Elevation to CEO in any organisation is a tall order. Doubt can set in over whether you have the skills and experiences required to thrive in the top job.
However, according to Angus McKay, CEO of 7-Eleven, doubt can actually be a good thing.
“Doubt is really healthy," Angus explains. "No one expects you to have all the answers as a CEO.”
As a tenured business executive with a strong background in finance, Angus was the ideal keynote speaker for the topic of the pathway to the CEO position, at a Robert Half event that invited seventy-five prominent CFOs and finance industry experts in Melbourne.
Hosted by Cameron Eustice and Sam Branigan of Robert Half Executive Search, Angus shared his personal journey from CFO to CEO, including how his experience in the role of CFO paved his way to the top position, and some of the key challenges that face today’s C-suite leader.
Valuing competencies and diverse industry experience
Before joining 7-Eleven as CEO in 2016, Angus held several executive roles including Managing Director and CEO of Skilled Group, Managing Director of Pacific National Rail, Chief Financial Officer of Asciano Limited, and Chief Financial Officer of Foster’s Group Limited.
While having served in multiple C-suite roles and industries, particularly in the finance arena, Angus remains adamant that competency is of higher value than industry, not just in the role of Chief Executive, but also when it comes to hiring new staff.
“In my opinion, the craft [of CFO or CEO] is not industry-specific”, he explains. “The one factor that has helped me in my journey from the role of CFO to CEO is to accept the value of experience, especially the bad experiences where you have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes. The older you get, you realise that the bad experiences can teach you more than the good.”
International experience counts at the top
Having worked overseas for more than a decade, Angus asked the audience about whether they had lived and worked overseas previously, with a large majority responding that they had. This is consistent with research coming from Robert Half’s CEO Tracker that highlights 59% of Australia’s ASX-200 CEOs have international work experience.
Angus strongly believes that international experience is an essential element for the CEO role. Beyond the opportunity to gain invaluable global experience, Angus sees international experience as a gateway to understanding people better as a result of the cultural nuances that one will encounter in a chief executive position.
“Doing business in different markets is key”, he explains. “Many in the corporate world consider international experience irrelevant...but that’s absolutely not the case.”
Take time to know the business
As a mandatory stepping stone into the role of CEO, Angus underlines the importance of taking the opportunity to learn about the wider business, whether in a finance or operations capacity.
“(In the role of CFO) you are expected to know the numbers and provide guidance and direction,” says Angus. “In many cases there are people in your team who are brighter and smarter than you are, so ask a lot of questions.”
During his time working with United Distillers, Angus recalled that he spent more time with the stakeholders at the heart of the industry than dealing with the corporate world.
“A working knowledge of the people you deal with [and their] craft is essential”, he explains, adding that “leaders now have to be visible.”
“If you’re not taking it personally, you’re not necessarily doing something you have an interest in”, says Angus. “You’ve got to do it, and you have to make the time to do it.”
Empower your team
Angus maintains that the key to leading a business as CEO boils down to the team you surround yourself with.
“You will not be successful in this role unless you use your team, and your team will not be successful unless you use them,” says Angus. “(The role of the leader is to) make sound, rational decisions, drive clarity, and articulate where your organisation needs to go.”
Emboldening and trusting your team to execute your company’s vision and goals is paramount to success according to Angus, whether in the CFO or CEO role.
From CFO to Chief Executive Officer
The transition from CFO to CEO is not an uncommon story. According to research published in Robert Half’s CEO Tracker, 50% of CEOs on the ASX 200 hold a background in finance.
For Angus, one of the important steps to climb the corporate ladder during the transition from CFO to CEO is the change in expectation. Having served as a senior voice at the boardroom table in the role of CFO, the shift into the role of CEO came with the prospect of knowing all the answers. However, Angus emphasises that the role of Chief Executive can be a grey area, and that he doesn’t expect to be an expert in every facet of the business.
“Some people say the CEO role is very isolating,” states Angus. “Perhaps there is more responsibility, but I don’t feel more accountable or responsible as CEO than CFO, and the relationships with my team are no different.”
A key concluding factor of Angus’ journey from CFO to CEO was that leaders need to enjoy people – whether that is simply having conversations with stakeholders or genuinely being able to relate to other people. Leaders need to take the time to talk to people who work on the factory floor as opposed to only interacting with those operating in the boardroom.
Final words of advice
“To be successful you need to be commercial,” says Angus. “It’s an easy word to throw out there, but it’s fundamentally important to becoming a CEO. As a great CEO, you’ve got to be commercial – it’s the only way you will relate to your business.”
“(For me) it became safe being CFO, and I had to let go”, he reminisces. “Don’t force it. You can want it as much as you like, but you have to find the right moment for it”.