Sara Watts

Former CFO, now NED of various companies

Sara Watts, Former CFO, now NED of various companies - FEI CFO Mentor

Tell us a little about your career path

I started as a graduate hire with IBM, without a career plan. When I knew that I wanted a ‘big job’, I sought out roles that fulfilled three criteria: learning a ‘CFO’ skill, the ability to contribute while building that skill and, having some fun along the way. Since there was no guarantee that I’d be appointed CFO, I decided to learn new skills and ensure I enjoyed my work while progressing my career. Consequently, by the time I was appointed IBM’s CFO I had held a number of roles that were interesting, challenging, and broadening and had a deeper skill set than the other applicants. I’m currently in transition and building the next phase of my career as a full-time Company Director.

And your education?

I have a Bachelor of Science from the University of Sydney, an MBA from Macquarie Graduate School of Management and am a Fellow of CPA Australia and also of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

What keeps you awake at night?

Perhaps top of mind are Australia’s global competitiveness and willingness to embrace technology that improves innovation and productivity. If we don’t get that right, it has consequences for our economy, for youth employment and our regional relevance.

How far out can a CFO plan, given the pace of change at present?

I think detailed planning should be 18 -24 months out in a service industry and perhaps longer if you are in a capital-intensive industry.

And what are the implications of that planning horizon?

We should always scan the horizon, near and far, for trends that inform our planning decisions. If you plan in detail too far out, then you might forfeit the flexibility needed to adjust to environmental shifts, and if you aren’t thinking far enough out then you might miss emerging trends. Never be so wedded to a plan that you can’t adjust it for changes in strategy or in response to the internal and external environments.

Why do you mentor?

I like to help others understand and fulfil their potential. I also think it’s important for people to have a safe space to discuss and explore what’s going on in their work environment, their career aspirations and what might be holding them back.

What was the best advice you ever received?

In one of my first senior roles, I had been a bit hesitant – I wasn’t sure what the boundaries were and while I have no qualms about stepping over the line, I prefer it to be a conscious decision. I was told “Sara, just make and execute decisions. If I think you’ve made a poor one, I’ll ask you what the heck you were thinking and you’d better be able to tell me”. It was liberating!

Where do you seek professional insight and inspiration?

Primarily through reading and conversation – often the best insight comes from someone (a person or an organisation) that is in a complementary industry or sector. Formal study can also help, and I look for institutions that are innovative in their delivery of executive education.

Can you share a personal productivity tip?

In a busy job, good diary management is critical. When my diary gets overwhelmingly full, I categorise meetings and tasks into four groups: urgent and important; urgent but not important; important but not urgent and; neither urgent nor important. Then I prioritise, cancel and delegate accordingly.

Interested? Learn more about our Mentoring Program.

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