Crossing borders, creating value

Pursuit of purpose and impact has been the driving force in Sandy Chakravarty’s successful career which has crossed cultures, industry sectors, board and executive roles. Wide ranging experience has taught Sandy the art of creating value through innovation and people.

State Trustee CFO and GM corporate services, Sandy Chakravarty’s career was founded on a thorough education. She read Economics at the University of Mumbai to Masters level and went straight on to complete an MBA at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research. She is also a Fellow of CPA Australia and also a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

The stage was set for a global career with meaning and impact.

Sandy describes herself as a strategic leader who is able to draw on wide ranging, global experience to drive effective decision making and value creation.

“Experience across commercial, not for profit and government agency sectors, enables me to bring an innovative lens to finance and operations to support organisations in developing and delivering strategy.”

Crossing cultures builds soft skills and resilience

Sandy says that she thrives on change and she has certainly lived by this throughout her career. She moved from Mumbai to Melbourne and after a year with Arthur Andersen, she took a role in Finance for Bristol Myers Squibb (“BMS”) where she progressed across various areas of Finance and Operations and lastly as a Finance Director

“I was lucky that my boss at BMS wanted and valued different perspectives. This was very empowering. As a woman, you often question yourself but his confidence in me to deliver helped me to build confidence in my ability.”

Sandy explains that working in different cultures has taught her patience and empathy.

“I have worked in finance and commercial roles across the globe. This helped me build empathy. It taught me to look for sensitivities and allow time for people to absorb new ideas, especially when English is not their first language.”

Sandy explains that you need to appreciate that things move at a different pace in different cultures and that you can’t just walk in and change ingrained ways of doing things.

“Things are very chaotic in India and you have to accept that they don’t always work as they should. You have to learn to work with the chaos. When things go wrong, you need to think on your feet and respond quickly to turn them around.”

After fifteen years at BMS, Sandy was ready for another challenge and a new culture. She took a Shanghai based role leading shared services for Ingersoll Rand. The Shanghai chapter was cut short and Sandy had to make tough a decision to balance work and family.

“It was a difficult situation. Shanghai was a fantastic environment. I was working across Asia setting up a new head office for Ingersoll Rand but the job opportunities were just not there for my husband who worked in Financial Services IT.”

Sandy got headhunted for a Pan Asia role with by Boston Consulting Group (“BCG”) and the decision to move on from Shanghai was made.

BCG was just the kind of cross-cultural environment Sandy loves and thrives in. She was based in Melbourne, her boss in Hong Kong and her team in Singapore.

“I had teams in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia. It was like a virtual team and the whole concept was innovative and I was thriving

– I loved it.”

Building a board career whilst giving back to the community

The role with BCG gave Sandy wide ranging commercial experience and a powerful brand on her CV. After nearly five years with BCG, she launched her board career in search of new challenges and a chance to give back to the community.

Although Sandy was successful in building a non-exec career, it was not an easy path.

“I became very aware of unconscious bias in boardrooms and the lack of cultural diversity on boards. It made me really appreciate the environments that I had worked in where diversity of cultures and opinions were actively sought out and valued.”

Sandy completed the Australian Institute of Company Directors course and in the following years joined a number of boards which include, The National Association of Women in Operations, The Red Cross Blood Service, Link Community Transport, the International Women’s Development Agency and Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust.

Moving into the boardroom has been very beneficial for Sandy’s personal growth and she believes that non-executive roles can make you a better executive.

“In executive roles, you tend to look at the business from an operational perspective. On the board you focus on governance, management of risk, strategic direction, what drives the organisation and sustainability.”

Sandy explains that as an executive, you have to deal with the board and without understanding their perspective, it can sometimes feel like a tug of war.

“Being on the other side has helped me see the board as a partner and understand that we are on different parts of the same journey. You achieve a lot more if you are in partnership with the board.”

Being effective in the Not for Profit sector

Coming from overseas and working across diverse cultures was the perfect grounding for life in the not for profit (“NFP”) sector and government agency sectors.

