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Growing Finance Leaders: World Class Capability Development

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A strategy to Grow Finance Leaders

The Key Capabilities of a Finance Leader

  • Inspire, build and lead effective finance teams
  • Drive value for the business by managing performance and providing insights
  • Build relationships and partner effectively with other functions
  • Drive efficiencies in processes and systems, ensuring that the right data is on hand at the right time
  • Ensure risks are managed and that the control environment is secure.

Evaluating the Gaps and Career Planning.

Best Practice Capability Development.

Lessons and Pitfalls.


Boyden global executive search - Simon Bailey, Partner, Boyden CFO and Finance Practice.



In today’s world of uncertain economies, high unemployment and squeezed margins, growing world class finance leaders is a core focus area for many finance functions, not only in terms of tightly managing financial performance, but also in terms of attracting and retaining the very best talent to enable a business to meet its strategic goals and enhance competitive advantage.

So how do leading organisations grow their finance leaders?

I have previously written papers outlining the key experiences which world class finance leaders require and subsequently how leading organisations seek to offer their highest potential finance leaders the development opportunities necessary to gain the requisite breadth.  In collating these papers I have spoken at length with companies such as Anglo American, AstraZeneca, BSKYB, BT, Diageo, GSK, Legal & General, Prudential, Rio Tinto, Sainsbury and Vodafone to name a few. 

This paper seeks to explore how these leading organisations grow their finance leaders through internal development programmes, ensuring that the right breadth of finance and leadership capabilities are developed.  It is based in part on my ongoing experience of talking to leading organisations, generally in the FTSE 100, about how they seek to calibrate and develop finance leaders.  It seeks to explore how such programmes are managed, what ‘world class’ looks like and some of the challenges of running them. 

A Strategy To Grow Finance Leaders

The first step leading organisations take in establishing a successful capability programme in finance is to ensure its purpose is clear and linked to the strategy of the business and its operational challenges. This ensures that the right areas of capability are prioritised throughout the programme and the right approach adopted.

Secondly, to achieve a brilliantly talented Finance team, employees need to feel excited to learn, have absolute clarity on their gaps and strengths and know where to go to find great quality learning solutions that make a difference. Of course, a brilliantly talented Finance team will also be adding value to the bottom line through their capabilities and knowledge of the business.

It is critical that such programs have sponsorship of the CFO and finance leadership team and that these people are willing to invest time in development agendas associated with such activity. 

The Key Capabilities Of A Finance Leader

A finance leader needs to develop the appropriate breadth of capabilities through their career and then balance their time across five key areas:

  • Inspire, build and lead effective finance teams,
  • Drive value for the business by managing performance and providing insights,
  • Build relationships and partner effectively with other functions,
  • Drive efficiencies in processes and systems, ensuring that the right data is on hand at the right time,
  • Ensure risks are managed and that the control environment is secure     

These key capabilities can be broken down into a number of areas that finance leaders can be assessed against. Taking each one in turn, these are:

Inspire, build and lead effective finance teams, with an ability to:

  • Think in the future and clearly articulate a strategy & vision for the function, communicating in a way that inspires others,
  • Ensure that the right resources are in place to execute the strategy,
  • Model effective people management, talent management & development, encouraging functional excellence and application of external benchmarks, a culture of  feedback, improvement and personal development,
  • Promote collaboration and team working, removing organisational barriers to alignment and having the courage to speak out when something is not working,
  • Be authentic as a leader, someone who leads by example, consistently delivering on their promises and bringing people with them through openness and humility.

Drive value for the business, demonstrating an excellent understanding of both the business strategy and the external environment, working with senior management to identify and deliver opportunities, through having:

  • Excellent core finance skills (e.g. financial planning, analysis, performance management, financial reporting) accompanied by rigour of execution,
  • Deep technical knowledge in relevant areas of specialism (e.g. tax, treasury, business development, investor relations), where an individual is sought out by other leaders to provide counsel in decision making,
  • An ability to interpret the numbers & tell the story, delivering insights that drive the right business decisions,
  • Understanding the drivers of profit, balance sheet and cash and using these drivers to improve performance,
  • Understanding the impact of key decisions on the business as a whole.

Effective relationships and partnerships, where:

  • Trust and understanding lie at the heart of relationships and anything can be said,
  • An individual demonstrates great judgement and intervenes at the right times, course correcting where necessary,
  • An individual has courage to ask challenging questions and deliver difficult messages to achieve the best outcome for the business,
  • There is an ability to truly align others, resulting in shared accountabilities.

Efficient processes, systems & right data, delivered through:

  • World class aspirations and the ability to inspire people to deliver these,
  • An excellent understanding of existing processes and systems and a desire to innovate and improve them,
  • An ability to drive change through others, managing projects effectively, whilst measuring and communicating key outcomes,
  • An ability to apply rigour and dive into the detail, where appropriate.

