In October 2023 we held our virtual Finance Leadership Programme, alongside our partner Grant Thornton. During the session, we heard from two senior finance professionals who talked about their backgrounds, careers and experience of the industry, and also gave us their top tips for success. Now we’re going to share that with you.
What’s the Finance Leadership Programme?
This programme helps finance professionals develop skills and knowledge to boost their careers, and work on their personal and professional development. They also get the chance to network with colleagues from lots of different levels.
Ceri Neal, Chief Financial Officer, Echion Technologies: Ceri graduated with a degree in philosophy and English. Her first role after university was as an accounts and admin assistant, which then led her to move to Grant Thornton where she qualified as an Associate Chartered Accountant in their audit department. After a stint in finance roles at Plextek and Blighter Surveillance Systems Ltd, in 2022 she became CFO at Echion Technologies, the world’s leading supplier of niobium-based anode materials.
Rob Barford, CEO, Monitor Audio Group: Rob started working in finance at Ernst & Young immediately after leaving university. It was here that he got his ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) qualification, which then took him to several blue-chip organisations including Bank of America, V.Group and Garrets International. After working as both Finance Director and Director of Finance and Operations at Monitor Audio, a high-end audio brand, he became CEO in 2022.
Ceri started out by telling us how much she’s enjoyed working for transformative technology organisations. ‘I found it really fun to work with tech businesses and was excited about the changes that organisations go through.’ She particularly liked start-up tech companies as ‘you get to watch their cultural shift as they grow and become their own entity’.
Next Ceri talked about how driven she is to make sure numbers mean something to the business and how the best way to do that is to clarify information, working closely with the CEO. In fact, this is vital to become part of a business and help it be successful. ‘During my time as an auditor, I got to see how lots of different businesses work. When I moved into business, I was also able to see how influential and important the relationship is between the CFO and CEO.’
As a finance leader, Ceri discovered she wanted to be part of change and pushing that change forward. That meant becoming part of the process for setting goals and developing plans. ‘It’s about giving people the right information so they can make the right decisions,’ she told us.
Reflecting on her own experience of the Finance Leadership Programme, Ceri said, ‘I came to these events early in my career and found the topics really influenced my development. The sessions on how to lead a transaction were particularly useful – I’ve been through that process and drawn on that knowledge regularly throughout my career.’
Ceri’s questions for success
When Ceri was considering moving to Echion she asked herself some questions to help focus her thoughts. So instead of giving us tips for career progression, she suggested that we too should use those questions to help us move forward. They are:
What do you want to do?
There are lots of paths to take – which will you enjoy most? Think about:
- the industry you want to work in
- if you’d prefer a large or small organisation
- whether you’re happy to work for a start-up or a more established business
- areas where you aren’t willing to compromise.
Who can you learn from?
- A good mentor will be invaluable.
- Remember that support and development won’t necessarily once come from the finance team alone – CFO is a very broad role.
What aren’t you good at?
- You’re not a failure if you aren’t good at everything. But it’s worth thinking about areas you can develop.
- Recruit a team around you who complement your skills – not one that duplicates them.
Rob began with a brief rundown of his finance journey, singling out how lucky he was to have had a wide range of clients, and a group of mentors filled with gifted and technical accountants. He then talked about his time at Bank of America, and how he ultimately became frustrated as he wasn’t using the skillset he’d developed in previous finance roles. ‘I discovered I enjoyed working for smaller businesses, and this got me into shipping structuring finance deals. I became a finance controller and within three years was CFO, working with the CEO on structuring finance deals. I flipped from a technical to a commercial role.’
It was Pure that found Rob his first role at Monitor Audio – and we’re pleased to say he’s very happy to recommend us: ‘I love their approach to things.’ Rob’s move to Monitor Audio gave him the opportunity to join an organisation full of bright, creative people, ‘and a tangible product’. It also helped him improve his work-life balance. ‘I had a young family and wanted to be around for them. This was a local role that gave me exactly that opportunity.’
Rob was Monitor Audio’s CFO for four years, becoming CEO when the owner decided to move to Chairman and be less hands on. ‘This gave me the opportunity to coach the team and help my Finance Manager step up to Financial Controller.’ Rob’s new position means he spends less time at his desk and more time moving around the business. But he’s never forgotten his finance roots – ‘I always understand the critical role finance plays for the CEO.’
Rob’s biggest challenge has been getting respect from departments where he doesn’t have expertise. The way he’s overcome that is by surrounding himself with the best people. ‘I make sure they bring everything to the party,’ he told us.
Rob’s top tips for career advancement
- Remember that businesses are about people – so make sure you engage with them.
- Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. But you should still balance work with life.
- Don’t think you can be the best at everything. Focus on your strengths and surround yourself with good people.
How can people prepare to move to a Finance Director role?
We put this question to both our speakers, and here’s what they had to say.
Ceri started by saying that she thinks that with any big step up, you can’t wait until you feel completely ready. ‘Have confidence in your own ability to overcome challenges as they come up, and make sure you have good support around you.’ Ceri also talked about how important it is to be totally honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do – ‘having confidence also means being able to speak up when you need help.’ She then pointed out that people are generally more happy to help if you speak up before a challenge turns into a problem.
Ceri went on to say that communication is a vital soft skill when it comes to making the move to a more senior position. ‘You’ll be interacting with people at every level and department, and there has to be a constant and clear flow of information both ways.’ She then told us that one of the most important parts of communication is being able to listen: ‘If you really want to understand what’s happening in the business, you need to talk to all employees, not just management!’
Ceri finished by telling us that ideally a Finance Director will try to become both a trusted authority and an approachable colleague – not always an easy balance to achieve.
Rob spoke about how the most difficult hurdle for him when it came to stepping up into a more senior role was letting go. ‘We often over-control as we think others can’t achieve or complete work to our level or at our pace.’ His advice was to invest time in teaching people, and give them the time they need to learn. ‘This not only develops the individual – it also creates time for you to focus on your new role. And believe me, you’ll be thankful for that!’
Rob went on to say that the skills you need to progress include being able to trust others, and empower your staff and peers. You must also lead by example, listen and spend time working across all levels.
Want to know more about the programme?
There’s lots of information about the Finance Leadership Programme, including how to get updates on next year’s event, on the website.