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Posted on Tuesday, Dec 12, 2017
In high school, I was interested in both information systems and finance as career options. A great piece of career advice I received is that it’s easier for a finance professional to get into computers than it is for a programmer to get into finance.
I did transfer into a business analyst role within an IT department for a year or so to help identify and mitigate financial systems liable to fail during Y2K, but was then offered a department finance manager role that brought me back again.
What part of your job are you most passionate about?
It’s probably morphed over time. Earlier my career I was most passionate about automation and efficiency, mid-career about travel and cultural awareness, and now I’d probably say people and building winning teams. The earlier passions are still all alive and well, of course!
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced along your career path?
Probably being typecast. After the first decade in construction and engineering it became more challenging to convince people I could work in other industries.
How did you overcome this?
Eventually you learn to accept your value to employers and stop trying to swim upstream all the time. Having a demonstrated skill in an industry or sector makes you more valuable. Employers price in the risk of hiring a candidate from a different industry and the starting salary may therefore be lower.
An industry specialization doesn’t need to get repetitive if you can change something else like geography, for instance, or your company plays in a different space such as owner, project manager or subcontractor.
What soft skills/characteristics are integral to the role?
Being measured and calm have always served me well. Family, friends and other outside hobbies and interests help me put my career into perspective.
People skills and relationships are also vital to the role and this is probably the area I continue to work on the most. Ultimately you need to win the confidence of others at all levels of the organization.
What technical skills are integral to the role?
For any managerial role you always need to know enough in order to be able to manage and supervise others and deliver a credible product. That doesn’t mean you need to know the intricacies of every FASB, but you need to know where to look and what to look for.
How important is it to be exposed to all areas of the business?
It helps to be able to visualize a task from multiple perspectives. The most successful members of a corporate team have previously worked in a regional, country or divisional role first. If you’ve walked in the shoes of others you have a better idea of how your request or deadline will be received and can frame it more sympathetically to that audience.
Have you ever worked abroad?
It might be a shorter discussion to ask if I’ve ever worked in my home country! I had an aspiration to see the world and have (mostly) been successful. I’m originally from the UK but have been a permanent resident in The Netherlands, South Africa, Australia and now the USA. I’ve also worked in the Middle East, Far East and South America.
What is the one thing you have to have to be a CFO in your opinion? (i.e. education, personality trait, skill etc)
Having only one thing is unlikely to get you there - you need to be well-rounded. A technical foundation helps but I’ve worked for a couple of great CFO’s who’s only accounting training came via their MBA.
Leadership is harder to train for, but for me it developed from observing others with more natural abilities. Most of my best leadership training has come from watching my wife parent our children into amazing young adults!
If I had to pick one other “X” factor I’d say tenacity or resilience. You need to keep going and deliver results despite whatever adversity is being thrown at you. Find a way, not an excuse.
In your opinion, how important is networking?
Internal networking within an organization is vital. I’m now in a corporate role but try to spend as much time as possible out with the operating businesses. Knowledge, insights and epiphanies usually happen in face to face interactions out at the coalface and my role is usually less successful remotely via only phone or email.
Has networking played a role in you achieving your career objectives?
Certainly - especially staying in touch with former colleagues. A couple of the biggest breaks I’ve had have come from former colleagues tracking me down and offering me a new opportunity. People trust someone they’ve worked with previously over someone they’ve met for 40 minutes in an interview.
In your opinion, how important is social media for networking/helping one achieve their career goals? What social media channels are you on?
More recently LinkedIn has helped me stay in contact - mainly with former colleagues. I generally only make or accept connection requests with someone I’ve interacted with previously, so establishing a quality network is more important to me than quantity. I have a “lunch rule” as my general guide. If the person is in town would I meet them for lunch? They should be a connection only if I can answer yes.
Is there anything you would have done differently looking back at your career path?
Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again…..
To make any meaningful progress you are going to have to take a few career risks, and everyone makes some mistakes. It took me a while to learn that what really counts is the speed at which you can pick yourself up and move forward again. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t dwell on them for longer than necessary.
It also goes without saying that you should never compromise your ethics or integrity or that really will kill your long-term career.
Compared to five or 10 years ago, how would you say your role has evolved?
My role is now more corporate than it was five or ten years ago, but it’s a mistake to think that makes it more prestigious. The operating entities or divisions are where a company makes money and corporate roles can be easier to downsize. My role now is to find out how to help my teams and their business divisions be more successful, and to use my influence to lobby for necessary resources.
What advice would you give to the next generation of aspiring to finance leaders?
Be adventurous for the right opportunity. My first promotion to department manager came because I agreed to move to the Middle East. My first CFO title came from a move to Nigeria. You can get a bigger break earlier in your career if you say yes to something few others are prepared to do.
Also, look for non-traditional ways to add value to your business. Traditional accounting as a support service has increasingly become a commodity that companies seek to economize through arbitrage. Modern communications have resulted in more accounting functions moving to shared service centers in Kansas or being fully outsourced to India. If your job can be reduced to a procedure document, it can be outsourced.
What are you doing to keep growing your career? (e.g. keep up with industry, continue learning, take on new challenges)
A good starting point is working for the right company! China Construction have ambitions to grow carefully throughout the Americas and Caribbean and that will naturally bring new opportunities for professional growth.
I do try to keep an awareness of trends within both my industry and discipline as this helps with planning and strategic thinking, but largely it’s about trying to do something new every day.
About Simon Hemming
Vice President of Finance with China Construction America overseeing the corporate finance functions and providing leadership to our business divisions in vertical construction, heavy civil construction and property management and development. CCA are headquartered in the USA in the Greater New York area with a growing presence in Latin America and the Caribbean. A qualified Chartered Accountant with extensive experience in the construction, project management, engineering and capital projects industries, preceded by a foundation of “Big 4” public accounting with EY. Worldwide global assignments have given him a strong cultural understanding and sensitivity.
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