TwoScots Takes Two with Joanna Walker, Experienced Interim CFO

TwoScots Takes Two with Joanna Walker, Experienced Interim CFO

Our TwoScots Takes Two series has always been focused on shining a spotlight on the careers and influence of senior executives within Australia’s businesses. At the moment, the roles of these high-profile finance professionals are certainly intensified and that’s why we think their perspective is ever more relevant.

This month we chatted with Joanna Walker. Joanna has worked as an interim CFO within many businesses and has forged a career out of her ability to strategise at speed and implement quick changes to transform a business.

Our interview was conducted over Zoom for the first time as we strive to continue to connect with people during the lockdown period. This led to a deeper insight into Joanna’s life and how she is coping during this difficult time.

Working as an interim CFO

‘I’ve just recently finished up with Total Tools after being with them for twelve months as their Interim CFO. My career over the last 3 or 4 years has taken me down the path of interim CFO roles, which are a little bit different to permanent CFO roles as they are usually based on a key need for change or crisis management.

The core attributes of someone who can take on that kind of interim role are courage, flexible leadership, emotional intelligence, change management and being able to quickly assess a situation or problem. Technical finance skills are a given. Leadership styles become important depending on the agenda. Having a collaborative style together with proposing a vision quickly is also vital in aligning teams.

The major difference between the role of an interim CFO and a CFO working in an organisation for a long while is the pace of change required in a shorter period or being brought in to solve a specific problem. I have often been engaged to realign finance teams, introduce new skills or manage a specific problem either during a period of crisis or when the business model is evolving.

When an organisation is about to undertake change all sorts of emotions come into play with individuals as they embrace uncertainty. Being able to wear a different leadership hat to suit the situation is critical. During COVID-19 this has become more visible as leaders have had to remain calm whilst still pursuing growth. Earning trust quickly is also vital.

By way of example, my recent interim role at Total Tools required me to redesign the finance team following the organisation’s decision to abandon an IPO. I was hired post this decision by the board (and departure of prior CFO) to assist the CEO with rebasing the business, resolve specific commercial and governance issues and embark on a sale process. Therefore the finance team’s skills needed to be reassessed; particularly as some staff were recruited to support the IPO and so the mood was of uncertainty and anxiety. This environment requires not only being able to assess the team’s ability, but also to understand their motivation during a time of uncertainty.’

Keeping skills at the cutting edge

‘I make sure to keep abreast of technical and leadership trends via training courses or reading. I recommend technical papers of the big four accountancy firms as well as articles by Harvard Business Review and ICAA/CPA publications. A lot of the content is free and is constantly being updated by researchers.

I also value learning from other people as it’s important to remember that even when you become a CFO, you do not always have the answers readily available. So, I run things past mentors or other experts in specific fields. It’s crucial to be able to ask for help even when reaching a leadership position.

We all have our strengths as well as areas we’re not as knowledgeable about. One of my key strengths is being commercial combined with strategy execution. You learn to be commercial via on the job experience, having an entrepreneurial mind and striving to
understand the levers that make a business profitable. You need to be constantly questioning; What are the priorities of the board, CEO and leadership team? How can I support these teams with business partnering? Being able to have the confidence to step outside of your comfort zone and talk to people outside the core finance function is critical.’

On transitioning to leadership and managing teams in difficult situations

‘Moving to leadership roles wasn’t all smooth and I definitely had some lessons to learn. I recall early on in my career as CFO of PaperlinX Merchanting Australia, New Zealand, and Asia, I was very focused, knew the numbers and led my team well however I guarded my personality. Authenticity is so important to creating a team as it enables people to connect with the human element of yourself. As I have been able to share more of myself with my teams and peers, people have related to me more effectively. They can begin to understand they shouldn’t be afraid of mistakes but instead learn from them.

I have had many difficult issues to resolve with teams. A major one was during my Interim CFO role at Slater and Gordon in 2015. They had gone through a difficult period in the market after acquiring a UK based business. I joined a finance team who were all at burnout point, not only because of the acquisition but also due to an extensive ASIC investigation. The challenge was in keeping the team motivated whilst building boundaries to protect them from exhaustion. They needed to be both aware that there were still a few hard days ahead but that I, as a leader, gave them my full support as well as structured goals and timelines. The project involved a lot of long days often with after-hours conferences with the UK business.

It was vital to build trust and confidence that there would be rewards and opportunities for those who committed to those circumstances. This included the opportunity to develop leadership and technical skills that were once in a lifetime and a real asset to a finance career. Keeping teams focused in an organisation that is troubled and often in the media is challenging. Devoting time to individuals is particularly important in these situations which can be extremely time consuming for a CFO.’

Finding inspiration

I have been inspired by a couple of people in my own life. My first would be my father, who has sadly now passed; he taught me resilience by letting me make my own mistakes. When I was 17, I asked my dad if I could withdraw some money to take part in a pyramid scheme I had seen. If you put in $1000 you had the potential to reach the top of the pyramid and make $8000. I think he knew I would lose the money, which of course I did, but it gave me the ability learn from my own decisions and take calculated risks. People will not learn, be challenged and therefore be able to progress unless they have a go. If you expect perfection from those people trying to climb the ladder quickly, you will not get it, but you can see how they respond and how you can support them in a constructive way.

Another inspiration came from a previous line manager and CFO and who gave me that chance in my career. Within 18 months of working for him and senior leaders across Coles Myer I was able to take on my first larger CFO role at Officeworks. He did exactly what I have just said, he gave me those opportunities and was not afraid to share success with me. I was stretched in leading a large IT project which not only provided me with added skills, but I was exposed to other senior leaders in the organisation who could see my potential. Of course, I made mistakes but developed quickly. His leadership style and mode of working is something I still reflect on when building teams.

Switching off and finding a balance

Sometimes it can be difficult, but I try to stay present with my family. I earmark times where I turn off, even if it is just for a short while before logging back on later at night. To be able to articulate that to your colleagues requires you to be honest and clear about your boundaries. This can be challenging when operating as an Interim CFO during a crisis or highly intensive sale process.

Making time for yourself can also be a struggle. I have a five-year-old child and finding a balance between that and being a CFO is challenging and does require compromises. This is where having a supportive partner and family network is important.

Advice to those trying to advance their careers

Stay abreast of current technical trends, play to your strengths, and continuously learn and develop your emotional intelligence. Make sure to ask your line manager for opportunities to try new things whilst showing initiative. Your attitude and commitment to supporting the CFO, CEO and broader business is what counts particularly in today’s economic climate. You need to be able to demonstrate the ability to add value, go above and beyond whilst remaining technically proficient.

After working with Joanna for a number of years across multiple roles, chatting to her about her journey felt really meaningful. Her perspective of her journey and influences as a female leader in a predominantly male industry feels particularly poignant and influential. After all, you can’t be what you can’t see.

We’ll be chatting to some more business leaders over the coming weeks, if you know anybody whose story would inspire, please do reach out to us.