Jenny Hanlon is CFO at Adnams, and a trustee at Believe Engage Succeed Trust. Previously, she was CFO at Willis Towers Watson, iprism Underwriting Agency Ltd, and was Deputy Group CFO at Global Risk Partners. Here, she shares her perspective on the role modern CFOs play in creating a fairer future, not being a traditional CFO, and why she defines success as a happy, cohesive team.
What are the big challenges facing the modern CFO?
I think the sheer amount of continued, relentless uncertainty is a real challenge. And it’s not uncertainty with what we’re doing within our businesses; at Adnams I feel like we have a clear and robust vision of what we can do and where there are opportunities to excite and expand in appeal to customers. But we can’t rebuild consumer confidence on our own.
This is especially a challenge in finance – it comes down to numbers and we want to be confident in those numbers. We can plan for a whole host of scenarios, but something like the pandemic could always be around the corner. It means everyone in the team has to get comfortable with uncertainty, even when making forecasts, and be comfortable changing them with new information. I’m always keen for the team to know that just because they put it in a spreadsheet last week doesn’t mean I’ve chipped it onto a stone tablet to hold over their backs forever!
How has the role of the CFO changed?
The CFO now is much more forward-looking. Traditionally, the role was much more about churning out the numbers and presenting financial accounts; today you have to explain what the business has achieved with those numbers and help the business understand and see what it can do going forward. I see myself as an interpreter. Lots of people get worried when they see a foreign language, and numbers are just another foreign language. My role is to help people see that numbers are an aid for achieving something for the business.
Now that we’re moving into the days where data is everywhere, finance can play that role across the business helping people feel comfortable with data. It helps the business, but also has the knock-on effect of the finance team being far more embedded at the beginning of a decision process rather than just at the end, and that helps the whole business be more forward-looking.
My role is to help people see that numbers are an aid for achieving something.
What keeps you awake at night? What can businesses do to solve that?
For me it’s the divide between those who have and those who don’t have. It feels like those making decisions are so far removed from the daily experiences of so many people.
Businesses aren’t powerless or fated to just watch. There are many opportunities to take initiative and make a positive impact. We can start by looking close to home and thinking about what you can do for your own staff. Back in November 2021, at Adnams we brought in the Real Living Wage. When we made that decision I remember everyone asking me if we could “afford it”, and I replied by saying I didn’t think that it was principally a question of finance. To me it’s operational: the business relies on having great team members delivering great experiences and services to our customers, and it helps us to be more competitive in recruitment, too. It was also obviously the right thing to do – we should be paying employees a living wage on principle, and I’m proud that we’ve done so.
What do you think is uniquely within the gift of the CFO?
I think that it’s within the CFO's gift to be deliberately non-hierarchical.
CFOs are often seen as traditionalists, with the stereotype being that they are reserved, proper, and structured – but you don’t have to be. I relish not being the CFO you would expect to meet. I make a point of talking to anybody, of talking to people about emotional things that aren’t work related. I think giving that balance and openness is incredibly important. It’s my way of doing my bit to try to adjust imbalance in society, even if it’s just on a personal level.
I define success within business as having a happy, cohesive team that works really well together and can work well through whatever challenges the business is going through. In building relationships with the people you work with, you help to contribute to the collaborative spirit of the team. It’s incredibly energising to casually bounce ideas off each other without worrying about what you’re saying or if you sound clever. It can be lonely running a business, and I don’t want people to feel lonely or isolated when they come into work. Doing things like this helps people to work together, and makes the challenges we face less daunting when everyone knows we are facing them together.
I define success within business as having a happy, cohesive team that works really well together and can work well through whatever challenges the business is going through.