Continuing with our series of conversations between AAT students and inspirational accountants, Helen Weir, who recently stepped down as CFO of Marks & Spencer, shares lessons in leadership with Freya Penn.
Before Marks & Spencer, she worked as finance director at John Lewis, was group CEO for UK retail at Lloyds Banking Group, and was CFO of DIY retailing group Kingfisher. She’s one of the most respected FDs in the UK, and one of the FTSE 100’s few female FDs.
Freya: I’m not sure which branch of accounting I want to pursue or if I want to go with practice or industry. I was going to ask your opinion on which would be better to start out with.
Helen: I personally like management accounting, and think CIMA is a great qualification. It’s less theoretical and more practical. You get to be part of a business. So, if that’s where you ultimately want to end up, I think you might as well get there sooner rather than later. The one thing I’d say is that, if you choose management accounting, don’t ignore the technical aspects, because ultimately, in finance, control is always important.
Freya: I think I would prefer to do management accounting.
Helen: Great! What I’d urge you to think about, then, is what sort of sector you’re interested in. Given you live in Norwich, it will need to be something you can do there, but I’d have thought there are a lot of options there.
Passion for a particular sector
Freya: Is it really important to have a passion for the area you go into?
Helen: I do think that being in a sector you enjoy is important so that when you get out of bed in the morning you think: “Yeah! I’m going to do something interesting.” The time you spend at work is time that you’re not spending with your family or on a hobby, so it has to be something that you really enjoy.
Freya: I saw that you studied business. How important do you think it is to have a good understanding of how business works?
Helen: My experience when I studied, which was many, many years ago, is that CIMA gives you good business training, as well as accountancy training. Also, being part of a business will enable you to learn. I’m personally not a massive fan of pure business education. Business isn’t theoretical; it’s practical. That’s one of the joys of finance; you look right across the business, so you can really understand what’s going on in each area.
Long terms goal setting
Freya: Did you have a long-term goal when you started your career or have you taken opportunities as they’ve come about?
Helen: I didn’t set out with a five or ten year goal. I was never like that, and I suspect most people aren’t. I knew I liked consumer-focused businesses, so that’s where I started.
Freya: How have you juggled having the home life and the career you’ve had? It’s something I think about a lot.
Helen: The most important thing I would say is: find a path that works for you. The decisions and choices that I’ve made are not the choices everyone would make. I don’t have time for the ‘working mothers versus non-working mothers’ debate. Everyone has to find the path that works for them. I was lucky to be able to afford childcare for my children, which gave me more flexibility at work. It’s all about trade-offs, and you just have to try to find a balance that works for you.
Juggling a career and children
Freya: Do you think having had children before starting a career is more of a disadvantage? If I’m going to an interview and I have children, will they think I’m going to be rushing off?
Helen: I don’t think so. Do make sure you’ve thought through what your childcare arrangements are, or will be. If you need flexibility, then finding a role that will give you that flexibility is important.
Freya: I’m on the committee at my children’s preschool. What skills do you think I should be looking at picking up?
Helen: I think it’s great that you are doing that. Typically, when you take on a new role, people are looking for anything you have done that is similar. Serving on a committee is a great way of demonstrating that you can work effectively as part of a team and are not afraid to take on responsibility.
Mark Rowland is a journalist and former editor of Accounting Technician and 20 magazine.