Together with analytical skills, leadership is the most important skill for the finance professional of the future. This is according to CFOs interviewed for the recent edition of the FinTech Baromter, an annual survey into the status of finance in Dutch businesses. The top three of skills that CFOs expect their team members to have is completed by communication skills.
Leadership is inextricably bound up with analytical and communication skills, says Joris Nuijten, expert in leadership development and Executive Master of Finance and Control (EMFC) lecturer at the University of Amsterdam (UvA)’s Amsterdam Business School. ‘The position of finance professionals has shifted in recent years. Whereas the focus used to be on compliance aspects, with controllers serving in a more subservient and operational role, finance professionals are now more actively involved in strategic decision-making and determining the course of action for the organisation. To add value as a business partner on business strategy, you need to be able to think analytically, demonstrate personal leadership and possess excellent communication skills. Core financial skills are still crucial, of course – but they won’t be enough to stay relevant in the future.’
Effective personal leadership is characterised by a growth mindset, which is the realisation that there is always room for personal development.Joris Nuijten
According to Nuijten, there are two sides to the communication skills that finance professionals need in order to operate successfully as leaders. ‘First of all, you need to be able to communicate well about the strategic issues that you come across in the course of your duties. As a controller, you don’t just deal with figures – strategy considerations also come into play. That means you need to highlight all the different aspects of finance. Among other things, this requires you to be assertive, if necessary, and challenge your colleagues in the business in a respectful way.’
The other aspect of effective communication is active and emphatic listening. ‘Pay full attention to what your discussion partner is saying, which may be different from what you aim to get out of the discussion yourself. Show a genuine interest in the other person, and engage in dialogue to find out what their questions and needs are. If you’re able to respond to these issues adequately, there will be a bigger chance of coming to the right decisions and solutions.’
Nuijten has more than 20 years of experience at a multinational in the energy sector. In recent years, his main focus has been on team development and leadership programmes for senior executives. He also works as a trainer, facilitator, coach and consultant, and provides leadership training on behalf of the Libre Foundation for NGOs in developing countries, such as Uganda and Tanzania. Nuijten has been teaching modules on leadership for various MBA programmes at the UvA since 2015, and has been an EMFC lecturer since 2018. In 2022, EMFC students voted him Teacher of the Year.
‘The concept of leadership obviously has a vast number of connotations, but I believe personal development is key’, Nuijten says. ‘It starts with developing the self-awareness to find out who you are and what motivates you. You need an intrinsic motivation to perform your duties at work, independent from the opinions and expectations of those around you. Furthermore, effective personal leadership is characterised by a growth mindset, which is the realisation that there is always room for personal development.’
Nuijten names various aspects of a growth mindset that are relevant to effective leaders. ‘You need to be willing to reflect on your actions, and to be brave enough to demonstrate vulnerability and insecurity and able to give and receive feedback. Additionally, you need to have the courage to step out of your comfort zone and take on new challenges. One further thing I consider essential to personal leadership is the courage to question your own assumptions and be receptive to information that challenges rather than confirms the status quo.’
Myths and misunderstandings
‘I still encounter people who are of the opinion that leadership is only relevant to those in management positions’, Nuijten says, when asked about enduring misunderstandings surrounding leadership. ‘However, every professional makes choices every single day, for example when it comes to prioritising tasks, or working with colleagues. Those are indisputably elements of effective personal leadership.’
Another myth is that there is one ideal leadership style. ‘You can demonstrate personal leadership in all kinds of ways. Professionals are free to develop a style that suits them. A leadership style that suits your personality is the only guarantee of authenticity, which confers the power to persuade.’
For your cognitive development, it’s not enough to read management books or watch YouTube videos and TED Talks.Joris Nuijten
Nuijten also debunks the myth that leadership is a theoretical concept that one can pick up from books. ‘For your cognitive development, it’s not enough to read management books or watch YouTube videos and TED Talks. You also need to reflect, experiment and step out of your comfort zone. The only way to do this is to explore new things, and to make mistakes in a safe environment.’
