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Wanted – visionary finance leaders

Written by: Philippa Watkins is associate director of CIPFA-Penna
Published on: 7 Mar 2019

The ongoing change in public sector finance coupled with an ever-changing landscape has created a large demand for more impactful and far-sighted finance leaders. The successful leaders of today we find ourselves working with are not only experts in their field but ‘visionary’. When we talk about vision we describe a scenario where cuts to our frontline services are an everyday occurrence against a backdrop of multi-faceted demand.

The clamour for professional finance interim managers has significantly increased over the last decade. This is probably not surprising given continuing austerity and the need to provide greater service efficiency – the expertise these individuals bring are business critical to the organisation and paramount to public sector transformation.

Experience has shown us it is not purely technical abilities that are in demand but also the skills and experienced to see the holistic picture, incorporating the need for quality soft/interpersonal skills and motivational leadership. No longer is the finance person in the background, they are rightly front and centre.

It is imperative therefore that finance leaders possess the ability to engage with a wide range and varying level of stakeholders both internally and externally. And they must have immediate credibility, integrity and political nous.

Here at CIPFA-Penna we have sought to widen our talent pool to ensure good provision of experience by seeking transferable skills in other sectors; local government does not have the supply of talent to meet the demand, it has unfortunately not developed or succession planned during austerity the quantity and quality of talent it now needs.

Working with CIPFA we remain focused on unlocking new and untapped talent in the market, and fortunately CIPFA members can be found through their professional networks which are strong and extensive, even reaching out internationally. This has proved challenging but fruitful, and our clients are fortunately welcoming the chance to see new talent – but members can naturally be wary of those who have not cut their teeth on local government finances so there’s always more work to do.

It is essential clients are more open minded and welcoming of candidates from beyond their own sector, and embrace those with wider experience – such as in central government, higher education, housing associations and the NHS. The fluidity with which candidates can move between the wider public sector is to be appreciated and the additional understanding gained from a different background/perspective can bring great advantages and unique objective insights and experiences.

CIPFA members are found in all walks of professional life, including the private sector, and their qualification ensures a consistency of practice and standards. This gives further reassurance of a positive transfer of skills.

It’s vital for the talent health of local government that we secure the calibre and quantity of finance talent and so organisations must be more receptive to the transfer of skills and qualifications from those working in the commercial sector. We often welcome their commerciality and entrepreneurship flair but their lack of public finance experience can cause concern. Perhaps it’s time to think differently?

Our advice, which has led to some great transitions, is to rule candidates in on their competency and then look at the sectors they have worked in previously, review and undertake more due diligence, interview them and see if you can teach them the sector language. If you do you will without a doubt have more choice and more chance of succeeding in your recruitment.

In the longer term we must all do what we can to interest, attract and develop talent in the finance profession and specifically for the public sector. Pay and benefits are always going to be better in the private sector so we must compete on the opportunities to do complex, challenging work that makes a real difference. Accountants need to know that their work is valuable – and local government is one of the most important places to get the money right for all our futures.

Let’s refresh our thinking and seek talent in new places as well as develop those who have chosen local government.

CIPFA-Penna, brings together two of the leading brands in public sector recruitment. Through our partnership we are in a unique position to work with CIPFA and its members. The partnership provides an ideal vehicle to increase the range of services available to public sector managers looking to make financial appointments.

Philippa Watkins is associate director of CIPFA-Penna