Journey to CFO

What’s it really like at the top? Lonely, intoxicating, exhausting? At our latest CFO Programme event Graeme Pitkethly shared his journey to becoming CFO of Unilever and his advice to aspiring CFOs. As one of the very first participants of Deloitte’s CFO Programme (now in its tenth year), Graeme explained the difference that having this early support through the Programme made to his career.

As CFO of one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies – every day 2.5 billion people use Unilever products – Graeme rarely has time to reflect on the job or how he got there. And particularly so in a year which has seen his company defend a takeover bid from Kraft Heinz, embark on an accelerated acquisition program and complete an in-depth strategic review of their portfolio and the balance sheet.

“There are certainly some challenging times and what can feel like, moments of crisis. Keeping calm, staying balanced and in control is crucial. Ultimately, the harder it gets, the better you (as CFO) will need to be”, Graeme says. Of course, there will always be events that are beyond your control. But approaching the next stage of your career armed with as much knowledge and experience as possible will be a vital component for your future success.


Set priorities early

As CFO, people will look to you to lead. In the early weeks of the role you might feel pressured to make major decisions quickly. But Graeme recommends allowing yourself time to evaluate to avoid the pitfall of doing something too quickly to just make a bold impression. “Many people will want you to provide answers, when in fact a really important part of the job is just asking the right questions”.

He advises listening well, and being diligent in building a truly well- rounded, informed view, backed by the facts. “Having time and space to think is so important. Four months into the CFO role I went to a Deloitte Transition Lab where the team helped me frame my priorities for the next 180 days – from strategy and governance to talent. That was very useful indeed.”


Four things you should never sacrifice

Time – or more specifically, the lack of it. This took Graeme by surprise when he started the job. And it’s still a constant challenge. The CFO role is very broad-based and if you’re new in the position, you’ll often find yourself pulled into a lot of unnecessary meetings. Delegation is important and so is learning where you simply don’t need to be. 

Yet no matter how time poor you are, Graeme says there are four things you should never sacrifice: “Family, friends, fitness and sleep. You need people around to keep you grounded, but you also need time for yourself. You can’t do the job properly if you’re not eating well, looking after yourself, and getting enough sleep.” Graeme credits CEO Paul Polman’s focus on Purpose in helping him to prioritise his time. “Understanding the purpose of the firm and what drives you in life and in work will help you create a balance between the two.”


No ad-libbing

Governance and regulation are a huge aspect of the CFO role and Graeme admits he underestimated the share of his attention these would involve. From board meetings to audit committees, the range of internal and external stakeholders and compliance responsibilities is intense. Much of the role is also taken up with investor relations, which, Graeme suggests, is something all CFOs must learn to enjoy and thrive at.

Listening to investors and analysts is a varied and useful source of information and it’s always positive to get feedback from the market, even if you do not agree with a perspective. But preparation is key. “Remember that whatever you say will be repeated back to you at various times, in research notes, transcripts or commentaries. Prepare everything well, and don’t ad lib too much. Above all, be aware and be consistent.”


Critical relationship with the CEO

The relationships you form with the CEO, chairman, audit committee chair and executive colleagues will all be unique and have their own strengths and challenges. The relationship between the CFO and CEO is critical. Graeme argues that there has to be a real synergy with the CEO, with both of you sharing in the same passion and philosophy of the business.

“It’s not about always agreeing. It’s about knowing how to challenge each other for the good and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s inevitable to have differences of opinions at times, but it’s important to work them through together behind closed doors. This will naturally translate to give confidence and demonstrate a supportive relationship, and that needs to be authentic” says Graeme.


Stand out from the crowd

While Graeme was appointed internally to the CFO role, he doesn’t describe himself as a Unilever ‘lifer’. He started his career as a trainee at Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) before taking on a corporate finance position with a US telecoms group. Fifteen years at Unilever has seen him in a range of roles from CFO of Unilever Indonesia, Head of Mergers & Acquisitions to General Manager of Unilever’s UK and Ireland businesses. 

Graeme believes the wide range of roles he did in the business, particularly the emerging markets experience, were the reason he progressed to the next level. “Everyone who is shortlisted for the CFO role is smart enough. It’s about how distinctive and broad your set of experiences are.” He also believes the General Manager role had a profound impact on his ability to do the CFO job, “Being a GM was a finishing school for the CFO role, not only for the operational experience of running a business but also for leadership.”


The biggest regret

Over the past ten years, our CFO Programme has supported hundreds of current and aspiring CFOs. Through our conversations and workshops we’ve seen that certain issues come up time and again, with people and teams at the centre. Many leaders tell us that their biggest regret is not taking the difficult people decisions early on in their roles. As Graeme notes: “It’s not easy but you have to re-shape your team to create the space and the pipeline for development.”

The team you build can only be based on performance, not friendship, and that means some very difficult conversations with colleagues. Graeme adds: “A sign of a good leader is the people they surround themselves with and how they empower them to thrive in their role. Good leaders also create a team that is diverse and work to remove any unconscious bias. For me, diversity of thought is absolutely critical to the success of an organisation.”


It’s tough at the top

Much of the articles and commentary written about leadership roles talk about the loneliness factor – knowing that the buck stops with you can be an isolating experience. Graeme echoes this view but also admits that there’s nothing quite like the feeling of being able to make decisions and see things through. He recommends having close confidant in your team, someone you trust to temper your excitement or share your frustrations. “If you’re someone who likes to tough it out alone then you’ll find this a very hard job.”

At the top, everything you do or say will be analysed – from how you look to your energy levels – and this will all be considered in the context of the business performance. Graeme says that while this is tough, it’s part of learning about leadership. His parting advice? “It’s a great job – a real gift. You have a limited shelf life so stay humble and prepare your successor from day one. Make sure you find the person who can do it better than you.”

The Deloitte CFO Programme - now entering its tenth year – provides bespoke support to CFOs along their career journey. Since 2008, we have supported over 1,200 experienced and aspiring CFOs through our Next Generation CFO Workshops and CFO Transition Labs. The Programme has an unprecedented understanding of the challenges faced by CFOs and we hold a variety of forums and conferences for our CFO Network to share and debate these topical issues.

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