If you’ve read any of my articles, you may well have wondered why I’m not a CFO by now. I presume to talk about the Finance function. I talk as if I know what the Finance function should be, and how it should be run. I’ve had many senior roles in my career in Finance over the last 20 years. So, why am I not a CFO by now?
So, I thought I’d tell you a little of my story.
And as you read, you’ll realise two things:
- I didn’t follow all the advice I gave in the last article I posted, giving tips to plot a career path to be CFO one day. Much of that advice is based on reflecting on what I did, what I should have done, and what I’ve learned from other people. And,
- No one is entirely in control of their own future.
So, the fact that I haven’t attained a CFO position isn’t because I haven’t tried to, didn’t want to, or wasn’t good enough. I actually think I’d make a fairly decent CFO, Finance Director, or at least a Group FC.
This article is meant to counterbalance the other article, with a bit of a reality check… from my real experience.
Lots of young accountants have dreams of one day being a CFO or Finance Director, rising to the top of their function. I was not one of those young career-minded accountants.
I fell into accountancy after failing the entry requirements in what I’d really wanted to do when I was 18. I was good with numbers, but couldn’t face studying pure maths at university, so I chose accounting almost at random to go with it, to keep me from going bonkers.
I chose public practice and training as a chartered accountant after university, because that’s what seemed to be the thing to do with an accounting degree. But there was a recession in 1991-2, and even with a good honours degree, it was more than a year after graduation before I finally landed a trainee role. And it meant when I left home, where I was brought up, I moved more than 200 miles away and started a new life out on my own.
I passed all the professional exams first time. I aced the first set and scraped through the finals.
And after being passed over for a management position at my firm in the year after I qualified, I was facing another year of running the same audits with the same clients with the same issues. And I didn’t want to be bored. I wanted to learn new things and new skills.
So, I left to join Barclays Bank in their travel money division.
Surprised by success
And then within 18 months I had my first promotion, and I was managing a full end to end Finance team of 30 people.
18 months after that I was involved in selling the division to Travelex, which at the time was a small, entrepreneurial, founder-owned and managed, business.
I led the Finance transition, and I was in the right place at the right time to get the job of Finance Director for the new subsidiary within Travelex – Travelex Currency Services. I was 29 years old with a team of almost 50 people. And I was the youngest board director within the Travelex group at the time.
And I grew with the role, putting in long hours to keep up.
I loved the variety of the role, and the new commerciality – the fact that I was leading a team, dealing with controls, management reporting, forecasting, treasury, tax, and so on, as well as leading commercial bids to potential clients.
And I became more ambitious. Up to that point I’d just wanted to do the best job I could, and see what I could learn. I had no early career ambitions to be an FD. It was almost as if I only woke up to my ambitions when I’d practically achieved them!
Swallowing my pride
But after nearly two-and-a-half years in the role, I faced two issues.
Firstly, my team was still plagued by high volume, low value accounting errors, that stemmed from the speed of the transition from Barclays, and control issues we’d not had chance to get on top of because of the speed of growth.
Secondly, Travelex group and TCS were growing extremely quickly. The turnover of my business was now heading for more than double what it was on the exit from Barclays. Travelex had taken over Thomas Cook Financial Services, and I was now flying around Europe leading proposals for business outside the UK.
The top people in Travelex doubted my ability to keep up with the pace, and felt they needed someone with more experience in the FD role. I disagreed. The only thing we agreed on in the end was that we should part company. From start to finish, it was not an amicable parting.
And the bitterness from that stayed with me for a couple of years afterwards.
I tried to get another FD role. But the challenge I faced was that I’d not had long enough in the previous role. Just over two years as an FD, and still being only 31, recruiters were not taking me seriously (in my view).
And so, I defaulted back to the learning mindset, rather than the ambitious one.
I took on a role at Centrica plc, as Corporate Centre Financial Controller. Not a glamorous role. But I wanted to learn from being in a Group Finance function of a plc.
And that’s exactly what happened. I learnt a lot. Much of which I am writing about and teaching about now!
There had been the suggestion in the recruitment process that a move into a business unit team would be possible after 18 months. But that never transpired. Instead, a series of chops and changes, leading to me taking a role in Group HR.
