How I Got My First CFO Role

By Andy Burrows

This is the story of how I got my first CFO role (actually, my title was Finance Director, but in those days in the UK, CFO was a rare job title).

My hope is that my story may inspire you as a Finance professional and would give you some pointers for your own development.

How did it come about?

To sum it up, first of all, I was working as Head of Finance in a small division of Barclays. And half of the business unit was being sold to Travelex. It was essentially the bit that serviced the travel money for the retail branch network. So, Travelex were buying the operation and then there was an outsourced service agreement for Travelex to supply the Barclays branches after the transfer.

Most of the staff were transferring to the new Travelex division – Travelex Currency Services – including me and my Finance team. Travelex were bringing in a new Managing Director. But my boss, the Finance Director, had got another job somewhere else, so he wasn’t moving over.

So, the question was, who would they appoint as Finance Director?

And at some point, during transition discussions I was called in to see the Travelex Group Finance Director in London. And he offered me the divisional Finance Director position from the date of completion.

I was 29 at the time, and I’d worked for the business for 3 years.

And I really was surprised. I wasn’t actually thinking about anything at the time, other than helping to get the deal done and ensuring a smooth transition for everyone, especially my colleagues in Finance, Risk and Treasury.

Was it just luck? What is luck anyway?

At the time, back in 1999, I didn’t ask why they’d picked me for the job. I was working on the transition, so I was working closely with the Travelex Group FD and FC. And my boss was leaving me to manage all the transition stuff, because he was going to be leaving anyway. So, I just told myself that I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

And I actually went on telling people how lucky I was for years, how I was in the right place at the right time, and so on. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve really looked back and thought about it. Because the truth is that, as the old saying goes, luck is where preparation meets opportunity. And I definitely had a great opportunity right there. I was in the right place at the right time, when I was integral to a business critical project, and working closely with the decisionmakers.

The point I missed was that not only was there a great, unexpected, opportunity, I was also prepared for it. Very well prepared. I was the right person, in the right place at the right time.

And so, the question I had to consider was how did I come to be so well-prepared?

I’ll work my way back...

Relishing involvement in a big business critical project

How did I come to be working that closely with the senior people on the Travelex side, while I was still working for Barclays?

Well, I was involved in two project workstreams.

Firstly, I was part of the Barclays team negotiating the contracts.

And, secondly, I was part of the transition team. This was a strange role, because I was technically working for Barclays and my primary role was to help Barclays detach this business unit and move it over to Travelex in a way that cleanly separated it from the bank.

But, obviously, I knew that all our jobs were moving over, and that the business was expected to continue seamlessly. We’d be working for Barclays one day, Travelex the next. So, I was also constantly asking questions about the new processes and systems that would be put in place, because I knew that my team and I would be responsible for all that stuff the day after transition. I wanted to be ready.

Being curious, asking questions and showing initiative

And in those two contexts, what I tended to do was ask a lot of questions, not just about Finance, but about anything I could think of that might be a problem – org structures, people, processes, systems, data flows, reports, pricing, anything. And probably about 50% of those questions couldn’t be answered straight away. So, I had to take the initiative and find the answer or come up with a proposal for agreement.

So, I showed initiative and lateral, critical thinking.

I also showed a very detailed knowledge of the business, the future strategy for the business, and the core operational processes of the business.

A good reputation with senior management colleagues

The other thing they would have seen was that I held my own with my colleagues in the divisional senior management team, and had their respect, even though I was technically a level or two below them.

I’d built a good reputation for knowing and understandingthe business and leading my team.

It started with some vaguely specified financial modelling

But, working back again, how did I get to that point in only three years?

Well, I’d come in from public practice accountancy and audit.

And I’d quite deliberately gone for a job that would give me exposure to every business area. In this little division of Barclays, it was like an independent operation much of the time. It had its own Ops, IT, HR and Marketing, as well as Finance. We didn’t rely on the group and central functions for anything except Accounts Payable.

And one of the great things I got involved in early on was an operations automation project. I had to do some financial modelling, initially for two purposes. Firstly, for the business case, so that we could get approval for the automation equipment and software development. Secondly, for forecasting and budgeting.

Good project to get involved in. It was the first time I’d ever done anything like it, and I had to learn Excel as I went along. I relished the opportunity to learn.

It was also, initially, a fairly vague request – help a project manager with a business case! So, in order to make sure I could give the best value, I wanted to understand why they were doing the project and what the project was trying to achieve, and all about it, basically.

So, I asked a load of questions (theme emerging!), and since I showed an interest, I got introduced around Operations and IT.

Finding strategic use for new analysis

And then the Marketing team were trying to go out and win some business, and they needed some pricing parameters. So, I was introduced to them to use the same financial model to model pricing and profitability for some potential outsourcing deals.

Those outsourcing discussions ultimately became divestment discussions. And I started to share my financial model with the central Corporate Finance team to assess the different bidders.

So, by the time they were trying to make a decision on which bid to go with, it was my model that formed a core part of it.

And so, when Travelex was chosen, I was then a natural choice to help turn the spreadsheet models into legal agreements and transition plans. And that, alongside my tendency to ask A LOT of questions AND try to find the answers, is what got me in on the contract and project discussions.

In summary

So, my assessment now, looking back, is that:

1) I was delivering some great work, top quality financial analysis and modelling.

2) I was also doing that collaboratively,

3) I was hungry to learn, and

4) that got me an understanding of the business, and gained me a good reputation within the business.

5) I was also leading a large team of people who were performing very well.

All those things worked together to help me to make the most of the projects as they came along, and then helped me to make the step up the ladder.

I hope that you can see how you might apply those reflections in your own career.

Look out for more tips for your CFO readiness journey. Just keep following!

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The development journey of an aspiring CFO

And to hear me tell my story in conversation with Steve Rosvold of CFO.University, and to hear his “First CFO Role” story, see the recording of our LinkedIn Live event – How to Become CFO Ready.

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About the Author – Andy Burrows

Qualified as a chartered accountant in the UK, Andy Burrows has worked for more than 25 years as a senior Finance professional in a variety of businesses of different sizes and sectors. He is now a popular writer in Finance and Accounting, a LinkedIn Top Voice, and provides online learning and coaching to help Finance people become better at helping the businesses they work for.

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