Neil Johnson, journalist

In a corporate world increasingly defined by the necessity to rapidly adapt, keep pace and evolve, few roles remain ‘traditionally’ recognisable.

Where once a finance operations manager’s scope of responsibility might have focused on the back office, these days it’s likely to have a broader remit. Modern managers are hybrid professionals whose job scope can span business partnering, transformation, systems improvement, project management and strategic insight.

‘It’s no longer a back-end office position, hiding behind piles of papers and reports, but rather a proactive role working with internal and external stakeholders, understanding their needs, and providing insightful reports and analysis to aid decision-making,’ says Vivian Liu FCCA, finance operations manager at National Pharmacies in Adelaide, Australia.

‘You need to be open-minded to accept new technology and adapt to change’

The role

Core accounting responsibilities focus on end-of-month/year closing, preparing periodical profit and loss statements, balance sheets, cashflow statements, budgeting and forecasting. You may also support finance leadership in defining function objectives and strategy, and executing initiatives. The role will likely require advising and influencing senior management teams on strategic planning and decision-making.

Depending on company size, the finance operations manager is usually deeply embedded in daily business operations, working cross-functionally and globally on projects, reporting to finance directors, CFOs and senior management teams, while also managing or leading stakeholders.

A strong focus on business partnering means understanding broad processes beyond finance and working with varied datasets to support initiatives. ‘As a business partner, I need to understand all business processes, front to end, to ensure the appropriate accounting treatment is used for each one, which then enables me to provide insightful analysis for operations and decision-making,’ says Liu.

Key skills

A strong finance background is the foundation, with knowledge of financial reporting standards (IFRS, GAAP, etc) and all finance function processes, complemented by commercial and business acumen.

You need to see the bigger picture and understand end-to-end processes. It therefore pays to have an analytical and curious mindset, and to be a natural problem solver. Consider the role as entrepreneurial – you’ll be trusted to solve problems, join the cross-functional dots, and develop innovative solutions based on your understanding of the bigger picture and broader objectives.

‘You need to be open-minded to accept new technology and adapt to change,’ adds Liu. ‘Be innovative – there is always more than one way to do something. Be creative – work with the technology, make improvements and enhance the process.’

Given that you might be working or even leading project teams, strong project management, stakeholder relationship and collaboration skills are vital.

‘Be creative – work with the technology, make improvements and enhance the process’

The various relationships you need to manage – both internally and externally – require excellent interpersonal and communication skills, as you’ll have to negotiate and manage divergent interests for the sake of the end goal.

Good planning and organisational skills, self-management and enthusiasm are essential, along with the ability to work in changing environments, perhaps under limited guidance and to deadlines.

Developing solutions will lean heavily on the growing quantity, quality and sources of data at your disposal, as well as the finance operation manager’s understanding of data mining and interpretation, usually in collaboration with IT teams and non-financial stakeholders.

‘Knowing data and systems means generating better reports for analysis. If a finance operations manager knows what data is available, where it’s from, how it can be presented and who or what it can benefit, process efficiency and effectiveness can be increased by providing very clear instructions to IT teams on specific data fields, data tables, filters and criteria,’ says Liu.

Getting in and getting on

The ACCA Qualification is a natural fit, adds Liu. ‘It provides a sound technical foundation. Those hard years of studying really help develop the finance “muscle”.’

As well as this foundation, finance experience of five to 10 years might be required, with provable knowledge in complementary areas, such as systems improvement, project management and business partnering, a real boon.

For example, Liu graduated from university in system engineering and then changed career to accounting from project management. ‘Thanks to my engineering background, I was made project lead for an ERP system implementation; then, thanks to my finance experience and know-how of the new ERP system, I was offered the position,’ she says.

Given finance operations managers are so deeply involved with daily business operations, they’re on track for ascending to CFO. ‘Profound technical accounting skills and IT data and system knowledge would give you a real edge when vying for a CFO position. It’s not uncommon to see a CFO’s mandate extending to IT these days. CFOs can take leading roles in organisational innovation, continuous process improvement, and so much more,’ says Liu.