Learning > Future Finance Leader


Future Finance Leaders

Over the last year BUFDG has been conducting research into how we can support the development of our Senior Finance members to become our future finance leaders within Higher Education.  This research was initially instigated to see what type of development a Deputy Finance Director, or an equivalent level might undertake if they wanted to become a future Finance Director or Chief Financial Officer in Higher Education. Together with a consultant from Advance HE, we conducted a number of interviews with VC's, Registrar's, COO's, CFO's, Finance Directors, HR Directors, Deputy Finance Directors, Assistant Finance Directors and external recruiters. 

The report findings were mostly on par with what we expected and there will be different views on the outputs, but it gives a good summary of the skills and capabilities needed in a finance leader.  It also highlights some of the challenges that can be faced when trying to develop as a senior leader and most importantly the types of development activities and experience that will add value.  This should not be seen to be only for those who want to move up to the next level, but for anyone who wants to develop their skills as a senior leader.  Here are some of the key findings:

  • Soft Skills! This should be no surprise, but soft skills are so critical.  If you look at the skills and characteristics identified in a finance leader, these are mostly what we would label as 'soft skills'.  In professional services such as finance, we often find it hard to justify the cost and the time needed to develop in areas such as communication, influencing or emotional intelligence, but you can see from the report findings, that these are exactly the areas aspiring leaders should be investing in.   
  • Job titles.  We need to look beyond a job title to fully understand a role.  The variety of job titles and the roles and responsibilities within them are huge.  This may be a small point, but it is worth knowing and it highlights the need to read the small print for any role you may consider.  It also means that you should be clear on your role and be able to articulate responsibilities within it - you could be underselling you value.    
  • A Finance Director or Chief Financial Officer role is rarely the same.  There are big differences between roles and this whilst seemingly obvious means individuals should carefully consider the type of finance leader they want to be and then start to plan their development accordingly.  Some Finance Directors are incredibly hands on in the finance function, some are less hands on in finance and are involved in a wide range of areas.  Indeed a number of finance leaders in Higher Education are responsible for Legal, IT or Operations for example.  These factors are important to consider when identifying a potential leader role for yourself and the individual development needed.  The commonality across the roles however, are the soft skills needed to be able to succesfully lead whatever your remit may be. 
  • Learning through experience is critical.  You need to learn and develop beyond a course.  Any learning from a development course has to be followed up by hands on experience.  Going on the course is not enough.  What plan do you have after attending the course to use and be comfortable with these new skills.  Find ways to be involved or indeed responsible for new activities, conversations or projects.   
  • Breadth of knowledge.  It was deemed an 'on paper ideal' candidate would have both external and internal knowledge of the HE sector.  The key factor though is to have breadth of experience;  knowledge across your function; Higher Education and the sector as a minimum. Making a sideways move can have long term benefits and should be considered just as much as a move upwards.  Purely linear career development can have its challenges and limits crucial breadth of knowledge and experience. 
  • Network.  Having a network makes a big difference, in terms of knowledge gained, experience and simply being known within the sector.  It broadens knowledge, can make your job easier as you work with people who 'have been there before' or who are tackling the same issue.  It also opens up opportunities to get involved with wider sector activities and projects.  Being a senior leader can also be a lonely job, particularly at the top and a network can mean you still feel part of wider community.  
  • Access to the board.  One of the biggest challenges was a lack of experience working with and influencing the board and it was acknowledged that this can be incredibly difficult with a Finance Director or Chief Financial Officer in place (after-all, that is what they are there to do!) But to be considered as a finance leader you need to find ways to interact with this audience and show experience in this.  
  • Development needs to be self driven and using a pick and mix approach.  It is important to identify your individual position, where you want to get to and then identify the potential skills or experience gaps within this.  You can then plot your individual development plan.  Any development should be based on the principle of 70,20,10.  So, 70% of your learning should be hands on experience - landing the project, working with stakeholders, presenting or engaging with the board.  20% should be learning through others who have been there or those who have a different view , mentors, line managers, other senior leaders (such as through Deputy FD meetings)  leaders in different functions and 10% should come from the traditional learning routes such as face to face training courses, workshops or eLearning for example.    

How can BUFDG help and what is available? 

As mentioned in the final point, any development activity needs to be self driven and tailored to the individual.  At this stage, a BUFDG Deputy FD to FD development programme did not seem appropriate, simply because everyone would have such different needs. Instead, we have pulled together a group of activities, which fit with our research findings.   For a copy of the full report, click here.    

Skills and Characteristics of a Finance Leader

A summary of the skills and characteristics identified in the report, from those who are seeking a future leader and those currently in role.

What Development is Needed? 

A summary of the types of 'experience' and skills an aspiring future leader should focus on.  Development then sits with the individual to identify their need. 

Finance Leader Role Profiles

As the research showed, each individual finance leader role is varied.  To help demonstrate the variety of the roles, we asked some willing volunteers to summarise the key aspects of their job in a role profile.  Whilst not answering everything, it will give a good indication of the types of roles and the differences out there.  Each finance leader has also kindly shared their advice on the journey to becoming a finance leader. 


Recommended Development Activities

We have a range of existing development options available and some new suggestions.  We have also included here, programmes offered by other providers, as this may be just what you as an individual need.  BUFDG will continue to set up and provide a range of activities and these will he highlightes where approprite for aspiring future leaders.  

Action Learning Sets

Action Learning Sets are a fantastic development tool and we run Multi Disciplinary Action Learning sets that are targeted to Deputy Director / Senior Leader level.  In addressing the development need for a future finance leader, this is one of the best development activities you can do.  It ticks of the box for development, breadth of knowledge, networking, leading a project together with a return on investment by tackling a current business issue.  Click in the link to read more about them.  New Action Learning Sets launch in November. 

Board Experience with Pilot-Light

If you want to gain access to some hands on training working with a 'Board' and develop with action focused learning for a year.  If you could manage 3 hours a month for your personal development and actually, would be keen to make a positive difference to a charity at the same time - then look no further than Pilotlight!

Deputy Finance Director Meetings

Another opportunity to gain a network, breadth of knowledge and experience is by attending the regional Deputy Finance Director meetings.  For some, these are a 'not to be missed' event and where engagement levels are high, we see a supportive network and a range of fascinating topics covered.  We have seen renewed focus in some of these meetings, so please don't miss out on the next round at the end of the year.  You can book your place in the meeting link above.  Contact Rachel for any queries.  


Mentoring is a great way to learn through others - if done right!  There may be some members, who would find mentoring a valuable experience.  This can be a more structured mentoring programme, or something more informal, such as a meeting or call to support an individual looking to apply for a new role, for example.  Whether it is ‘light touch’ or more structured and over a longer period, the same principles should apply.  For more details on mentoring click on the mentoring link above. 

Step onto the Board

Led by Advance HE, Step onto the Board is a workshop that helps aspiring women to join a board with practical tools and confidence.  Given this is one of our development areas - this joins us very nicely as a development activity.  The workshop includes advice on the practical tools and advice together with tools to deliver leadership presence and purpose.  Its will also guide participants on how best to seize opportunities and the challenges of navigating board culture.  the next dates for these workshops are 13th February and 3rd April 2019.  

Future Professional Directors 

If you are looking for a programme that covers a huge range of development, then Advance HE's Future Professional Directors Programme will be relevant to you.  The programme has three residential modules over nine months, supported online and group work outside of these.  The three focus modules are 'leading in a culture of change', leading across the organisation' and 'leading strategic engagement'.  The next programme starts on Wednesday 13th March 2019.   

Keep a look out for more development activities...

If you have any questions, or would like to talk through - please contact Rachel







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