And after three-and-a-half years, along came a big round of redundancies.
This time I was in the wrong place at the wrong time! I was working in HR, running their Finance and MI team. When the axe falls, you don’t want to be in a support function within a support function!
So, off I went, this time without bitterness, because I understood the business pressures that led to the need for the cuts. And in fact, I’d helped HR make their target cost savings, which included putting a red line through my own name in the process.
My last permanent role
It took me ten months to find the next permanent role. I still wanted to get my career back on track towards a Finance Director position, and was trying to claw my way back through a commercial Financial Controller role.
So, I took my time, and did my first lot of interim work (in a Retail group) while I was looking.
And the role I landed was really good. Group FC with a sub-group within Logica.
And the story of how I got the role is worth outlining.
By the time the recruitment consultant called me, I was already starting to get desperate, and was starting to consider accepting a lower level role. So, I interviewed for the Financial Reporting Manager role.
Having had two interviews, though, including one with the CFO, I decided I couldn’t mentally step backwards in my career. The role was just not challenging enough for me. So, I told the recruitment consultant I was going to withdraw.
And at that point they revealed that the Group FC was moving on elsewhere within Logica, and they wanted to offer me his role instead, together with a good pay package.
So, I was relieved at that point, and thought I was back on track.
But, then Logica sold the business, within 6 months of me joining, to a private equity consortium. The CFO and CEO left, the new board started cost cutting, and after I’d helped with the separation from Logica… I was made redundant!
That was to be the last permanent role of my career.
It lasted a year and one month. And then it ended through no fault of my own.
Time for reflection.
I fairly quickly got an interim role for 5 months, working for the CFO I’d worked for in Logica, who’d moved to a very small software company to help them survive, basically.
But deep down I was feeling like my career was pretty much in tatters.
Changing tack to embrace interim management
I looked at my CV. And I thought, there’s nothing on there that convincingly sells me into a permanent role. I’d worked for seven different companies in ten years. And given that I’d worked on some pretty meaty integration/separation projects, my CV was starting to look like an interim manager’s CV!
So, I decided, rather than moaning about that aspect of my experience, I’d try to use it to my advantage. So, I embraced the interim management lifestyle. Deep down I was starting to feel disappointed with the way my career was going. But you have to keep going, and to respond in some way.
I guess that’s the point at which I started to let my ambition go. I needed to just ride the waves for a while.
The start of reinvention
The first year as a Finance interim manager was quite successful. But then the recession caused by the 2008/9 financial crisis started to take hold.
I finished a very successful 7-month assignment as Group Financial Controller for a $1bn group, operating in 80+ countries.
And just as I came back onto the market, the job market dried up.
So, I spent eight months trying to reinvent myself again, and to remap my career. I tried to start up a business as a freelance independent consultant – in the UK we would call it a “part time Finance Director” model. I think elsewhere it’s called a Virtual FD or a Fractional CFO, or similar. Basically, it’s providing small businesses with access to an experienced senior Finance person on a part time basis, so that it’s more affordable.
I bought a marketing course specially aimed at freelance professional services consultants, and went through it, and acted on it. I started networking. I set up a website. I started blogging and trying to get speaking engagements.
I also bought an internet business course, and started to look at building information products to sell.
What I’m trying to get across to you is that I didn’t just phone recruitment agencies every week and spend the rest of the time watching TV. I actually spent every day learning something and doing something new, to try and create a new version of success for myself.
And then the illness
After eight months out of work, at the point when we were just running out of money, I managed to get an interim contract. It was lower rate than I’d been on before, and it would mean staying away from home every week. But at least it was something.
And when I say we were running out of money, I mean I’d got to the limits on four credit cards, an overdraft, sold our main car, and cashed in an investment that was supposed to be linked to our mortgage! We’d started to consider putting the house on the market.
So, career-wise, I was just relieved to be back in work! I gave up on the freelance part-time FD business, because I came to realise it was no less risky than interim work, for no more reward, and much more hard slog in marketing and business development. But I don’t undervalue the massive amount I learnt through making the attempt.
I was in the new interim role for one month, and then I was taken seriously ill.
