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The international FD

FINANCE DIRECTORS who regularly travel internationally with their jobs are seen as leading a glamorous existence. Having done this for years, however, I know there are two sides to the story. The fascination and enjoyment that were very real when I started my international career have gradually morphed into a feeling of reluctance.

The recent immigration queues at Heathrow are insignificant compared to those in parts of the US; jet lag takes longer to overcome; the family events missed now outnumber those not missed; and my best subject on Mastermind has become “the first 30 minutes of most movies” – having slept through the remainder.

My chairman (94) once found out that I had flown economy class to the Middle East. He advised me never to repeat that mistake as it gave the impression to local management that there is nothing to aspire to in being promoted in the organisation. So a significant obligation is to carry the corporate flag to the overseas locations with confidence and gravitas.

The international finance director’s credibility also calls for a familiarity with relevant local current affairs, such as Franc?ois Hollande’s plans for his French presidency, the collapse of the Dutch government, the return of the Spanish recession and so on.

I have found it is essential to respect local cultures, challenges and ways of doing things. It is unrealistic to expect a finance director in some European jurisdictions to shrug off local behaviour, which may be dominated by a statutory reporting mindset, in favour of strategic vision, financial creativity and taking a leading role in driving the business. China may soon become the largest global economy, and it has its own way of running its business and accounting practices, while the Civets countries present their own distinct characteristics. Many local management teams do not share my views of the role of their local FDs, and following up after a visit is essential to prevent them from reverting to type as soon as I have left. Some international organisations find language to be a barrier.

Ethics, relationships and standards vary enormously, despite the efforts of some of ouraccountancy bodies to expand their qualifications and influences internationally. The CIMA/AICPA joint venture aims to create an “international community of like-minded professional management accountants … unified by best practice”, while the AIA has signed a memorandum of understanding for reciprocal membership arrangements with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in India, but we have some way to go.

Meanwhile, the international FD must be conversant with the specifics of legislation, accounting practices, and expectations of the technical advisors in each country. Last month, I had to speak publicly without warning on the proposals before the SEC to allow US public companies to adopt the use of IFRS.

Some businesses rely heavily on Skype and videoconferencing, but there comes a point where these are inadequate for building relationships; meeting local customers, investors and auditors; conducting reviews; and communicating with remote management teams. Face-to-face meetings and social events are often called for in order to maintain a grip on an international business.

A recent survey established that accountants regard overseas experience as more important to their career development than do other professionals, with 50% seeing working abroad as either essential or extremely useful.

The personal demands are high. But would I want to give this up? The social benefits and experiences, the variety, the air miles and the knowledge that it annoys my more glamorous neighbours tell me I definitely wouldn’t.

Last month, the Secret Finance Director did not do anything interesting because he was abroad on business for most of it and jet-lagged for the rest

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