Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Finance Director 2.0: debate with Ingenious FD Neil Forster

As an adviser to some of the most successful and groundbreaking movies of all time (including Avatar, and the X-Men and Die Hard franchises), it’s almost taken for granted that the heads at Ingenious Media are one step ahead of the creative curve. Here, it’s not just business as normal; everybody has to contribute at the next level up. And, according to Neil Forster, the company’s FD, this goes for the finance function too.

Forster will be chairing Financial Director magazine’s special panel debate – ‘Finance Director 2.0: throwing off the old pre-conceptions’ – at this year’s Financial Director Summit, and the former Hat Trick Productions FD will be pressing the case for throwing out the old clichés and instead building rapport with everyone in the business to earn respect and credibility.

“The FD role is at a pivotal point,” he says. “It’s becoming ever more demanding, especially in terms of increased business reporting. My problem is that the balancing act between being a strategic partner and being a reporting function is tending to lean towards reporting what the business knows already. I think this plays into the stereotypical view, which is of FDs being, at best, bean-counting accountants and, at worst, people that get in the way.”

Forster accepts reporting is important, but argues the old view is that this tends to turn into “the end game”. He says: “The next step for FDs is to be seen as the person who knows where to go next with their information; the person people can turn to for getting things done. It’s not often something FDs feel they are able to move into.”

Despite being formally trained (qualifying as a chartered accountant with KPMG), Forster says he quickly gained experience working with diverse groups – especially at Hat Trick, which he joined in 2004 just after it received its first venture capital funding. “I’ve had to learn, had to adapt to different ways of thinking,” he says. “I sometimes think FDs forget they’re in a very privileged position. Few roles give such an oversight of the business, but I don’t think we make use of our opportunity to advise the business about how it can move on to the next stage. FDs certainly can’t do it by sitting behind a desk like they used to be able to.”

Calls for FDs to be more visible in the business may not be new, but finance director 2.0 needs to be a new, natural networker argues Forster. “FDs have fallen into the trap of only talking to the business when they need something. But you can’t rely on this to be a true business partner. No-one in the business will open up to an FD seeking this new input straight away, but they will find that when they work on it, their message will slowly come across,” he argues. “People will invite FDs into conversations more, and these will be conversations that do not start from a position of tension. Fellow directors respect FDs who knows where they want the business to be and can work back from that, rather than the FD that only looks back at what it’s already achieved.”

Forging a new groove will be the norm for the 2.0 FD, says Forster. To shake off the old stereotypes of prudence and bean-counting doesn’t require the scary-sounding leap into new ‘people’ skills that it might at first suggest. “It’s not about walking away from skillsets already gained, but working to improve credibility,” he says. “The traditional training route is still very staid and occasionally without much business experience, and some FDs hide behind the number-crunching. What I’m saying is that in leading commercial negotiations, the FD of the future will need enhanced people skills, to be able to represent the board’s vision.”

Forster believes FDs are ready to make this jump. “I don’t believe FDs are a certain, inflexible type,” he asserts. “FDs simply need to make sure they don’t get sucked into the reporting side. Sure, do it, but then prepare the business direction and performance against it. There’s no point in a company losing its way, but having great controls and reports. The way forward is about not just saying, ‘I’m an accountant’, but saying, ‘I care about the direction of this business as much as anyone else in the company’.”

So what practical steps should myth-busting FDs take? “Seeing the bigger picture is actually a very underrated skill,” says Forster. “But FDs that start from this basis will ensure they care about execution. Maybe there is a demand for confidence that might not be apparent, but for FDs that are engaged in this new way forward, this is sort of a natural progression anyway. If not, they’re in the wrong job.”

It’s here that Forster says a few words that FDs may not have heard in the same sentence for a while. “FDs need to make working with management teams fun!” Really? “The future is about getting out there and saying your contribution is fun, not constrained, but drawing on previous experiences to make advice,” he explains.

Making the finance function “fun” might have been the last thing on FDs’ minds when thinking about how they add strategic value going forward. But it’s a compelling argument. “FDs that operate at this higher level tend to have a halo effect,” concludes Forster. “And this spreads to the rest of the finance team. Involving the rest of the finance department can’t be underestimated. They also need to feel good about their vocation; they should be intellectually challenged too by what the FD is trying to do. This is when everyone in finance feels part of the core team. It has a great motivational impact for retaining top finance talent.”

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