Sarah Smith is one of our region’s leading female CFOs, and genuinely one of the most hard working people I have ever met . I have grown to know Sarah really well over more recent years and the fact she has no idea how good she is definitely one of her greatest qualities. A technically brilliant accountant with a passion for ESG and being a role model to aspiring female leaders, Sarah shares some of her own personal journey and thoughts to becoming a successful CFO.
My route to becoming a Chartered Accountant was far from typical. I worked in the banking sector for around 10 years before deciding I wanted to retrain as an accountant. My last position at the bank was as a Client Relationship Manager in the Leeds Business Centre. Much of this role was working with individuals buying small businesses and pulling together financial information to put forward lending proposals for credit approvals. I knew my way around a profit and loss and balance sheet long before I knew the technical elements of how to get to this point.
I really enjoyed working with businesses to understand their financials and wondered if it was something I could pursue as a career so I decided to get in touch with a partner of a local accountancy practice to get some advice and they offered me a training contract.
I left school at 16 with just GCSEs. I started working at the Alliance and Leicester call centre in Leeds at age 17 before moving to Lloyds TSB when I was around 20. It was only when I took up the training contract that I went back into studying for AAT and then subsequently for ACA.
I never felt at a disadvantage compared to my peer group – except I was a lot older, but I think this helped me. As I had pursued this profession later in life, I was absolutely determined to make it work. I had a lot of experience working with people – colleagues, clients, managers etc. Most of the class I was studying with were relatively fresh out of school and you forget how daunting this can be when you first start out.
My banking background definitely helped me as they invested heavily on training to ensure that they gave you the skills required to interview and build relationships with clients. It was all about understanding your clients, their business, the risks and the potential opportunities. When I then began my training contract and worked in practice it was all about gaining the technical understanding.
I am inherently nosey! I love learning new things and getting stuck into complex technical matters. In reality this means I can quickly understand the key drivers behind the successful elements (or indeed the shortcomings) of a business. If you don’t know what these are or where they originate from, you cannot develop or implement a strategy for improvement.
The ability to be able to deep dive into the transactional level detail but then be able to apply the knowledge gained from this into the bigger picture I think, is a really difficult thing to master. I tend to favour the detail but believe that my banking background also enables me to take a step back and assess what this means. The next issue is having the ability to be able to articulate this, sometimes in non technical terms, to stakeholders.
I know it sounds like a cliché but being able to assess an issue with several different hats on often results in a better understanding of where underlying problems might occur because you are looking at things from lots of different perspectives.
I have been fortunate enough to have had a really wide experience across multiple sectors from my banking and practice days. I have been able to benchmark what good looks like and then apply this as development into many of my roles. The more businesses and sectors that you experience, the greater the extent of business acumen you gain.
Thankfully, my experience of working with Private Equity has been a really positive one. I like the accountability it brings as well as the requirement for transparent reporting. I have learnt a lot from working with PE, especially around building financial modelling, as this was not an area I was really exposed to within banking or auditing. Any PE investor is likely to have a requirement that you are fully across the cash and the balance sheet. My auditing background has helped me a lot here.
I have seen a few times where a business can be a victim of its own success, especially where growth has happened quickly and the systems and controls have perhaps been a little slower to be developed – a great problem to have but one that does need addressing for any growing business not just PE backed ones. Timely and accurate reporting enables any business to make data driven decisions, especially in an environment that is continually changing.
My advice to anyone new to working with PE is to quickly understand the expectations of the PE investor in terms of communications and reporting requirements. Some PE investors prefer to be more hands on than others and this will often be determined by the challenges faced within the individual business. The PE investor will more often than not have a good steer on any current issues but at a higher level. If you are able to get across these quickly you are likely to be successful at understanding the key drivers for them and subsequently what improvements might have the biggest impact on the business.
The need to be able to predict the future – but I suspect this has always been any finance leaders challenge just in varying degrees.
The commercial landscape has been an extremely bumpy one for many business in recent years especially if they have felt an impact from recent events such as Covid, Brexit, supply chain issues and freight costs to name but a few. The ability to quickly understand the potential impact from any change on both profitability and cash is vital.
Because of this financial modelling needs to be extremely agile, re-forecasting needs to be able to be updated with new information as and when things happen.
Its great to see that the gender gap has been reducing with more senior positions being held by women. For me the key is to encourage diversity. Business are generally getting better at this but it takes time for the factors that impact this to normalise.
I have recently been reading a study into women in senior positions and the factors that impact them. It was quite interesting and drawing from my own experiences much of this research resonated. I have been lucky to have worked with some influential female (and male) leaders who simply focus on a persons ability to do the job. Much of this revolves around coaching, personal development and self review.
It’s a huge generalisation but in my experience women do seem to suffer more than men from the effects of Imposter Syndrome. Speaking from personal experience this can have a debilitating effect to take your career forward. It is not a constant but often happens when you find yourself as the only female in the room and or are challenged in a new role or environment. It can be a very lonely place. The trick is to know yourself well enough to recognise the signs and build a toolkit to help you to overcome these feelings. One thing that I have realised works for me is having relationships with peers that you can speak to openly about issues you are facing. Often just a different perspective can help you build your confidence and get comfortable being and promoting your own brand regardless of gender.
Without doubt I could not have got to where I have without the ongoing support, encouragement and sometimes a push in the right direction from my husband. He knows me better than I know myself and has been my best friend and sometimes counsellor during the most challenging times.
I have learnt that most people you come across have the ability to shape and influence your career. Be that positive actions that you chose to adopt or even those that show you how not to do it!
The biggest positive influencers for me have been the ones who have encouraged and shown me how to keep breaking through my own glass ceiling. This was pivotal for me when I worked for Lisa Leighton at BHP Chartered Accountants and Joy Clegg was allocated to me as my mentor. Between the two of them I didn’t stand a chance! In all honesty, coaching and mentoring can be extremely tough to experience but knowing yourself, warts and all, is all part of self development and learning how to be better.
I genuinely hope that I help others to achieve the same.
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