Accounting for Talent

Though CFOs are taking increasingly varied routes to the top, accounting firms remain a key developing ground for the finance chiefs of tomorrow.

David Davies has an impressive pedigree. When CFO Europe recently scoured the CVs of finance chiefs in Europe’s top 200 companies, Davies emerged as having worked for two important “academy companies,” or firms that produce disproportionately more CFOs than others. (See “Finance factories.”) Before his current role as finance chief of OMV, a €20 billion Austrian oil group, Davies spent time at UK industrial gases specialist BOC (now part of Germany’s Linde) and Grand Metropolitan, now part of UK drinks group Diageo. But he claims to owe as much of his current success to the two companies where he started his career—accountancy firms Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers. As well as being “an excellent segue from university into the harsh realities of industrial life,” for anyone who wants to go into finance—or any other part of business—”the training you receive as a chartered accountant is second to none,” Davies says.

More than one-quarter of CFOs at Europe’s largest 200 companies spent time at the Big Four (or the Big Five prior to Arthur Andersen’s demise). During his three years at Touche Ross—a predecessor to Deloitte, which he joined after graduating from Liverpool University with an economics degree—Davies audited the accounts of large and small companies in a range of sectors, including construction, banking and publishing. This window to the “intricacies and idiosyncrasies” of different corporate environments is something that few companies can offer its employees, Davies says.

Ian Krieger, a senior partner at Deloitte, reckons that the varied work experience also gives trainees a firm grounding in more personal aspects of business, like managing teams and making presentations. “You have to be fairly flexible in terms of what you have to deal with week to week,” says Krieger. “That positions you, when you leave, as not just the person who’s preparing the monthly management accounts.”

Ernst & Young’s three-year “Accelerated Leadership Programme” is typical of the development programmes that the Big Four have in place. It was set up in 2005 to put the top 5% of recently qualified employees on a fast-track to senior positions and, ultimately, partnership. Participants are selected using psychometric tests. The programme works on a 70:20:10 ratio, with 70% of a participant’s time spent gaining on-the-job experience, 20% on coaching and mentoring and 10% on formal training.

Participants’ “day job” responsibilities are crafted to challenge them more than would be expected for other employees at a similar stage in their careers. According to Alison Baker, the programme’s head, these challenges might include moving a participant up a level ahead of time; sending them on secondment to a client company; or giving them “out of the box experiences,” such as “allowing them to use their skills to go and work in emerging markets to help set up a new business in India, for example, or write a business plan for an NGO,” says Baker.

On coaching and mentoring, each participant has one-to-one support from a partner or someone on the partnership track. Even UK chairman Mark Otty—a founding sponsor of the programme—mentors one or two participants. They also support each other, typically through “learning groups” which involve around six people getting together to learn a skill—such as coaching, to share their own experiences, and to help each other through problems they might be facing in their day job.

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