Robust financial controls, compliance & risk management, where risk is at the heart of business management and decision making:

  • Takes the lead in ensuring that the right internal controls are in place, understood & given focus, by holding business partners to account,
  • An ability to spot key risks using internal and external data sources and ensure they are managed appropriately through effective mitigation plans,
  • Demonstrates visible leadership on compliance, whether to internal policies and processes or local laws,
  • Role models high ethical standards and can coach others on the importance of such standards and the implications for the business.

Many of the above skills can be gained on the job and many leading organisations manage their core talent by managing people moves between different areas of the finance function, as outlined in my previous paper. However, leading organisations also supplement this kind of learning with capability building programmes specific to finance.

Evaluating The Gaps And Career Planning

Leading organisations have taken steps to gain a detailed understanding of the gaps and strengths of their finance teams through an assessment of finance and leadership skills. This can help to pinpoint the priority areas for capability building and therefore lead to the most efficient and effective use of the learning and development resources available.

Gaining an understanding of gaps and strengths also helps individuals to learn about their own needs and strengths and can create a natural pull for learning and development within a finance function where everyone has a development plan, helping to grow finance leaders within their current role or in moving towards a desired role on their chosen career path.

In order to facilitate a capability assessment, the following steps are common:

  • Defining the core capabilities required across the function (as above) at a number of levels e.g. Foundation, Competent, Advanced and Expert,
  • Defining the generic roles that exist within the function,
  • Mapping the roles to capability levels,
  • Assigning individuals to generic roles,
  • Assessing current capability versus expected levels (Performance vs. Potential).

For example, the mapping for a Finance Director might suggest that an Advanced level of ‘Financial Analysis’ skill is required to perform well in the role. One Finance Director might have less experience of analysis through their career to date and are assessed at a competent level, thereby suggesting a capability gap.

Some organisations have used tools to capture and monitor capability levels within teams or across global functions. The majority of tools can then provide a report based on self-assessment (or self and line-manager assessment) to show the gaps and strengths of an individual versus expected skill levels.

For smaller organisations this type of assessment is equally effective performed offline. However, for larger organisations, the benefits of using a tool are felt when analysing the key gaps and strengths across large teams or across the entire function.

Leading organisations have learned that bringing together both Finance professional skills and leadership behaviours in this way is a useful means to enable holistic discussion and development of capability at even the highest levels within a finance function where leadership tends to be a key focus area, but functional skills remain important.

Best Practice Capability Development

Once the key gaps and strengths of a function have been determined, the next step is to develop learning solutions to close the gaps and leverage the existing strengths. Of course, for any critical capability gaps, external appointments can result in valuable additions to the mix of capabilities within a function. For the purposes of this paper, however, the focus remains on internal capability development.

A best practice development programme to close these gaps could take the form of several different types of solutions (classroom, e-learning modules, webinars, projects etc). The most effective will depend on the goals of the programme and the type of audience. For example, the best programme to develop senior Finance Directors who are busy individuals and based in several countries may not be a 5-day classroom course full of exercises and presentations. In fact, the best examples of programmes that both engage and excite finance leaders may take the form of learning in short bursts (through ‘virtual classrooms’), where the key learnings can be practised immediately back on the job (or in teams on a project) as soon as possible.

Learning from and sharing examples with both internal and external finance and leadership experts is also key if a learning programme is to be impactful and effective at senior levels.

Measuring the ‘return on investment’ from such programmes is difficult, time consuming and can be a distraction. Great learning programmes will become well known within an organisation (often by both employees and potential employees) and demand for them can be a great measure of how effective they can be. Equally, the way in which they can add weight to the employer value proposition can also be tangible. 

Of course, in today’s climate of scarce resources, the training budget is often the first to feel the squeeze if a capability programme cannot prove its worth in financial terms. However, such programmes can be measured by feedback questionnaires to gather examples of how the programme has made a difference. At the same time, a good capability development programme is a long term investment that will engage employees, helping to attract and retain the best finance talent.

In today’s increasingly web-based work-place, use of tools such as webinars are a relatively cheap and effective way of getting learning to a broad base of people, often based in several countries. This approach can save expenses such as travel & expenditure, room hire and catering costs and so on.

Whilst understanding gaps and proving solutions to fill these gaps is key to a successful programme, this is not the whole story.  It also appears to be important that the top tier of finance leaders help to manage the competing demands in order to ensure that important programmes are prioritised effectively and that a focus on learning is driven forward. A network of learning ‘champions’, representing the various parts of the finance function can be an excellent way of driving the goals at a local level, engaging with their employees and championing the programme. To save budget and also ensure training is relevant to the organisation in question, many programmes use internal faculty pools to deliver learning, which can be developmental in themselves.

