Part of John Melbourne’s job description as European CFO of MPS Group International — a $2 billion (€1.4 billion) US-listed holding company of recruitment firms — is leading acquisition projects, of which there have been a number since he joined the firm in 2001. But when a project to lead the acquisition of Netlogic, a computer service and maintenance firm, landed on his desk in 2006, he decided to do something different — delegate the project to Will Gerrand, the FD of Modis, MPS’s IT recruitment firm. Not only did Melbourne free himself up to focus on other projects, he also provided his finance team with an example of the career opportunities on offer.
Management experts believe other CFOs could learn from Melbourne’s example. Paul Turner, an executive coach and a non-executive director with Blessing White, a consulting firm, says, “Effective CFOs will want to focus on a few things that are going to make a difference and delegating allows them to do that.”
The problem is that not all CFOs know how to delegate, let alone delegate well. For starters many finance executives — by the nature of their work — enjoy the control aspect of their jobs, and often have come up through the ranks precisely because of their ability to take on a lot of work.
But CFOs who delegate should understand that it’s “about what, not how,” says James Bywater, head psychologist at consultants SHL UK. “Assuming you are a CFO working with colleagues who are capable and even technically superior to you, you should communicate the outcomes that you want, not the steps to do it. Otherwise it’s demotivating and possibly humiliating.”
Another stumbling block is if a CFO doesn’t take cultural differences into consideration. “In some cultures, you would just accept what the boss says; in others you would be expected to question the boss and speak up in meetings,” notes Binna Kandola, co-founder of occupational psychology firm Pearn Kandola. There’s also a fine line between delegation and passing the buck — delegation isn’t abdication. Giving staff the authority and resources to take on a delegated project can avoid that impression. Regular follow-up meetings and measurable targets are also important.
As for MPS’s Melbourne, more delegating has been taking place since the Netlogic acquisition. He recently assigned another FD to work on a new acquisition with the group legal counsel. “Neither had previous experience but were given the support, resources and coaching to take ownership of key aspects of the acquisition,” he says. Meanwhile, his European FD has been asked to set up a new shared service centre in Hungary.
Has delegation helped team motivation and staff retention, as experts say it should? He believes so, but concedes that there is still a risk of losing his top managers. “I’m sure that there will be a point when these guys will find other opportunities — we are an SME [after all],” he says. “However, my philosophy is that if they leave MPS, they do so thinking they had a great time and they have learned a great deal.”
Eila Rana is a senior editor at CFO Europe.