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How to develop finance leaders

Published on: Feb 10, 2016

A good leader recognises that part of the job is developing the next generation of leaders, ensuring the organisation doesn’t miss a beat when the boss moves into another role or into retirement.

Veronica McCann, ACMA, CGMA, has worked in Singapore for 23 years, formerly as a division CFO at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) and Commerzbank, and currently as an adviser for Commerzbank until June 30th. For several of those years, she focused on making sure the next leaders were ready to take her place.

At CIBC, she began developing a replacement who grew into the role over a span of four years and has since continued to rise. At Commerzbank, the transition took place over nine months. These successful transitions illustrate how McCann values the use of deputies up and down the chain of command, despite reluctance by some in the organisation to do the same.

Here are five tips from McCann on developing the next generation of leaders:

1. Communicate the strategy to your employees. Let your team know the strategy and reinforce that strategy to ensure they’ll make better decisions as managers. Often in times of dramatic change, management can overlook communication and focus on action. Not everyone can follow the action, and they can get disillusioned or frustrated, McCann said. Communication makes the staff feel they have a say in the strategy or an opportunity to voice concerns or fears. “People feel more comfortable working in a company when they feel as informed about everything as they can be,” she said. “So they know what the long-term strategy is, they have a good idea of what the immediate future plan is for the business, and therefore they can help steer it towards accomplishing that and achieving it.”

2. Encourage staff to develop relationships with other divisions and regions. One way for future leaders to develop those relationships is to send them out of the home office. In addition to empowering staff to learn how to do things differently, exposure to other areas of the business or other regions gives staff a better understanding of the organisation. An employee on secondment in another country or continent can pass along best practices but also bring back process efficiencies. The leader who has seen and understands, for example, that the issues facing the organisation in Frankfurt are different from the issues faced in Asia is far more valuable than the aspiring manager with experience on just one continent. “If you just sit in your little box and you don’t really see anything else that’s going on around you, then you’re just going to end up doing the same old thing day in and day out,” McCann said.

3. Have a 360 review and learn from it. McCann has learned plenty from her 360 reviews, which encompass feedback from supervisors, peers, and direct reports. She encourages future leaders to take part in such reviews, as long as the circle of respondents is kept small and the questions are relevant to the individual’s role. Such reviews can help identify a weakness that can be addressed through coaching or outside training. For example, an employee might have exhibited knowledge and the ability to provide analysis in small meetings mainly amongst peers. If that same employee has a harder time conveying messages to larger meetings with senior management — because of nerves, speaking style, etc. — the company could invest in coaching from an outside firm to get the employee more comfortable in that type of setting.

4. Make sure you have a deputy and that your deputy wants a top job. McCann made it clear to the managers she supervised: You must have someone who can take over your job in your absence. The first step is finding someone who is capable — but also ambitious. There’s a difference between a group of workers who want a job and those who want a leadership role, so managers should have those conversations with staff. Also, managers should not view an ambitious worker as a threat to unseat them. “The threat that you have is not necessarily they’re going to take over your role but that they will move to their next career level and you have to replace them,” she said. Or worse, if the CFO is somehow out of work for months on end, it’s important to have a backup in place.

5. Convey to your direct reports the significance of project work as it relates to their career. After a merger in 2008, McCann learned the value of openness and honesty in an effort to keep people motivated and focused during a time when everybody’s job was up for grabs. There would be duplication and therefore layoffs — and her people knew this. But the company needed to retain much of the staff until the integration was complete. So she urged the employees to get the most out of the situation: Look at it as a career opportunity and stay mission-focused. That approach can help employees gain valuable experience, even if they don’t ultimately remain with the company. “You’re probably never going to get this opportunity again to work on such a merger, so you have to think about it from a benefit perspective to your career,” McCann told them.