All in the Grooming

GE and American Express have developed fast-track programs for the top talent in their finance teams. But is the star system the best approach?

After six years as an auditor on the road, Chang became executive audit manager for Asia, based in Tokyo. Two years later, he was offered the CFO job for GE Medical Systems China. How has FMP and auditing helped him in the new job? “FMP develops your functional and critical thinking skills,” Chang says. “It helps you analyze situations to plot strategies, move from facts to root causes, anticipate consequences and build problem-solving solutions.”

Aside from skills, knowledge and experience, participants say finance leadership development programs offer other valuable benefits. Wee-tuck Tan, the Singapore-based CFO of CNBC Asia Pacific, a GE subsidiary, says the contacts he made during his time in Corporate Audit Staff have proven valuable. “I’ve found the people I met and the friends I made while I was in Corporate Audit have been tremendously responsive whenever I need their help,” says Tan, who joined Corporate Audit seven years ago and who, like his peers, has worked in the US, Europe and Asia. He adds: “I know when I pick up the phone, I’ll be talking to someone I know.”

Job Rotation Anyone?

American Express may not be as big as GE, but its leadership development program is as elaborate. Amex’s global job-rotation program trains its MBA recruits, but includes high potential employees as well. While the MBAs get a three-year rotation during which they are introduced to a range of disciplines in global finance, the company high-fliers get job swaps for two years to gain exposure in diverse roles for cross-functional development, work experience in different cultures, exposure to senior management and an opportunity to build networks within the company.

Carol Robinson, who joined Amex International Corporate Audit department as project leader in the UK four and a half years ago, is one of three internal employees selected for the global rotation program. An auditor for 10 years, five with UK accounting firms before joining Amex, Robinson has been managing high-profile international audits and leading teams of up to four people. But she is keen to expand her management responsibilities and develop cross-functional finance skills. Her first post on the rotation scheme, starting on September15, will be travel finance manager in Sydney.

In her new position, Robinson will have wide responsibility. She will supervise a team of 13 while maintaining the reporting, accounting and controllership of the travel office. She will also be expected to promote changes to reduce cost and conduct research. And, as if that wasn’t enough, she must in addition resolve requests from senior management relating to changes in accounting practices, and identify opportunities and new approaches to a process or project. To ensure the development of her leadership talent, Robinson will have Amex’s finance controller for Australia and New Zealand, Peter Pak, as her mentor. She will also network with other Amex finance leaders and utilize Amex’s Finance Virtual University for learning.

“I want to succeed at American Express and the finance leadership development program will provide the necessary tools to help me achieve my goals,” says the 32-year-old.

In-house finance leadership programs aren’t without their critics. Some consultants say the programs foster a mentality of survival of the fittest and pressure everyone to perform or perish. Academics, like INSEAD’s Schutte, argue that by learning, working and mingling only within their companies, participants miss out on outside exposure. “They could lack a wider view of the world and how other companies and managers operate,” says Rae Weston, professor of management at Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Sydney.

But the companies defend their programs by saying that a performance-based system that rewards those who deliver is a good way of identifying and developing talent. As for outside exposure, Pak, Robinson’s about-to-be mentor, says Robinson will get to mix and network with other finance professionals when she attends functions and training courses held by organizations such as the Australian Certified Chartered Accountants.

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