Accenture CFO Dinner: CFOs test their thinking and share insights

Last Thursday a selected group of South African CFOs had the privilege of having dinner with David Axson, Accenture's global top expert for everything CFO. CFO South Africa's manager Graham Fehrsen moderated the exclusive evening discussion at the beautiful Saxon Boutique Hotel in Johannesburg. Earlier we published an 'official article' on the event. Here is Graham's impression of the evening.

By Graham Fehrsen, manager CFO South Africa

The gathering of CFOs from across banking, resources, telecoms, media, FMCG, auto, manufacturing and education gave the evening a truly impressive feel. Adding the final swirl to this heady mix of exceptional professionals was David Axson, Global Lead for Thought Leadership for Accenture.

David delivered an engaging and thought provoking key note. His style is relaxed and confident, what you would expect from a professional with 30 years of experience spanning 40 countries and more than 250 companies. He is, in his own a words, also an "edutainer" and he opened the evening with his thoughts on how much the world has changed by referencing the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the shelf, "my version of Google" and his thoughts on how CFOs are adapting in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

"It's the most interesting time to be a CFO but in many ways we are tackling 21st century challenges with 20th century solutions. Does anyone think we will go back to quieter times?" he asked a room of today's financial leaders. There was a resounding shaking of heads and a general murmur that suggested we are indeed tackling many of today's problems with yesterday's thinking.

The venue for our most recent and exclusive CFO dinner on the 11th June has interesting history. Formerly home of Douw Steyn, insurance magnate, entrepreneur and disruptor worth an estimated eight billion Pounds. It was also a temporary home to Nelson Mandela who, the story goes, edited the Long Walk to Freedom in its' leafy sanctuary. An army of politicians, rock stars, celebrities and who's who have frequented this fine establishment and it set the tone for what would prove to be a genuinely fascinating night.

Despite the icy weather and forecast of increasingly challenging and fast changing business environments the evening didn't have any sense of doom or gloom. CFOs were overwhelmingly positive and pleased to be at the sharp end of their businesses. Whether it was technology, supply chain management, talent or budgeting vs. forecasting challenges, the room of talented professionals was excited by the growing importance of the CFO as a business partner and shared some fantastic insights.

A senior finance professional commented "Our graduate programme has turned almost 180 degrees and our primary focus is to hire non-finance graduates into various streams. We believe this diversity will be the way we solve tomorrow's banking challenges". This approach or perspective isn't novel but generated a much deeper debate about the importance of helping finance professionals gather operational and general management experience in order to improve their ability to become genuine business partners. Not an easy thing to sell young finance professionals in a time where three years is considered a full career and they aren't particularly inclined to divert from their chosen path or "waste time" getting to the top.

David Axson commented "Accounting by its nature is backward looking. That's fine when you want to tell the business "what" is happening but less useful as you begin to try and explain "why" and almost of no value when you try and look forward and help the business make strategic decisions and mitigate risk". An interesting debate about budgeting and its value and importance was opened. An example offered by David of rolling forecasting and the abandonment of budgeting in a $15 billion US FMCG business offered everyone food for thought in between mouthfuls of culinary delights.

Evenings like this provide few answers. That isn't the intention behind them and, in truth, answers to today's business challenges are most often found through iterative trial and error. The opportunity to test your thinking and share insights is why CFOs return, time and again, to our exclusive dinners and last night's event certainly set a high standard for future events.

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