When Tracy Ewen, FD-turned-MD at finance provider IGF, decided to spend some
time as operations director, she knew it was going to be a challenge. But it was
an investment in her future.
“To understand the business I had to understand our customers, so I was keen
to leave the safety of the finance department and take on an operations role,”
Ewen is not alone. Increasing numbers of senior finance staff with
traditional finance backgrounds are beginning to think about how they can
broaden their experience, and many companies are now encouraging their finance
staff to take a couple of years away from the department and try front-line
operations roles. But while these exercises can be very beneficial for both the
business and the person involved, they are not always easy to get right. There
are several challenges to overcome to make it work and careful planning is
Active business partners
Perhaps the main reason why businesses want their finance staff to work on the
operations side is to give them a clearer understanding of broad business
issues. While in the past it may have been acceptable for finance staff to be
little more than score-keepers, today they are expected to be active partners in
the business. To do so, they need to understand how marketing, human resources,
IT and other elements of the business function.
“Modern finance directors are much more than simply accountants,” says Dean
Murray, senior associate with Secantor, a provider of part-time FDs to small and
medium-sized businesses. “They are policemen, ensuring that the business adheres
to a regime of tight financial control.
They are fortune tellers, predicting events and their effects on the
business. They are doctors, stepping in when things go wrong to help the
business recover. They are counsellors, providing advice to the rest of the
board. They are storytellers, narrating business performance to an army of
investors, shareholders, journalists, regulators and the public at large.”
Steve Mason, FD at Siemens Financial Services, has sent his staff on similar
soujourns and believes that finance staff can gain a great deal from the
experience that will enrich their contribution to the company as a whole. “From
a business perspective, you get more rounded, commercially-aware employees
rather than just technical experts, and these individuals are more engaged with
the business. They get a wider perspective and feel less like a consultant in a
silo,” says Mason. “My experience is that they get more job satisfaction. A
significant minority of people I’ve moved from finance into operational roles
haven’t come back.” Perhaps the grass really is greener for some.
But it can be a two-way street. “Having finance staff spend time working
alongside those in operations can help to bring a more financial perspective to
the organisation as a whole,” says Owen Trotter, partner at private equity firm
Key Capital Partners. “In organisations of all sizes, a lack of understanding of
the pressures on other teams can result in poor inter-departmental
communication. Job-swapping in this way4 makes everyone aware of the fact that
they are on the same team, working towards the same overall goals.”
Those on the sell-side of finance staff agree with the validity of this
approach. “I find that when I’m recruiting people for finance roles it is hugely
beneficial if people have a broad range of skills to offer, rather than staying
within a limited area of accounts,” says Hazel Smith, head of accountancy
recruitment at Carlton Resource Solutions. “The more varied experience you can
pick up throughout your career the better; even if it means moving sideways or
working at a different level, it should be considered.” Indeed, talented finance
staff with strong operational experience tend to make strong candidates for the
chief exec position.
This is not to say that moving finance staff into operations is always
trouble-free. There are many challenges facing the organisation and the
individual, the first of which is gaining acceptance for the idea among
operational staff, most of whom have a very stereotyped view of their finance
department colleagues. The individual making the move will have to work hard to
demonstrate that they are more than just a beancounter.
Just as importantly, it is vital to ensure that they have the skills to do
the operations role moving away from the security of the finance department is
enough of a challenge for anyone, so ensuring that the new area is one where the
person has some experience, or at least aptitude, is crucial.
For Siemens’ Mason, it is important to get the level of support right. “It is
a leap of faith for both the individual and the employer,” he says. “As a
business we have a strong, non-functional mentoring role which is there to offer
strictly confidential guidance.”
The finance officer who is making the move needs to recognise that it will
involve a new way of working. “The challenges that finance staff face in moving
outside their function area are usually the different styles of working,” says
Kieran Colville, client manager at HR consultancy CHPD.
“Finance people are technical experts, but they often lack the strong
influencing and consultative skills that are necessary for customer-facing
staff. This can mean a move into a customer-facing function is very stressful.
“Furthermore, technical staff often feel the need to have complete
information and understanding [of the area in which they are working]. Moving
into a new area where they are not experts and do not have all the knowledge or
information can be difficult. A way to minimise these potential problems is to
provide them with training in areas like influencing techniques, and link them
with a coach or a mentor, ideally someone who has made the transition
Finally, it is important to ensure the correct balance between development
and stability. While in the long-term it may be desirable to move your financial
controller into marketing, in the short-term it may destabilise the business by
taking a key player out of finance and imposing a training need on marketing.
For this reason many businesses shy away from full-time transfers lasting two or
three years, and prefer either part-time or short-term job swaps. These allow
individuals to experience other departments, but also to keep their eye on the
ball in their own area.
It is also worth bearing in mind that transferring staff to and from operations
is not the only way to infuse finance staff with broader business acumen. One
way to create wider understanding and a more integrated working style might be
to literally spend some time in an operational role although it is not the
only way. “What we have found to be effective, through our work with the finance
divisions of many large multinationals, is to challenge perceptions about what
constitutes the core roles and responsibilities of a dynamic finance team,” says
Peter Holman, regional director for UK and Europe at Quest Worldwide.
“Finance people are in a strong position to make significant contributions to
the achievement of an organisation’s goals and objectives for example, there
is a natural flow from budgeting and planning into strategy development and
execution so while many organisations have a robust strategy in place, few
deploy it well and the finance department is well placed to make this happen.
The critical factor is for the finance team to ensure that they do not operate
as a separate entity, but get actively involved in every aspect of the
However, while this may help, there is no real substitute for hands-on
experience of a different role. For her part, IGF’s Ewen is convinced that
operational experience is vital for all finance staff: “If you want to improve
your performance in a financial management role, you need to understand the
people and processes involved in your business both internally and externally.
I’d advise anyone to spend some time in operations to get out there and do
it as soon as possible.”
Secantor’s Murray agrees: “It is critical that finance directors furnish
themselves with a wide breadth of experience when trying to overcome one of the
most common obstacles finance staff face colleagues claiming they have no idea
what they’re talking about because they’ve never been there and done it.”
Ops is tops
Barry Dale, now regional associate with FDUK, providers of short-term FDs, used
to be the group FD of an automotive supplier. In his first six years there the
company grew from a £5m turnover business to a £60m turnover group. In his final
three years, he took on an operational role to help manage this growth.
“I was keen to take on more responsibility and was fortunate that the
opportunity presented itself. I knew that it would give me experience of a range
of new challenges that my previous financial focus hadn’t,” says Dale. He became
involved in thorny issues such as staffing levels, product quality control and
All this gave him ‘softer’ skills, such as people management, to add to his
existing technical skills and prepared him well when the time came for him to
continue his career progression as the chief exec of another company.
He offers this advice to anyone considering a move into operations. “Prepare
yourself for the fact that not everything in life is black and white. In a
finance role, ensuring that the numbers add up is the main responsibility and
there is a clear right and wrong,” Dale says. “However, in an operational role
there is so much more to consider. Overall it’s a great experience, and I’d
thoroughly recommend it.”