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How do you spot a financial leader of tomorrow?

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The ability to spot high-potential individuals is an asset for any business leader, whatever your industry or role. It allows you to select candidates who will be able to hit-the-ground running as soon as they join your organisation’s ranks, and to invest early in the development of employees who will go on to add tangible commercial value to your operations and who will be your future leaders.

In short, being able to identify high-potential talent means you can find a next-generation leader before another employer recognises their potential, and in the process future-proof your business.

Finding the finance leaders of the future early has never been more important. Spotting a financial leader of tomorrow is arguably even more important. Since 2008, Financial Directors, Controllers, CFOs and their counterparts have proven themselves to be some of the most trusted advisors to boards across many businesses. The value of effective financial leadership is never more apparent or crucial than in times of uncertainty and volatility, and an unpredictable political and economic climate looks set to stay on the horizon for a while yet. A wise financial leader will build an effective team around them, as well as a pipeline of potential successors.

We’ve all known people who pride themselves on being able to pick-out future leaders from a mile away, believing talent-spotting to be more of an art than an exact science. However, in my 21 years of experience as a senior finance recruiter, I’ve also learned that aside from technical expertise and qualifications there are certain personality attributes and learnt skills that separate a candidate from the pack, and which help me to earmark an individual as future finance leadership material:

1. Honesty

Our own Group Finance Director is emphatic in his belief that there are some key character traits which are absolutely non-negotiable for a finance leader: honesty and integrity. It is very difficult to nurture an individual who shows themselves to lack personal integrity. Professional reputation is important for individuals in all job functions, but for the finance leader trusted with the reputation and finances of an organisation it is essential that this is never put in any question. Put simply, your professional integrity is everything.

2. Decisiveness and the ability to learn from mistakes

I am sure that you can all think of leaders or managers you have worked for who have never made decisions. Being indecisive is forgivable lower down the career ladder, but there is no room for it as an individual progresses and has to respond to increasingly urgent and financially significant demands. We all know that procrastinating over a tough business decision can mean losing out on advantageous opportunities, and often to your direct competitors.

However, if you regularly make quick decisions, you have to accept that sometimes you will make a wrong call and that you will need to learn from your errors so that you know how to do this better. There is a reason that ‘tell me about a mistake you have made’ is asked in almost every job interview, no matter how senior the candidate. It is to see whether an individual can demonstrate that they are able to identify what they have done wrong, how they fixed it, and what they would do differently so they are well set up for next time. Decisiveness without the ability to learn can simply mean someone makes the same poor decision again and again, and in a senior finance role this has the potential be commercially devastating. In my experience over the years, many Board recruiters have said to me: “I want someone who recognises they have made mistakes, because then they will know what to do and what not to do, and be able to guide the business here.”

3. An exceptional work ethic

This may seem obvious: no successful business leader would choose a protégé who doesn’t appear to be as hard working as they are, just as I would look for demonstrable signs of a strong work ethic when I interview candidates myself.

However, an exceptional work ethic is different to having achieved a lot in the workplace, or being willing to work extra hours when needed. True exceptionalism is shown by those who not only do these things, but also take personal steps to develop professionally: be it by achieving extra qualifications, attending networking events, gaining international experience, working closely with other functions of the business, or by getting involved in external industry events. Taking the time to partake in these sorts of activities reveals that an individual is more than just hard-working, but also ambitious, self-motivated and proactive.

Provide top talent the tools needed to become a good leader. Of course, these traits alone do not mean that someone is destined to become a leader, let alone a successful one. Talent requires nurturing, and there are certain skills needed for a top job in finance that can only be learned. Ensuring high-potential employees are able to work closely with your organisation’s operational activities will ensure they aren’t just ‘numbers people’, but will earn credibility through having good commercial awareness. Encouraging regular presentations to senior internal and external stakeholders will enhance communication skills as learning what to say, how much to say, and when to say it is a pretty crucial skill in business these days, some would call it “knowing your audience”. Just as management responsibilities are essential to developing the people skills required to motivate a team.

These days, FDs and CFOs are not only trusted and relied upon as voices of reason. They are seen by the rest of the board as corporate governors, trusted advisors, business partners, analysts, economists, risk experts and even technology gurus. Therefore, the future leaders in this field have even more to learn than today. The sooner you are able to spot a high-potential employee, the sooner you can invest in their development and work to retain this talent.

To find out more, or to discuss your recruitment needs, please contact your local consultant.

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