In his teaching at the EMFC programme, Nuijten aims to create a safe space in which students can gain new learning experiences. ‘We take a three-stage approach, starting with basic theoretical knowledge. In the second stage, we apply the concepts in a safe environment in which we give each other open, honest and constructive feedback. This is followed by peer review sessions for students to exchange experiences, challenges and reflections. The insights that you can gain in such a group of trusted peers – into your strengths as well as your weaknesses – are infinite.’
The UvA’s EMFC programme is distinctive in its structural attention to acquiring in-depth accounting and finance knowledge, gaining up-to-date insights into technology and data analytics, and learning to make a difference as a finance professional to the challenges and performance of a business, as a business partner and decision shaper. Key tenets are digital transformation, operational excellence and leadership skills.
Nuijten contributes to the EMFC programme by sharing up-to-date insights into present and future leadership requirements, with reference to well-substantiated concepts like Daniel Ofman’s core quadrant. ‘Everybody has their strengths, but a strength can easily become a pitfall. It helps to be aware of your pitfalls and blind spots. Being triggered by somebody else’s behaviour is an ideal opportunity to learn something about yourself.’
Nuijten pays considerable attention to a topic that few people readily associate with leadership: good habits. ‘Throughout the module, we work very intensively on self-reflection and personal growth. The risk here is that you may become tempted to change everything you do. Experience tells us that lofty ambitions tend not to survive the encounter with everyday reality. That’s why I recommend focusing on a single point for improvement that you can work on every day without too much fuss or trouble. People have a habit of overestimating the number of changes they can make in a short time, and tend to underestimate what they can achieve in the long run.’
Inclusion and psychological safety
The EMFC programme combines a variety of contemporary themes in the area of leadership, such as inclusion and psychological safety. Nuijten: ‘As far as I’m concerned, inclusion goes beyond gender and race. Each person is unique. Inclusion is about keeping an open mind to others and those who may think differently from you. This takes more than just a diverse team. Actively listening to each other is an important part of it as well. This is often more difficult than you'd think.’
The good news is that active listening is something you can learn. ‘It can be about simple things, like letting the other person finish and noticing what’s left unsaid. It can also be helpful to have a meta conversation as a team about team behaviours. How do we ensure enjoyable working relationships? What are our strengths? What would we like to learn? How do we deal with potential conflicts?’
As for psychological safety, Nuijten's work builds upon insights from authors like Amy Edmondson. ‘A safe environment is about more than simply being nice and respectful to each other. You also need to be able to discuss topics that you’re not sure about, or on which team members may be strongly divided. The leader is a role model in this regard. As a leader, you may initiate an open debate if things don’t go well, making sure that sensitive information is handled confidentially and with integrity. This approach makes it genuinely possible for finance professionals to have a positive impact on their organisation’s culture.’
Content versus process
‘Most finance professionals are extremely passionate about their field. And that’s great. However, the downside is a tendency to focus on content ahead of everything else, whereas you may be able to make more progress if you put substantive matters on the back burner’, Nuijten says.
He illustrates this with the example of a team that aims to be successful. ‘Consider for a moment what “success” means. When do the team members consider something to be a success? Is it about achieving results as quickly as possible? About enjoying the process? Or about having the opportunity to learn? The way that you define success has a direct impact on how you deal with the matter at hand. For example, do you give free rein to colleagues who still have a lot to learn? Or do you delegate tasks to people who may not deliver the quality that you’re used to? How do you assess the benefits in the short and the long term?’
Nuijten emphasizes the value of having honest people around you. ‘Everyone deserves to work in an environment in which a mirror is held up to you from time to time. That may not always be pleasant, but it’s certainly instructive.’
‘Embrace surprises’, Nuijten adds. ‘It’s fine to have a picture in your head of where you want to be in 5 or 10 years’ time, but don’t be overly fixated on your ideal career path. Be receptive to new opportunities.’ Signals that you may become stuck should be taken seriously. ‘Believing that you’ve got nowhere to go in your career is a red flag. The world is changing constantly, so it’s essential that you keep developing yourself. Research into neuroplasticity has proven that everyone is capable of lifelong learning. It doesn’t matter how many diplomas you’ve obtained or how senior your position is – with the right mindset, you’ll keep on growing.’