Transitioning from the corporate world to the mid-market and the rise of the “hands on” Finance Director

Published: 10 September 2015

As one of the market leading executive search firms within the mid-market space, there are a number of conversations that we have with clients and candidates alike which are eerily familiar. By far the most common topic we discuss are the characteristics of a truly “hands on” Finance Director (for “hands on” feel free to insert “sleeves rolled up”, “hands dirty” or countless other metaphors and idioms). Our clients regularly are looking for a Finance Director who can provide sound strategic leadership and financial insight, while at the same time balancing the high level thought work with an interest in, and crucially an appetite for, the more every day elements of the role. Given that this is what the market is looking for, what can potential candidates do to stand out from the crowd and ultimately satisfy this most specific of requirements?

A large number of our clients operating within the tens of millions of turnover category come to us to identify key talent who can take their finance function to the next level. Often they are attracted to individuals from the larger corporate market and the brand credibility that this can bring. Often they associate these individuals with high quality training, experience of working with within a dynamic and possibly cut-throat environment and the knowledge that by reaching the upper echelons of these businesses they would have fought off strong competition at every stage. However, there is also a commonly held perception that these individuals are likely to have been able to call on vast infrastructure and support mechanisms which simply don’t exist within the mid-market, and due to the nature of these large teams they would have had a number of “minions” beneath them to undertake the lower level tasks and people in the middle to oversee them. This has the potential to create a concern that the individuals will struggle to adapt to the life of a mid-market Finance Director; as one day they may be presenting to the board and advising on strategy and the next they are overseeing an issue with payroll.

This commonly held perception may once have been true of the majority, and in a number of cases still is. However, for a significant number of people that we meet from the Plc world keen to make this transition, the very opposite has been the case as their departments have been increasingly slimmed down since 2009. Finance has been one of the worst affected functional areas within the UK market since the downturn began and you would struggle to find a single team within the FTSE250 that hasn’t undergone a major restructuring (several, in most cases). The net effect of this has been to reduce headcount, with the result being that most people are now doing roles that in days gone by would have been shared between two, three or four colleagues. While we have a seen a rise in offshoring and other Shared Service Centre style approaches, this has rarely diminished the level of transactional processing work required by the department as a whole and as a result, senior finance leaders have been heavily involved in the detail of the full spectrum of the function’s activities.

Additionally, large organisations have created specific project-style teams within their finance departments, ranging from M&A through to strategy, commercial pricing and change. While these are undoubtedly important elements to a Finance Director’s overall skillset, it is very easy for individuals to become entirely focussed on one of these areas and not come up for breath for two to three years. While the candidate is unlikely to agree with this, there is a real chance that a prospective employer will look at this type of experience and become concerned that the individual has become out of touch with their core finance skills, a badge which can be very hard to shift.

The mid-market represents an attractive alternative for many senior Plc finance professionals, arguably now more than ever. They are attracted to the idea of being able to get their hands around an entire business and have wide ranging influence across the organisation, with the potential added benefit of not having to report to the city on a regular basis. Therefore for individuals for whom this is a longstanding ambition, it is important that they are aware of the potentially negative perceptions of their profile from the business leaders within the mid-market as there are adjustments that can be made to minimise this.

By taking on projects which deal with the full spectrum of activities that the finance function undertakes, many individuals are re-familiarising themselves with a range of processes that they would otherwise have long forgotten. Adding value to these functions from a high position is an ideal way of displaying the personality traits and abilities that mid-market companies would like to see from their incoming Finance Director and pre-empting question marks over how naturally “hands on” they may be as an individual.

Ultimately the individuals that successfully transition from the corporate world to the mid-market are likely to be acutely aware of the potential misgivings of the mid-market business leaders and be the most pro-active and agile with their careers to dispel this opinion – the senior finance market remains one of the most competitive across the globe and forward planning can go a long way in helping an individual to secure the role that they want.

Hal Stoddart is a Consultant in the Finance practice at Berwick Partners

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