Lessons from a World Class Finance Leader

By Jay Orsborn

When ME Bank CFO, Kenneth Christie took on his first Bank CFO role, he and his team set an ambitious goal of becoming a world class finance function. The team delivered on this goal and Ken has never looked back, empowering his teams, and delivering world class results…

An unconventional journey to CFO

By his own admission, Ken Christie had an unconventional path to the CFO role.

“I didn’t plan to be an accountant, but I have always been open to new opportunities as you never know where they will take you.”

After completing a Banking and Finance degree in 1995, Ken joined National Australia Bank (“NAB”) where he worked as a Treasury analyst before moving on to Derivatives trading.

Nearly 5 years after joining NAB, Ken moved to KMPG where he worked in their treasury and risk management consulting practice around the world and in 2002 he was appointed Managing Director/Partner of BearingPoint, the NYSE listed division of KPMG – Consulting.

When it was time to return to Melbourne, Ken’s former NAB colleagues were keen to recruit him back into the business and he re-joined as the Chief Risk Officer for the Wholesale and Capital Markets – division of NAB.

Three years later Ken was asked to take on the role of CFO at Bank of New Zealand.

Balancing head, heart and gut instincts

Ken is no stranger to taking a risk. He races high performance cars and is qualified as a level 2 Canadian Ski Instructor. He knew banking inside out but had never been a CFO before.

“NAB knew me well and had confidence in my ability to deliver. When it comes to evaluating risk, you need to balance your head, heart and gut instincts. I focus on the upside and then consider how I would manage the ‘worst-case’ scenario (which is rarely as bad as you first think). “

After a short consideration, Ken took the CFO role at Bank of New Zealand.

Calculated risks and high performance. Outside of finance, Ken Christie racing a BMW.

First time CFO to leading a world class finance function

Ken arrived at Bank of New Zealand and it was clear that the finance team was running well.

He asked the team what they should do next and after a lot of debate they set themselves a goal to become a world class finance function.

Their journey began with research into what characterised a world class finance function and they based their evaluation on benchmarking analysis from The Hackett Group.

“We developed a matrix of 14 criteria and set about reaching the top quartile (and subsequently the top decile) for each metric. We kept the bank leadership team briefed on our progress and visited respected finance teams around the world to learn everything we could.”

It wasn’t long before the team were getting noticed both inside and outside the bank. Microsoft used the team as a global case study and the bank found a new way to add value for their clients.

“The Bank loved what we were doing. We had client CFO’s and their teams coming through every week to learn about how we were working. We helped our clients improve their finance functions and that was great for business.”

In 2010 the team won the New Zealand CFO Summit award Financial Innovation project of the year and they were a finalist for Finance team of the year. In 2011 they won the Finance team of the year award.

“It was great to have our work recognised and we learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way.”

Adding value to the data drives engagement from the business

“Being a value-add finance team is critical. You need to understand the data and have strong analytics capabilities to interpret it. The more insight you bring, the more time the business will give you and the more you learn about the business.”

Not surprisingly, Ken says that the journey to being world class finance function starts with the people in your team and having a clear vision that is supported by everyone is critical.

Your people are how you deliver

“Team members have to buy into the goal and be ‘on the bus’. People who don’t want to support the goal need to get off the bus.”

When you have a team that is fully behind the mission, it is important to create the environment for them to deliver their best and learn as much as possible.

“You need to run a fully delegated model. People need to have the space to fail and learn the valuable lessons that come with failure. When I race cars or Ski a particularly challenging couloir, any mistake I make is likely to hurt but the lessons really stick.”

Trust was the vital ingredient that made it possible for the team experiment with new ideas and freely share what they were thinking. Ken and his team worked with a psychologist to help them build trust throughout the team.

“To be a world class team, you need them to trust each other. One of the biggest lessons we learned was that the world of finance was simple compared to what we were all managing in our private lives.”

When striving to be the best, you need to have the best talent that can meet your ambitious goal and Ken explains that there is no room for passengers.

“Great teams move on their underperforming staff members. You can spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to improve ‘C- graders’. Focus on developing your A-grade talent and teach them how to turn B-Graders into A-Graders. Always recruit the best people you can and always surround yourself with people that are better than you.”

This is clearly an approach that that worked well for Ken who went on to be the CFO of MLC and the Retail Bank and then CFO of the Australian Bank at NAB and has recently joined ME bank as their CFO.

Ken’s ability to weigh up options and take calculated risks has shaped his journey through banking and finance and enabled him to deliver impressive results.

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 supports and drives business performance.

Jay is a regular contributor to the CFO Magazine and runs a coaching and consulting practice that helps business owners, CEOs, CFOs and finance teams have greater impact on the businesses they are leading and supporting.