A CFO Reinvented

Now a year into her role as the CFO of SAP in Australia and New Zealand, Xuehui Chiu shares her insights about the leadership skills a modern CFO needs to succeed.

When Xuehui Chiu started her finance career in an assurance role with PwC Singapore, she was convinced that it wasn’t her calling to work in a purely back-office finance function.

“The traditional finance function was very accounting-driven and in many circumstances operated independently from the rest of the organisation,” she says. “My contribution would be passive and distant from those driving the future of the company.”

Gaining the experience beyond traditional finance

Chiu subsequently moved to Deloitte as assistant manager, working on financial due diligence as part of merger and acquisitions, as she was seeking more excitement  and wanted to gain experience beyond traditional finance. She thrived in the fast-paced nature of work on the finance frontline.

Her remit became even more interesting when she joined Honeywell ACS as an internal controls analyst. Chiu was involved in project reviews of large-scale projects like Beijing Olympic Park and the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Convention Centre, together with SOX, internal audit and investigation work. She remained in the role for two-and-a-half years and it took her deep into internal processes and the forensics of financial fraud.

In 2011 she joined SAP as a senior regional revenue recognition specialist and it was from this point that she began to reconsider her perspective of back office functions.

“SAP’s Revenue Recognition team is a broad and complex function that touches all parts of business and involves diverse stakeholders. The end goal is to support our sales teams in closing the most commercially viable deal for the customer and SAP in an accounting compliant manner. It is not a pure back-office function – it is very much putting on multiple hats as a steward, business partner and transformation agent, while working hand-in-hand with the salespeople in their deals and negotiations.”

Building cross cultural and sustainable teams

Chiu obtained valuable regional exposure when she became the Head of Asia Pacific & Japan (APJ) Revenue Recognition in 2018. She oversaw the implementation of IFRS 15 within the region and her network began to stretch across the globe.

“My leadership role took place during interesting and challenging times because we were toggling between the change in the technical accounting standards and managing the change across business, as well as building a team within the APJ,” she says.

“We have reinvented the role of the CFO to become the enabler and catalyst of the network between customer, employee and organization. We call it a ‘CFO reinvented’.”

Chiu was striving to build a cross cultural team across different countries that functioned in a sustainable way. She developed a nature-based metaphor to visualise her style of leadership that she calls the ‘Flowing River’.

“The water flowing in a river are the graduates and junior professionals, who come along, develop themselves and continue on in the next stage of their careers. They bring the energy and momentum to the river.”

“In the ‘river’ you need a steady bedrock as a strong foundation,” she adds. “These are the gurus with solid knowledge and experience to train up the newcomers. Then there are the pebbles in the middle, who stay for the medium term.”

For every person she recruits, Chiu develops an exit plan. The plan is of course flexible, but it helps with avoiding skills gaps – it keeps the river flowing, so to speak. Key to this is providing the right training and development opportunities for team members at different stages of their career journeys.

“Focus on the skills, not the role,” suggests Chiu.

Balancing the ecosystem

A year ago, Chiu became the CFO of SAP in Australia and New Zealand. It occurred at a time when SAP was undergoing a finance transformation. This involved a number of backend support functions (including Finance, Legal and HR) being globalized to create shared knowledge pools and operational efficiencies.

“The traditional role of the CFO in SAP has drastically changed, whereby the CFO becomes a consumer of the centralised services. It is a deviation from the traditional finance function model where everyone reports to the CFO,” says Chiu.

“We have reinvented the role of the CFO to become the enabler and catalyst of the network between customer, employee and organization. We call it a ‘CFO reinvented’.”

Chiu is now managing and influencing leaders of functions and teams and sees her role as  a ‘balancer of the ecosystem’. She strives to balance the tactical versus the operational needs, while being agile and focused. Part of the agility stems from an ability to gain insights from data through predictive analytics and as a result, to develop better forecasts.

She also strives to create a culture of collaboration and trust through open communication channels and sharing a common vision. In the world of hybrid and remote teamwork, she consciously brings about opportunities for the team to meet and discuss their objectives.

Finding work-life balance

What makes Chiu’s approach to leadership effective is her ability to tailor it to individual team members. She does not deliver cookie-cutter pep talks. She also understands that work-life balance and career goals may look different according to where an individual is in their career and life journey.

“It is about creating a development path with the right pace and understanding where the equilibrium between work and personal life sits with the individual,” she says.

Chiu believes that self-awareness is critical to striking a healthy work-life balance, because what works for one person will not necessarily work for another. This is also becoming increasing important in the future of hybrid work where the lines between work and personal life are increasingly blurred.

“For a single person like me, right now my equilibrium can be tilted a bit more towards work. It can also be flexible: when I’m doing merger and acquisition work, I know that for a short period of time it is all work, no life. But I also know that there is an end goal, whereby after that I can compensate for it. The balance lies within yourself.”