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Mike Suffield | The New Role of Finance

In an interview with Nida Shahid - Associate Director - Advisory, SHRM India, 

SHRM in association with ACCA conducted a joint study in 2019 to  envisage the journey ahead for the finance profession and understand how organizations are taking on the challenges in a highly digitized world. It also delineated the future of the Finance function and key skillsets needed or the next-gen CFOs and senior finance leaders to succeed in the changing workplace, along with the roadmap that should be embraced for future success.

Taking the discussions ahead, SHRM interviewed Mike Suffield, Director of Professional Insights, ACCA in March 2020. At  ACCA, Mike leads a team of experts commenting on technical and professional developments, a team that delivers thought leadership on issues impacting the future of the finance profession.

Excerpts from the interview:

How do you see work changing in this decade and what are  the  key shifts that you envisage for dealing with disruptive technology?

Technology and digitalization have had a massive worldwide impact. They are transforming the global economy and changing the fabric of businesses,  leading to huge changes in how we work and live. Though technology is expected to eliminate many of the routine jobs, over time it will create more value-added jobs for finance professionals and so it should be seen as an opportunity. Additionally, the traditional idea of a single, linear career is passé. Career paths will take a very different route in the future, providing greater opportunities for finance professionals.

If you're looking at a change or shift in career paths, what is the new skill set required? Do you anticipate some amount of unlearning-relearning for finance professionals?

I can split this into two parts. It's really important that the finance professional has the core skills around technical and ethical issues. However, we also need to look at digital skills, creativity and need to relook at leadership and communication skills. The ACCA qualification provides all this and more. It's not just about becoming a qualified accountant, it's about lifelong learning and developing relevant skills.  Additionally, organizations should allow you to tailor your learning to your own needs.

If we were to look at leadership, ethics, compliance, there are new laws, new regulations that are emerging.  Additionally, due to globalization professionals are moving across geographies. If one looks at “technical skills”, what do finance professionals need to consider in this changing environment?

The real building blocks of being a finance professional are about understanding how finance and accounting works.   It also involves behavioral qualities, and particularly nowadays, knowledge about digital and data. That's where finance professionals need to  continue to build skills. So while a professional qualification will provide a bedrock of skills, they need to acquire other specialized skills relevant to the role they are taking on.

Ethics in finance is often spoken about and there are grey areas, as it's understood differently and the laws have their fine print. What is your take on how important ethical behavior is for finance professionals?

I think it's absolutely fundamental and increasingly important  in this changing world. ACCA continues to do a lot of work in this area. We've looked at what ethics means in a digital age, the issues around how machine learning works and its implications. In the accountancy profession, there is actually a global set of ethical standards that everybody learns and is required to adhere to. In a world where perhaps there's less trust, I think ethics is more important than ever. So it is important to work with a professionally qualified finance professional as they will follow ethical work practices. If an accountant is a member of a professional body, there is a whole membership and governance structure supporting that professional – for instance at ACCA all our members have a Rulebook which details their responsibilities as a member.

Ethics is a foundation but certain elements of bias creep in any leadership. So how do you ensure financial professionals are being unbiased in reporting the data that they're presenting, especially now when  even technology and AI can have a bias?

That's a really good point. It does link back to the fundamental elements of the ethical framework that accountants work to. So integrity should sit at the heart of everything that the finance professional does. For example, if you're looking at risk of bias, then the accountant acting with integrity should recognize and be transparent about that risk.The accountant should know how to manage the risk. ACCA has just published reports on what we call explainable artificial intelligence.  

As some of these professionals  move to leadership profiles, how do you see their role evolving as  senior finance professionals and CFOs?

I think it's really important for the present and future CFOs not just to be thinking of themselves as a finance person. They should be seeing themselves as leaders of the organization, providing a finance perspective to the challenges or the strategies that an organization is handling. The potential is absolutely there for these people to become CEOs and board members. They should understand and develop their leadership style, be flexible, and master teamwork.  

What are some of the key functions integral to finance leadership– functions one needs to network with  to support the organization's strategy?

I think you need to understand the organization as a whole and what it's seeking to do. You need to involve all the people from IT, Marketing, Production, etc., in order to address the issues that the organization faces.  Finance should always be a really strong voice at the table.

How do you see functional leaders like Finance and HR heads working together to groom the next generation of finance leaders? What role should they play in nurturing talent in Finance?

The strategy needs to be flexible. Different people will have different learning requirements throughout their careers. But I think it's important to identify talent, whether it's in finance or any other function.  The CHRO and CFO need to work together  to develop cross-functional leadership to groom effective leaders.

While we're looking at cross-functional leaders, how easy or difficult is it for finance professionals to move across industries and geographies because finance especially is very geography specific?

One way to resolve this is through having a high quality global finance qualification like ACCA’s that gives an opportunity to work in different markets. I think it's really worthwhile trying to develop that global perspective, which further hones important life and professional skills.

What would be  your message for some young talent who wants to move into a CFO profile?

 Opportunities are expanding all the time. It's for the individual to think about what really motivates them, what’s their purpose, and where they want to work. Find a mentor to help you get places. It’s important to think about what skills are required and take ownership to develop those skills. This attitude will definitely lead young talent to rise the corporate ladder to take up CFO roles.

What about finance professionals moving to be CEOs, the assumption being that finance is next in line for CEO and leadership roles?

I'm very confident that CFOs who develop their leadership skills are incredibly well placed to take on CEO roles if they want to. But I think a career initially as a CFO, forms a strong base to rise up to CEO level.


Mike Suffield,

Director of Professional Insights, ACCA


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