Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Route to the top: Paul Venables, Hays CFO

I started out at Deloitte where I spent 8 years. I am UK and US qualified, as I spent 4 years in the UK and 4 years in the US. As well as audit I did a lot of work in insolvency and receivership.

Accuracy is everything. Early on, I learnt the importance of accurate financial results, because if you are an auditor for a period of time, you’re looking at systems and working with people, and you also get to see from time to time what happens when a company is not good at being on top of its numbers- when it isn’t being on top of its forecasts.

That brings you intellectual rigour in processes, making sure your numbers are accurate, but also that you are on top of the issues because you see businesses where problems are likely to happen.

You get to see a wide variety of CFOs in action. I would have met 100 CFOs in that period of time, and it’s very good to see some very good ones and some very bad ones and some common traits amongst them.

Good people hire good people. I think the best FDs I have worked with surrounded themselves with excellent people. The good FDs understand that the bigger the job you do, the greater the span of what you do, you need really good people, including getting the ethics part of it right.

Building strong relationships is incredibly important. One of the things I took from the profession and continued at logistics group Exel, where I developed my career in a number of roles over 13 years, is the need to communicate effectively with different parts of the business. Among my roles at Exel I spent 2 years as an MD so when I took up senior finance roles I knew how hard it is to win business, and how hard it is to run operations, things that has stayed with me throughout my career.

Openness and honesty are important to any business, something that I learned in a business development role at Exel. There is nothing wrong in saying I have made a mistake. In fact you want people to say I’ve made a mistake- or I’m not sure about this- can I ask your advice. It’s about being positive about the things you do well- but also when you’ve got problems, when you’ve got operations that aren’t working well, making sure you let the regional guys know about that, leting the group know about that and saying to them, what are you going to do about it? But what you don’t do is bury it until it becomes a major issue.

Being close to the business helped me understand what was happening in every area of the group, which was key to being successful in finance roles at Exel. That meant being very clear on the implications and importance of working with a team, understanding the strengths of individuals, having rigour and a process, concentrating on the technical design, and not just concentrating on what numbers come out. I’d ask questions like what are you selling? How complex is it? How risky is it? It meant making sure the riskier the project, the riskier the service, the higher the margin you’ve got to put into it, and the greater the contingencies.

Setting the right tone is vital. That means being on top of your numbers, and ensuring you have a transparent, ‘no surprises’ culture. Having a common culture is especially important when you’re operating across large numbers of countries. The then CEO John Allan, now chairman of Tesco, developed that ethos when the group’s geographic coverage was doubled to 140 countries, in my time there.

The FD role has changed. The day when you could be an FD and sit in the backroom and add up the numbers are over. You need those sorts of people, but that’s not the FD, that’s the Financial Controller. It’s certainly something that had changed by the time I moved to recruitment group Hays. As group FD of Hays I appreciate the benefit of having undertaken a number of roles at Exel, as my career path has certainly not been that of a normal FD background.