The Finance Futurists are an elite group of leaders who embrace constant evolution as a necessity in the ever-changing world of finance.
More than number-crunchers, these leaders represent a new era for finance – one defined by a shift from pure analytical expertise to emotional intelligence and strong communication skills as well.
Here, we spotlight one of this year’s futurists – Tom Coward, CFO at Cytora – and what he believes the future holds for the finance function.
Tom Coward is a money-raising machine.
As CFO of Cytora, a startup that works to transform underwriting for commercial insurance, Tom has secured nearly $40m (£30m) in Series A and Series B funding.
That’s on top of his efforts to ensure all contractual obligations are met, keep customers satisfied and drive company growth.
With a strong background in venture capital (VC) funding, data incorporation and transformation, Tom has been a leading figure in bringing growth to the various companies he has worked for throughout his career in finance.
We recently chatted with Tom about the varying responsibilities of today’s CFOs, how the role of the CFO is changing in light of coronavirus (COVID-19) and why soft skills are just as important as analytical skills when attempting to carve out a successful career in finance.
When and how did you start your career in finance?
I applied to Deloitte when I was 15 thinking it was a bank and started an internship with them that funded me through university.
This allowed me to learn what I liked and what I didn’t like.
I joined them full time in London for three-and-a-half years but ultimately felt that I didn’t have enough autonomy.
From there, I decided to work in a startup.
I was the only person that knew about finance in this smaller company at the time, but it was a good experience.
I then moved into consulting and finally Cytora, where I’ve been ever since.
Have any of your personal interests helped pave the way for you in your professional career or vice versa?
My professional career has actually impacted my personal interests – I have a science background, studying mathematics at university.
I always believed the answer is either right or wrong; the ‘in-between’ is for the arts. This view was further embedded during my first role as an auditor at Deloitte.
When I started my first finance role in the industry, I quickly learned that whether something is right or wrong doesn’t matter as much as the story you’re telling.
I was pants at that, so I wrote a fantasy fiction novel to improve my ability to create a narrative.
Five years later and I have a literary mentor and a 75,000 word book – now, I’m better able to bring the numbers to life!
Storytelling is one of those soft skills you don’t often hear talked about when it comes to the finance profession. What other soft skills do you view as paramount for those looking to enter the field?
Willingness to listen and learn, and the tenacity to seek people out to listen to and learn from.
I’m fortunate enough to be part of an invaluable network of 500 UK CFOs in companies at a similar or later stage [to Cytora] that I learn so much from.
Empathy is also key.
Finance leaders are hugely responsible for setting culture. It’s influenced by every decision – whether that’s sharing financial results with all employees or keeping them confidential, challenging budget approvals rigorously or not – and it all needs to come together to create a healthy culture.
Effective finance leaders understand the impact that these decisions have on people.
In a post-pandemic world, what do you think will be the most important role of a CFO?
As a finance leader, you have so much input into what culture is in an organisation.
When decisions are made, how much data is backing that up – all of that has such an impact in the culture of an organisation.
Every finance leader needs to recognise and take advantage of that.
You have to really proactively make yourself available, and you have to make sure there’s a productive process in place to communicate effectively.
From your perspective, what’s the most paramount responsibility of CFOs at Fortune 500s vs CFOs of an SMB? How might responsibilities differ?
SMB (small and medium business) CFOs often refer to themselves as “hat-stands” because they wear so many hats.
There are the foundational beanies and baseball caps you’d expect (FP&A [financial planning and analysis], compliance, corporate finance, business intelligence, governance).
Then there are the less usual top hats and trilbies (legal, people/HR, investor relations, strategy, operations).
This variety is the joy of the role and means you’re well placed to bring ideas together and find the best route forward, taking inputs from across the organisation.
The priorities are growth, growth, growth.
Managing cash is so important, but when targeting triple-digit, year-over-year growth, sometimes the sense of urgency means you can’t take things slowly.
Perhaps with more operational complexity in a Fortune 500 company, it’s harder to be agile.