In a preview of his presentation at the March 18-19 PICPA CFOs and Controllers Conference, “CFO Whisperer” David Axson, a CFO strategist and adviser, joins us to discuss the role of the organizational advisor. We also touch on how COVID-19 has shaped the function as well as the future for finance professionals.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
At the March 18-19 PICPA CFOs and Controllers Conference, “CFO Whisperer” David Axson, a CFO strategist and advisor, will spearhead the keynote presentation, “The CFO Controller as Advisor to Your Organization.” Today, he is with us to offer a sneak peek inside his career as an advisor, including most valuable skills and how his role has evolved over the years.
I wonder if you could take us in and describe your path to becoming an advisor. When was it in your career that you decided to go in that route?
[Axson] It's been an interesting ride and I've thoroughly enjoyed it. It actually started way back when I was at university in the U.K. in the early 1980s. I studied accountancy and computer science, and the combination of those two subjects, although I didn't know it at the time, was perfect for the way the world was going to evolve.
After graduation, I spent a couple years working in banking in London, and realized that was not really my path. Then, I had an opportunity to join the firm that was then called Deloitte Haskins & Sells. That really set me on the path to becoming an advisor over time.
I'll be very honest with you: in those first few years, I was learning rather than advising. Many of the projects I had the opportunity to participate in ... at that time, in London, there was a lot of deregulation going on in the stock market space, and that created some absolutely fascinating projects. I was very fortunate, during my time at Deloitte, and then subsequently at A.T. Kearney in London, to have the opportunity to work with a wide range of different companies, and really suck in everything I could about how they worked and that's what really intrigued me.
Even at college, when I looked at a balance sheet or a profit and loss account, the question that came into my mind was not what are the numbers, but what caused those numbers to look the way they did. What was an organization doing? What was it making? What was it selling? What was its customs value? I've always thought the financials are a really good x-ray of a company, and that really triggered my interest.
Fortunately, I moved to America in 1991 to help found a company called The Hackett Group that did a lot of work in the benchmarking, best practices space. I was able to add some data to some of my practical experience. The 35 years I've spent working with CFOs around the world have been a tremendous experience.
What would you say are the most valuable skills to have as an advisor to an organization?
[Axson] I think as an outsider coming in, you have to be smart enough to understand that you will never understand the client's organization as well as they do.
You're coming from the outside. Your challenge is to translate the expertise and knowledge that you have into things that are relevant and actionable for your client. That requires you to spend a little bit of time understanding culture, understanding strategy and operating models for the clients that you're serving with, and then trying to pick through your library of potential advice and content that you could share with them. Then, frame it in a way that's relevant.
That can be as simple as just using the right terminology for the industry you're in. If you're working in retail, you'd better understand sales per square foot. If you're working in hospitality, you'd better understand revenue per available room. The metrics to success in different industries are different, and part of it is learning that language. I've been very lucky to work in nearly every major industry segment, because the financial statements are the financial statements. But to be credible, you have to be relevant to the organization and the industry that you're consulting with.
You walked us a little bit through your path to the advisor space. I wonder if you could dive in a little more. How has your role evolved over the years? What have the changes been?
[Axson] I'm probably one of the few people who can say they use their degree every day of their working life. Again, it was fortuitous, that was not really a conscious decision. But having a foundation academically in accounting and computer science really served as a great platform upon which to then add some practical expertise.
I started off working on relatively large finance transformation, systems-related projects, implementing, dealing settlements in accounting systems in securities trading houses in London, working in the banking space on retail banking systems. Then, when I moved to America, it really evolved into a very CFO-focused role, rather than an industry-focused role. I went from focusing on financial services to more focusing on the CFO, regardless of what industry they were in. I had a wonderful opportunity to work with CFOs at General Electric, American Express, Hewlett Packard, really interesting companies that were going through major transformations.
Obviously, as I got more experience, I had something more to offer. Instead of the conversation being with junior members of the finance team, I then started talking with finance VPs, and then corporate controllers. Probably, in the last 15 years of my career, I've really been working pretty exclusively on a one-to-one basis with CFOs at large corporations around the world, and that's been incredibly fulfilling.
What would you say is your favorite part of your job as an advisor? What is the thing that keeps you going in that role?
