mark Smith, the managing director of recruitment firm People2People. Although his latest figures found that more employers were looking for accounting and finance staff, the trend was not complemented by a similar increase in employees looking for work or to change companies. Indeed their level of activity actually declined.
While senior roles were the easiest to fill, recruiters reported difficulties finding the best talent in specific middle level areas. Skills in short supply in commerce included management accountants, commercial analysts, payroll managers with expertise in specific accounting software, and accountants with IT skills in areas such as data analytics and data mining.
The challenge of finding quality candidates is exacerbated in an environment of cost rationalisation which businesses have pursued relentlessly in the past 4-6 years. Raghav Mehta, a partner with REO Recruitment said that while the cost of a finance team could represent 2-4 per cent of a business’ revenue, the goal was to incorporate efficiencies that would get closer to 2 per cent. When businesses are doing more with less, only the best talent can create that sort of value.
The CFO can no longer treat recruitment as just a marketing or HR responsibility. These days the CFO must be just as active in ensuring that their personal brand supports attracting and keeping the best talent. Whether they like it or not, CFOs will come under increasing pressure to have a social media strategy as web sites spring up that rate the good, the bad and the downright ugly experiences of employees and potential candidates. Just as travellers use TripAdvisor for the best priced hotel, or foodies descend on Yelp to find the best restaurants, sites that review companies and their executives are growing in popularity.
Sites such as Seek and Glassdoor have rapidly expanded their review pages to meet the demands of young candidates in particular. Whether deciding to make a purchase, find a partner, pick a restaurant or find a job, review sites are becoming an integral part of the interconnected mobile world.
As social media forums, review sites and directories make more information available about organisations and their senior executives to candidates, confirmation of your talents – or lack of them – will be at their fingertips. Candidates are looking for insights into the world where they could be spending the next few years. Among the attributes they will be seeking will be a thirst to know if they will be working alongside a ‘thought leader’, a mentor, and an outstanding networker. Candidates will compare your online brand with other CFOs.
As Kensington said: “The time and effort you invest in your personal brand will not only pay off in your own career, but it will bring untold value to your company. If the world sees a business leader who is trustworthy, respectable, dynamic, generous and knowledgeable, there’s a good chance it will see your organisation that way, too.”