Understanding nuances has been a consistent factor in Sandy’s career and this was very much the case when she became the CFO of Red Cross Australia (her first NFP).

“In a purely commercial environment, it is all about performance and people generally accept that. You start with goals and use available resources available to deliver them.”

Sandy explains that things are different in the NFP sector.

“People not goals are at the centre of an NFP organisation and you generally need more of a consensus for decisions. You need to allow more time to bring everyone on the journey.”

A key learning for Sandy was to understand the difference between shareholder and stakeholder driven organisations but also to appreciate the similarities.

“A focus on performance in NFP does not undermine the mission of the organisation. The commercial sector is also learning that you can’t just focus on performance and the banks have been an example of what happens when you lose sight of the mission and customer.”

Chief Value Officer – innovation and value creation

Diversity of career experience is a key factor in shaping how Sandy sees the role of the CFO and the opportunity to deliver greater impact. She prefers the title of Chief Value Officer “CVO”) to CFO.

Sandy believes that good financial stewardship will remain important, but this will eventually become a hygiene factor that is delivered by technology – value creation will be the key.

“Technology is changing the finance world. Artificial Intelligence and automation will play an increasingly bigger role and make a lot of traditional finance work redundant. This will create opportunity.”

Sandy explains that her focus is on creating value.

“The future will be about how finance partners with the business. We will need to bring tools and thinking to organisations that support funding, resourcing, revenue generating and cost management decisions. This all has to be done in a sustainable way.”

With time freed up from producing numbers, Sandy sees risk management as an area that Finance will be more active in managing. Sandy also believes that the finance education system will need to evolve.

“The education system puts a lot of emphasis on statutory reporting but that does not teach finance professionals how to add value to organisations.”

Wholistic leadership

Sandy describes her leadership style as authentic, honest and trusting. She models optimism, integrity, resilience and always looking for the possibilities. Her aim is to instil these values into her finance and support teams so they can have maximum impact.

“The lines between professional and personal life are becoming increasingly blurred. Care is the key and I take a wholistic approach to leadership. It is important to know what is happening in the lives of my team so that I can coach, support and mentor them.”

When reflecting on her leadership style, Sandy notes that it has evolved over the years.

“I used to be more directive and task/outcome focused. I became increasingly aware of the different dimensions at play and now focus more on people. I think I am more balanced, collaborative and spend more time listening and identifying the things we don’t know.”

Sandy has the following advice for aspiring CFO’s

“Finance is a critical function in organisations. Technical skills alone are not enough – you must know you customer and work with them to provide a foundation and support. Relationships are critical”

Fitting it all in – keeping it balanced

Sandy has a lot of competing demands on her time. She juggles executive roles, board roles and being mother and wife but is not fazed by the challenge this presents.

“I really enjoy juggling and context switching. That’s one aspect of non-exec roles that I love – getting in the helicopter to take a high-level view. It is also important to be able to switch off to recharge.”

Family is an important part of making it all work for Sandy.

“Partners play a key role in providing support but can be often overlooked. My husband is my rock and the wind beneath my wings. We support each other.”

Keeping it balanced is a key focus for Sandy and she uses meditation, reading, walking and reflecting to ensure that she is able to stay centred, learn and grow.

“Knowing when to let things go and not having regrets are key for me.”

In these unprecedented times when Finance teams will be increasingly at the heart of decisions about sustainability of the organisations we support, Sandy’s advice has never been more important and something that we can all benefit from.

Author: Jay Orsborn

Jay has spent 25 years working in commercial and finance leadership roles for companies operating throughout Europe, the UK, the US and Australia including PwC, Time Warner, Culture Amp, Envato and Open Universities Australia. Working in high growth, entrepreneurial companies at the forefront of disruption and transformation, has given Jay a unique insight into the challenges facing the modern-day finance leader that seeks to deliver a robust finance function that genuinely supports and drives business performance.

Jay is a regular contributor to the Strategic CFO magazine and runs a coaching and Finance consulting practice to help CEOs, CFO’s and finance teams to have greater impact.