Lessons And Pitfalls

Whilst the benefits of such programs are clearly evident and most are implemented to varying degrees without too many problems, the following learnings gained from the implementation other programs might be of interest.  Some of these may sound simple, but are often overlooked and could cause a well-intended programme to stall and lose traction with the resultant fall in results:

Sponsorship:  As previously mentioned, a great learning programme needs engagement from the CFO and their direct reports. As finance functions have so many demands placed on them, learning often drops to the bottom of the priority list, so accepting people development as a core part of the finance strategy and getting support for key initiatives from the top is key,

Network: In larger organisations, a network of people who understand the learning agenda who have both passion & influence can be extremely useful in rolling out new training initiatives,

Focus: When starting up a capability programme it is best to focus on quality not quantity of solutions. A well-developed bespoke learning solution that focuses on the core gap within the function overall will achieve far more than ten poorly developed programmes. Many external providers offer learning solutions for finance, so many of the core areas of finance capability can be covered by offering recommended solutions from one of the major finance bodies or training colleges,

Capability Gaps: Understanding the key gaps across the function (and as individuals) is the foundation to better performing talent in the longer term,

Accessibility: Learning solutions for individuals need to be easily accessible and simple to understand e.g. if a financial controller has a gap in ‘Risk management’ capability, being able to find the right solution (internal or external) will be important. Leading organisations offer a catalogue of solutions visible through a web-portal that are clearly linked to the key areas of capability,

Finance and HR in Harmony: Often organisations struggle to engage the finance population because their learning and development teams are run by human resources. However, there are some great examples of effective programmes run by senior finance professionals, who have the advantage of knowing who the experts are within the finance function, understanding the audience, recognising finance best practice and an ability to influence the CFO and their direct reports through existing relationships,

Patience: The development of excellent learning solutions takes time, requires plenty of planning and a pilot should always be run before going ‘live’ with a programme to test out whether or not the objectives are met. A pilot needs the right audience present in order to be a robust test i.e. one which is a subset of the target audience,

Support: Line managers play an extremely important role in learning. They need to support their direct reports both before and after formal learning to ensure the participant is well prepared and can embed key learnings into their day job,

Attention to Detail: Details matter in the world of learning and development so getting the right level of administrative support is crucial e.g. if a room is too cold, candidates will not be able to concentrate on their learning,

Publicity: Great communication of the learning strategy, support team, solutions and processes available to enable finance capability development is extremely important; otherwise all that hard work in preparing great learning is unlikely to have the desired outcome. This is especially true for new learning solutions or completely new capability programmes, where embedding capability development is akin to culture change.  It takes time, but awareness and feedback along the way is critical.


Based on my experience, I see clear evidence of capability programmes contributing to the culture, level of capability and employment proposition within world class finance functions. They are an important part of talent management programmes and can be managed to keep costs low, particularly when making the best use of internal resources and the available technology.

World class programmes then give their organisations a competitive advantage through:

  • Building the skills, knowledge and behaviours that Finance needs to support their strategic goals.
  • A standard approach to building Finance capability within an organisation, which gives employees clarity.
  • Delivering valuable training and learning experiences that bring employees to a consistently high level of competence.
  • Driving functional excellence to enable great business performance,
  • An ability to attract and retain the best finance talent.

Boyden Global Executive Search, CFO & Finance Practice

The Finance Practice at Boyden is dedicated to the assessment and appointment of CFOs and senior finance executives in functions that include financial planning and analysis, financial reporting, treasury, tax, corporate development, control/audit and risk.  Through this work we are regularly asked to assist organisations in the development of their people and equally by individuals seeking to plan their careers.

Our network amongst senior executives in finance as well as the more specialist functions enables us to identify and evaluate the highest calibre individuals. We use rigorous research methodology to identify new candidates (across the industry) on every search whilst continually developing relationships with successful and emerging talent.

Our unrivalled international reach allows us to search across borders and industries to find leaders with the skills and cultural fit to match the needs of our clients.

Simon Bailey, Partner, Boyden CFO and Finance Practice

Simon focuses on CFO and financial assignments. His functional experience includes the appointment of divisional finance directors, financial controllers and more specialist areas in treasury, tax, audit, risk management, shared services and value based management.

Simon works across a range of sectors including; Consumer, Retail, Travel, Leisure, Industry, Construction, Infrastructure & Support Services, Technology and Business Services. He has acted for public companies as well as privately owned and private equity backed businesses.

Simon has extensive experience in executive search, from his earlier career as a Partner with search forms Norman Broadbent and Whitehead Mann [Korn Ferry].  Whilst with Whitehead Mann, Simon headed the firm’s CFO Practice. He is an Economics graduate from London University.


I would like to than Caroline Gardner who for a number of years was Finance Capability Director at Diageo plc.  Caroline was key to the establishment of the best in class finance learning program currently in place in Diageo.  Caroline previously held a number of senior finance roles in Diageo including Global Audit & Risk Director, Finance Change Programme Director and Financial Planning & Reporting Director.   Caroline kindly made a significant contribution to this paper for which we are very grateful.