The future belongs to the curious
There are moments in anyone’s career when things just change. It usually comes after chipping away at work’s coalface; the light that was once shining at the wall is now pointing at you.
Chris Powell, a Fellow of CPA Australia (FCPA) and Integrity Life managing director and CEO, says that moment may arrive for accountants at any time. They have to make sure they are ready for it.
“In the early stages of your career, it's all about having very strong technical skills – it's very much about accounting,” Powell says. “Then one day someone turns around to you and says, ‘We think you should be the CFO’. It's almost like you've got to change gear.”
Since 2015, Powell has been raising capital and building teams and work systems at Australian life insurance startup Integrity Life. He wants his business to shake up the established players, and he wants to do this by nurturing a corporate culture based on transparency and, yes, integrity. Although the life insurance industry is highly regulated – with a myriad of prudential and compliance requirements – Powell wants Integrity Life to be agile, innovative and entrepreneurial.
He believes the same applies to anyone preparing for the next step in their career. It’s about having the right mindset, engaging in continuous training and being curious about the unknown. They have to discover where to find the information they need.
Global organisational consulting firm Korn Ferry says three decades of research has shown that “learning agility” is a reliable indicator of whether people have the aptitude to become business leaders. In a research paper, it showed agile learners absorb information from experiences and use them to navigate unfamiliar situations. “They are often described as flexible, resourceful, adaptable and thoughtful – in short, an ideal fit for mission-critical roles,” it said.
J. P. Flaum and Becky Winkler wrote in the Harvard Business Review that organisations promoting learning agility are “more flexible, more adaptable, better able to respond to business volatility and therefore more competitive in the face of unprecedented challenges”.
Powell, a former regional CFO of Zurich Financial Services, says while technically capable accountants often achieve early career success, excellence in business strategy is what counts later.
"A lot of people stumble at that point," he says. "That's when you go from being an accountant or a financial controller to being the CFO, the strategist, and the adviser and partner to the CEO, in many instances. It requires a completely different way of thinking about things. The important thing is that you use your training to be able to ask the right questions.”
Powell kick-started his new phase with a testing month-long management course run by the Monash Mt Eliza Business School. “It was very intense,” Powell says. “They equated it to doing a third of an MBA in a month. It certainly made me think a lot more about broader issues than simply the financial issues.”
As an FCPA, Powell maintains his lifelong learning credo by engaging in continuous business development projects. “I read business journals to keep my mind open to new ideas and see what other people are thinking,” he says. He also involves his executive team in discussions on leadership theory and practice, and how they communicate their messages to stakeholders, staff and customers.
Powell believes foundational training was crucial in forming his ethical frameworks. “I think that whole element of ethics in the profession as a CPA is inculcated early on,” he says. “You've got to do training in ethics as part of your CPA postgraduate coursework. It also reflects the credibility of your profession.”
Many financial services businesses across the Asia-Pacific region, especially those rocked by scandals uncovered by a royal commission in Australia, are struggling to regain the high levels of trust once bestowed on them.
“Part of the problem is people haven't been behaving with integrity,” Powell says. “How do we restore trust in our industry, our company, our brand, our people, our customers? It’s a very big question because for many of those companies, those cultures are set.”
Powell is still involved in employee recruitment and holds weekly “town hall” staff meetings. He says he still needs to adopt a learning mindset in such a highly changeable environment.
“It's an interesting ride being the CEO of an early-stage technology-led company,” Powell says. “The normal cycles you get in business – maybe weekly, monthly or longer – take place here within hours. It's very dynamic.”
Powell says new Integrity Life employees often can’t believe how quickly decisions are made. “We just don't have time, we don't have a bureaucracy,” he says. “We all have to be responsible and move quickly, but act with vigour and rigour to achieve our goals.
Everybody in this organisation is hands-on – me included. We need people who can go from being very hands-on to very strategic in the space of minutes.”
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