[Axson] One of my very early mentors made a great comment to me that stuck with me. He said, "Your job as an advisor or as a consultant is not to do great consulting work." I thought initially, "Sorry, I'm not sure I quite get that." He says, "Yeah, you have to do great consulting work, but that's not the measure of success. The measure of success is making your client personally and professionally successful." And you have to do great consulting work to do that. But you can do a great piece of consulting work that the client wouldn't buy into, wouldn't be able to execute against.
So, one of my key metrics over the years is, do the people that I work with get promoted within 12 to 18 months of me having worked with them? One of the most gratifying things in my career is, when I joined Accenture about 10 years ago, I had to provide some references. All three of my referees were CFOs of Fortune 500 companies, who had worked with me 15 to 20 years earlier, when we were all at the beginning of our careers. The fact that I'd helped them, and they'd helped me in those early years, lasted to such a degree that they were professionally successful, and they were willing to advocate for me when I was looking for a new role. That's the thing that gives me a buzz. When I see one of my clients be successful, or I hear them on an earnings call for a public company and think, "You know, I worked with you when you were just a humble financial analyst, and I was just a humble consulting analyst. Now, we're both doing cool work." It's great fun. That's the most satisfying part of the job, and always has been.
COVID-19: how has it impacted the work you do, and how have you managed these changes and continued to be successful?
[Axson] It's been really interesting. The most tangible thing is, for close to 30 years, I have reached 150 client flights a year. In the last year, I've flown twice. That's probably the most significant change.
The interesting thing is I don't think it has had too much of a negative impact. The ability to have a dialogue and a conversation, it is a little bit limited when it's online and you're looking at someone through a Zoom call, or a Microsoft Teams meeting, or whatever it may be. But if you've developed some type of trusted relationship, I think you can still be very effective.
It was fascinating. I was interviewing a CFO a couple of weeks ago for some work I'm doing with our company, and she made a very interesting comment to me. She actually said the pandemic has improved collaboration amongst her finance team.
Because when they were all in the office, they were heads-down, in their cubes playing with their spreadsheets, and rarely did they have to dialogue with everybody. Now they have daily meetings for half-an-hour to 45 minutes every day. She actually says the level of understanding of their colleagues has improved because of those types of interactions that were not happening when they were working in the office. The accounts payable people never spoke to the accounts receivable people. Now, they're actually sharing experiences. She was very, very positive about some of the improvements.
Don't get me wrong: there's been a lot of pain, a lot of adjustment. But one of the things that's impressed me is the speed with which finance professionals adapted to the new world. If you look at the financial performance of a lot of companies, while many have suffered, if you look at the cash balances, companies have done a phenomenal job of conserving cash, protecting capital. They were very quick to reduce share repurchasing so that they could provide liquidity for the business to fight through the downturn. Obviously, there's been massive government stimulus. But I actually think most CFOs and their teams have done a phenomenal job over the last year.
I think a lot of the lessons we've learned, as we come back to whatever the new normal might look like, are actually going to have some lasting benefits.
Hopefully, in the next few months, maybe more months than we would like, the pandemic starts to ramp down a little bit. We have to hope so. As you take a look outside of that, what's the outlook for the near to immediate future for the world of financial professionals?
[Axson] I'd like to say I actually think it's the most exciting time ever to be a finance professional. Yes, we have a lot of uncertainty and volatility in the world, but that actually is meat-and-potatoes to a finance person. Being able to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty is actually what we were trained to try and do. What is the impact of the things that are happening today on choices and options that we have tomorrow? That is really where finance can add a tremendous amount of value.
Despite the disruptions we've experienced over the last year, when I look at the evolution of technology, the explosion in the availability of data, not all of it is necessarily useful, but a lot of it is. When I think back to my time sitting in front of an IBM PC with a stack of Lotus spreadsheets – in those days; they would be Excel spreadsheets today – being the only technology tool that I have available, and now I think about the opportunities are artificial intelligence, and robotic process automation, and advanced analytics, to really equip me as a finance professional to spend far less time gathering data, organizing data, and reporting data, to start to think about what does that data mean. How can we influence that data in the future, by changing the way we allocate resources, or making better decisions?
I think we're really coming to a new age in terms of the integration of data technology and finance talent. I like to say we're at the verge of liberating the finance professional from the tyranny of the spreadsheet.