Stepping Up

More finance executives are moving into general management. The transition isn't always easy.

“I wasn’t planning to stay in finance forever.” In April last year, Laurent Matras made good on his plan, moving from his post as UK finance director of insurer AXA to UK managing director at Groupama, a rival insurer. Though he describes the expansion of his responsibilities as “what I always wanted,” the transition was not without difficulties. At first, “the breadth and depth of the job was quite daunting,” he says.

As companies turn to their CFOs to steer them through the downturn, Matras and others are finding themselves in high demand outside finance. “There are few roles as well placed to understand every bit of a business as finance,” says Tony Osude, head of professional development at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. “It’s no surprise that we are seeing gifted finance people move into broader management roles.”

The most common first step out of finance is to take over a regional division or product business unit. Recent examples include Andrew Higginson, who went from finance director to head of retailing services at Tesco in July, and Hanif Lalani, who stepped over from CFO to head of global services at BT in October.

For those who make a name for themselves in these divisional posts, a group chief executive role often follows. For example, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo at Nokia was CFO for more than ten years and then took over as general manager of the group’s mobile phone unit. Shortly thereafter he was appointed president and COO before rising to CEO in 2006. Then there’s Paul Polman, who was promoted from CFO to head of the Americas unit at Nestlé in February last year. At the start of this year, he took over as CEO of Unilever, the first external candidate to win that role at the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods firm.

Meet and Greet

Though companies value the financial savvy that these new hires bring to operations, especially in cost-conscious times like today, CFOs making the move say they find that getting to grips with sales, marketing and the like requires “a humble attitude,” as Matras of Groupama puts it. For him, sales and customer service was largely alien territory. To get up to speed, he has been spending a lot of time out at the company’s five operations sites. “I know it’s a cliché,” he admits, “but meeting people face-to-face is invaluable.”

It does take time to understand the specific processes and motivations of the people who work in an operational unit. “If you are humble enough to say that you are coming to them because you don’t understand what they do, and admit that it is impossible to learn in just a few days, people react positively,” Matras says. “They see what you can add in terms of looking at processes with a finance mindset.” In the customer-service department, for example, he sees some similarities with the large credit-control department he ran in his previous finance job.

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