How To Kick-Start Your Multi-Country Finance Management Career

wpid-IMAG2654.jpg You are a good country finance director or head of finance. You have a stable department, the knowledge of the local systems and legislations, and you have been very successful in this role for quite a while. Your multinational company is very happy with your financial directorship – the operating income flows are steady, your reporting is on time, subordinates act professionally and are satisfied with their jobs. And then you wonder – what is next for me? How can I do more? What is coming next in my career in multinational finance management?
You of course know the answer: the next natural career step is to take on a role in multi-country financial management. The usual path leads to a cluster or regional controller (or finance director) role. You should be heppy with that, since it gives you the chance to expand your financial management skills at multi-country level, as well as to embark on a path of multic-cultural and complex corporate finance learning.
There are also lots of questions – and the successful country finance directors are usually unsettled by them:

a) What does the new role require from me in terms of skills, experience, interactions?
b) How do I cope with the new role and the pressures associated?
c) How do I manage not one, but multiple legal entities/countries – whilst keeping the same success levels as in the past?
d) When do I start and where do I stop? etc

It is hard to answer all these questions in a short blog post such as this one, however – I will give you here some practical (and theory based) insights on how you can become a successful regional finance manager/director quickly and with little associated stress:

1. Clarify expectations, not job descriptions
When joining a new regional management role, you have very little information available: you usually have a job description and a few hours of interview/recruitment discussions around the role. Remember this – you are there for good reasons, so no need to agonize over the decision itself. The most useful thing you can do is to roll up your sleeves and conduct a small expectations survey from your bosses, peers (both finance functional and business related) and subordinates.
You could group this audit in the following directions:
– What are the urgent expectations/firefighting emergencies? Are they technical (lack of finance controls in certain areas, systems underperforming, reporting processes broken) or management issues to be addressed (communications, external etc)?
– What are the low-hanging fruits? In other words, where can I put minimal efforts with maximum results?
– What is the region like in terms of sales growth, operating income pressures, ROI lifestage (investing/stable/harvesting) etc?
Once you map all these, get the action plan together and rank the issues. It will be very quickly apparent where you need to start with your efforts.
One B2B Regional Finance Director recalls his first 6 months of coming into the job, when she was really focused not on here subordinates, but on the corporate headquarter reporting requirements. She managed very shortly, in her own words, to “alienate the over-worked” country managers, who were resenting here pushing them more work without properly acting as business advocates. Fortunately, she realized that pretty quickly and started to focus on her local counter-parts too – and the feedback was excellent!

2. Fix the basics/do not start with massive upgrades
Here it happens that I disagree substantially with Michael Watkins’ advices from his book “The First 90 Days”: in multinational finance management it is quite easy to ruin something if you start experimenting, and not with fixing the foundation. So you should not rock the boat, but rather fix the basic finance processes in the region:
– Make sure reporting (both compliance and business-related) is fully operational and delivered on time
– Help your subordinates feel comfortable with you, give some extra vanilla flavor in terms of communication, expectations, corporate headquarter support
– Act as a communication bridge between the headquarter and the countries.
One of my regional finance director acquaintances recounts his story of coming to a new region (he was much younger then): instead of listening around, he decided immediately to upgrade the system (SAP) in 3 major markets, less than 3 months after his arrival. He was decided to make a difference and he thought – we’d better go for it in this budget year, not in the next, when the opportunity might be probably gone. This was not a mistake per se, but it distracted his team’s attention from the real issues in the field, and made the business suffer that year (sales and OI were below plan) – in really an unnecessary manner.

3. Harvest the low hanging fruits
If there is an immediate improvement or business advancement in the region which require little efforts from your side, do not hesitate. When I started (more than 10 years ago) my regional management career, the divisions I took care of were rife with conflicts for resources (at that moment sales representatives investments). This generated a lot of extra efforts from my regional business manager counterpart in order to decide on the best allocation, so what I did was to create a simple decision matrix for hiring a new sales rep in one of our countries we managed. It proved to be an objective and well accepted tool and it is used until nowadays for these purposes.
So you should find your leverage and act there!

These being said, I hope you find these pieces of advice useful. Should you want to embark on your multinational career development and want some piece of advice, do not hesitate – go for it, and give it a serious thought on how and when to do it. If you want my input, leave me a comment here and I will try to help you here.
Good luck and maybe we meet one day and have a chat on your career, our brave new global financial leader!

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