I was rushed into hospital on Christmas Day 2009, and stayed there for two months, while they stabilised me and diagnosed my first round with cancer – non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. You can read more about that, if it’s an issue that affects you, in either of two books I’ve written about my experience – Cancer and Me, or Facing Cancer with Faith.
Fast forward to failure recognition
I was then out of work until June 2011, recovering from chemo, and then trying to find a job. By that stage I’d done one month of paid work in 25 months! My career virtually came to a full stop and had to be rebooted!
In April 2011 I had the frustration of being turned down at the last stage, when I was the only candidate being considered, for a fantastic Interim Group FC role, on the basis that they thought the commuting and long hours may have been too strenuous for me in my first role back after illness. Why not let me be the judge of that?!
So, Ageas Insurance took me on in June 2011, and that led to a series of interim/project assignments, which kept me going until the beginning of 2017. They saw me through my first relapse in 2012, allowing me to work part time with flexibility on a lower rate. And they saw me through the first round of treatment in my second relapse in 2015. I then had to take a 6 month break to have a stem cell transplant. But they took me back to manage an ERP implementation as soon as I was well enough to work.
But eventually in February 2017 the well finally dried up, and I had to leave Ageas! There was an irony to being at Ageas on a series of short term contracts which accumulated to longer than my longest permanent role!!
Great, you might think, to have such a long succession of contracts. And I don’t mean to sound ungrateful to Ageas, but I was working below my capabilities most of the time, and on lower pay than I’d been earning in 2009.
I wouldn’t normally say this, and perhaps it’s a mistake to publicly write about it. But I want you to understand that for that whole period between 2009 and 2016, I’d practically lost all sense of direction in my career.
I knew I should be looking for a new job most of the time, especially before I took on the role in the integration programme in 2013-15. But, they are a great bunch of people at Ageas. I loved working with them. It was easier just to stick with the people who liked having me around!
But deep down, the main reason, I came to realise, for holding back on looking at career moves was because I was sick of rejection and failure. I was fed up of trying to get somewhere and never making it. I knew that if I looked for a new role, the recruitment consultants would ask me what I was looking for. And I realised at some point that was what I feared. Because every time I came to prepare for that question, I got the voice in my head saying, “what’s the point specifying what you’re looking for? You’ll never get it, and you’ll end up doing something completely different! It’s a waste of time having a plan!”
I even found myself sitting at my desk in 2015, writing a list of all the things I’d failed at in my life. That was a depressing day, but I needed to face it. And I started to turn things around immediately. I followed that up with a list of successes, and a list of ways that all those failures had led to good things.
And so, here I am in 2018. I’m still doing interim work.
Supercharged Finance was born at the end of 2016. It’s the big project (well, it’s big for me!) based on all that learning I’ve been doing in internet business and marketing since 2009!
I had 5 months out of work after my time at Ageas ended last year… just because I couldn’t find a job. A few times I was second choice… but being second isn’t enough when you’re going for a job! It’s not easy going, this interim management life.
And Supercharged Finance isn’t easy going either! It takes a lot of hard work, but I’m learning all the time (and I’m not just saying that). And it’s a lot of fun! And it has given me a bit of direction again.
The point is that career planning does not guarantee success
The point of me writing all of this is not to moan or bid for sympathy! I’ve been really open and honest only for your benefit.
You can get blown off course by factors outside your control to the point where you can’t get back on course. You have to pick a different course. And I don’t want you to be disillusioned and downhearted if this happens to you.
When it happens, you have to be able to respond and keep going.
It’s a bit like a yacht sailing to get to a beautiful island.
The cross-wind gets up, and the storms come, and the crew will try for as long as possible to hold the course. And after they go off course, they’ll try to bring the yacht back in the right direction when the conditions become favourable again.
But if that keeps happening, there comes a point where it becomes life-threatening to keep trying get to that island.
And then the better option becomes letting the wind and the current take them around the island, and along to the next island further on.
The captain has to rethink the destination for the safety of the crew and the passengers.
But, you know what? Perhaps that next island will turn out to be even more beautiful.
Just because it’s not what you originally thought you wanted, doesn’t make it automatically bad.
There is a lot more to life than being a CFO!