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What Sir Ranulph Fiennes and FDs have in common

I spent two days in mid-September at the Financial Director Summit. As ever, it was a fantastic affair. One of the key speakers was Sir Ranulph Fiennes. As an aside, there are only two people I have met in my life who have made me feel like an all-round failure as an inhabitant of this planet and Sir Steve Redgrave was the other one.

Sir Ranulph enraptured a room of finance directors with tales of his life exploring the far reaches of the planet and the projects that he had led: I thought he was remarkably relevant for the community he was talking to – climbing mountains and avoiding crevices being useful analogies for FDs of late.

The FDs in attendance obviously thought so too, as many of their questions to him related to motivation, team building and leadership – which ended up coming out as the overall theme for the event and the theme for FDs now and in coming years.

I am not suggesting FDs did not lead before, but it has tended to be much more about their own function. The role of an FD now is so much more than it used to be – strategic partner to the chief executive, the commercial partner to the operational side of the business, the manager of external relationships and the person who the board expects to guarantee where the cash is going to come from.

Yet we are constantly told by the outside world that finance is a shy, retiring, bookish function, filled with people who would rather sit behind a desk than get out into the business and lead it. It has been a falsehood for some time. The business looks to the FD for leadership now and a board expects them to deliver on that. And they have every opportunity to do so. They often lead a number of functions outside of finance. They are looked to by the analyst community as the voice of reason and integrity.

In that context, it was easy to see why they connected well with Sir Ranulph’s thoughts on leadership from his own experiences leading teams of intrepid explorers through wind, fire and ice, suffering frostbite, gangrene and exhaustion. They may not have been trekking across the Antarctic, but I suspect that the expectations their businesses have of them as leaders are almost as high. And while I think trekking across a frozen wasteland in 120km winds and temperatures of minus 100 degrees centigrade is a more arduous role, I suspect Sir Ranulph wouldn’t last an hour in a forecast review.

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