• Wed. Apr 24th, 2024

Tips for leading with integrity from an engineer turned finance director

Gwynneth Page, FCMA, CGMA, began her career as an engineer before getting distracted by what she calls “the shiny lights of finance”.

She started out as a graduate engineer for aerospace and defence multinational company BAE Systems and became a chartered (mechanical) engineer. She then made the switch to finance, becoming a CIMA member, gaining the CGMA designation, and taking on a variety of roles from management accountant and finance manager to financial controller and now finance director at Wincanton plc, a leading supply chain partner for British businesses. With her education and professional experience, she has developed a unique set of skills that allow her to be a strong and effective leader.

Finance and engineering can be male-dominated fields, Page said. That means she has often been the only woman in the room. “[It] hasn’t stopped me,” she said.

Page shared her insights about leadership. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What is your preferred leadership style and why?

Gwynneth Page: My leadership style is quite high-energy and motivational. I do set a high bar, but I’m very honest, straightforward about it and help people achieve success. My authenticity stems from who I am. I’m not putting on a facade. My team knows where they stand, and some people have told me they value my straightforwardness.

What are three essential skills for leading in a hybrid work environment?

Page: I start off with trust. You’ve got to trust your team. You must trust that they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do, but that means you need to have clear communication. You tell them, “This is what I would like you to do by this date,” and then you trust them to do it. In an office you might just wander by, and make sure they’re doing it, but you can’t keep messaging them on Teams asking if they’ve done it yet.

You must be open to their questions should they get stuck. They need to feel it’s safe for them to come to you with any queries, no matter how daft.

Another essential skill is emotional intelligence. You need to be good at reading the room, even when you’re not physically in the same space. You must find a way of reading the mood of your team and determining whether they’re feeling stressed. If you’re in person, you might notice physical symptoms like pale skin and slumped body posture that you might not notice on the screen. You need the emotional intelligence to decipher mood from the language they’re using in their messages. A loose word someone might say could prompt you to ask why they are using those words. It’s likely because they’re stressed.

How do you plan your day?

Page: Normally on Friday I will sit down and look at the week ahead. I’ll see what’s coming up and what meetings I need to prepare for. And then every morning I sit down and spend ten minutes jotting down a rough plan. Then someone will go, “Could you do this for me?” And I end up triaging the rest of the day. I figure out what’s not going to happen.

But I do try to plan at the beginning of the week — and then every day, I will replan. It’s quite organised, and it does work against me sometimes because it means I sometimes become stressed if it doesn’t go to plan.

I try to have a lunch break because I need a mental break, and I’ll try and put times in throughout the day to either catch up on emails or plan things. I’m a leader, so I need to think strategically, and if I’m constantly reacting, I’m not doing that. I try and put time in where I am shaping the future and forming strategic improvement and transformation plans. I try to leave a chunk of time for that every day. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and I’m just in back-to-back meetings.

And obviously my team and I talk regularly, but I try to put half an hour aside for all my direct reports every week to just talk about anything with no agenda. It’s just giving them time to vent if they want or ask questions.

Can you learn to become an effective leader — or do some people have those innate qualities?

Page: All those leadership training programmes would say you can. I did actually Google it, and apparently 30% of leadership ability is genetic, so the rest can be learned. I think you can learn. A lot of it is having the mindset to be a leader. If you’re one of those people who say “I can never be a leader,” then you’ve got a “I can’t do that” mindset. I think if you’ve got the right mindset, that’s half the battle.

Can you learn empathy? I don’t know. I think you probably can over time. You can certainly learn integrity, and I think part of being a good leader is having integrity and humility. We can learn those. As long as you have a positive mindset and want to be a good leader. I think some people are better at empathy, emotional intelligence, and humility, and some people have to learn it. But I think it can be developed and you can see where your strong and weak points are and work to improve.

What are the strengths of 360-degree feedback?

Page: It gives you a chance to listen to diverse views. It’s especially useful if it’s not just your direct manager and reports. If it includes the people you perhaps don’t interact with every day, you get a diverse spread of opinions on how you work, how you’re perceived, and that’s where the strengths come in, through that broad spectrum of feedback. If you just ask two people for 360-degree feedback, then it’s very biased. If you’re asking ten people, then you can see the overarching themes. You might realise, for example, that you come across as high-energy to one person and purely exhausting to someone else.

I can’t change my personality, but I can certainly modify my language to adapt to others’ styles. If you do the 360-degree feedback, you should review it through your annual objectives and development plan. Sometimes people just take the feedback and put it in a drawer, which is a shame.

Have you had a mentor or champion who has helped your career? In what ways?

Page: One of my managers, who was also my mentor, was very emotionally intelligent. He gave me confidence and saw my potential. He always used to talk about having a brand. And he said, as a leader, the shadow that you cast is bigger than you. When you say or do something, the whole team sees that, so what brand do you want to project?

As I’ve taken more senior roles, I absolutely understand what he was saying, even though that was more than ten years ago. I do think about the shadow I’m casting and what is the “Gwynneth brand”. That was one of the many wise things he said that has shaped how I mentor people.

During meetings, more junior people pick up on the things I say, so I want to make sure I’m sending the right messages with the right tone. And the brand I’ve defined for myself is that even if someone doesn’t like a decision I’ve made, they know it’s fair, just, and logical. I’m not going to shy away from decisions, but I want to make sure everyone understands why I made them.

What three pieces of advice would you have for those aspiring to move to the C-suite?

Page: The first is to demonstrate thought leadership. By that I mean, be innovative. You don’t need to come up with all the ideas; it’s about coming up with the strategic framework and to champion people who have those good ideas and give them a voice.

Another piece of advice is to articulate what success looks like for yourself. What are your strengths? Play to your strengths. Develop your strengths where you can. For me, my strengths are my resilience and ability to motivate my team, so I go into roles where that’s appreciated.

And then what are my career goals? I’ve changed roles to help fill career or experience gaps, so you might think about which roles could help you gain specific skills. Be strategic about picking the companies you work for. I’ve worked with some amazing companies with great benefits and opportunities, and that’s because I’ve been quite studious about who I work for. I go for companies that offer great development opportunities, with strong diverse and inclusive communities, and great leaders I can learn from.

How do you see the role of the CFO changing in the future?

Page: I think it’s moving away from that purely technical role it may have been 15–20 years ago when I started out. I think we’ve moved away from that. Now the CFO needs to understand not only finance, but also sales, marketing, and operations. The future role of the CFO will also be about the strategic use of AI and finance systems to make sense of the swathes of data that are available to manage performance.

The CFO of the future needs that broader experience and good communication skills because a lot of CFOs have to talk to shareholders and boards as well as to their teams, so they have to be able to adjust their communication style depending on who they’re talking to, and a good CFO needs to be able to do that.

Hannah Pitstick is a content writer at AICPA & CIMA, together as the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at [email protected].

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