Looking forward: how finance transformation future-proofs businesses
17th Mar 2022
Sally O’Brien, a Director in PwC’s consulting team, tells us how she helps businesses evolve their finance functions for the future and why a supportive culture is the key to success.
For those that don’t work in the sector, ‘finance transformation’ might not be a term you’re overly familiar with, but its effects can have a huge impact on a business. In her position at PwC, Sally O’Brien helps CFOs update their financial processes for the digital age, from process automation to implementing cloud-based systems, making them more efficient and giving more insight into their data.
Sally works specifically with the tech sector, and she says it’s a fascinating and rapidly changing space thanks to emerging technology and automation, the changing demographics of the workforce and, of course, COVID-19.
“Given the global nature of a lot of the tech companies we work with, their compliance requirements can be very complex,” she explains. “They operate in every country in the world and need to be compliant with local laws and regulations, accounting standards, and tax requirements.”
Each of these aspects brings operational challenges such as team structures and internal processes, so you’re probably beginning to understand why Sally says that what her team does affects almost all aspects of a business.
“I think all business leaders face the same challenges. They want to retain talent, motivate their staff and give them interesting work. Those challenges exist in the finance world as well, and part of our work is helping organisations structure their teams and ensure that they’re equipped to face the environment they’re working in.”
If it sounds complex, it’s because it is, but Sally says she has enjoyed every aspect of the career journey that led her to this point. She joined PwC as a graduate in 2010, after studying commerce at UCD and completing a Master’s in finance and investments at the University of Edinburgh.
Having joined PwC during the financial crisis, a lot of her early work on the consulting team was in financial services, but Sally also had opportunities to work in a variety of sectors. “For me, it was a great place to learn the trade and get a breadth of experience. You get exposure to lots of different companies and sectors like healthcare, public services and retail, so you get a real variety of experience.”
“I don’t like competitive environments to be honest, I wouldn't thrive in that atmosphere. I like the support and the nature of the work we do, and the collaboration.”
In her time at PwC, Sally has moved upwards relatively quickly, something she says has always been encouraged by those working around her. “I’ve really been supported by mentors and the people I report into. If you’re surrounded by people who give you confidence and reassurance, it makes that transition so much easier. You still need to step up into a role, but I actually like having that responsibility once I feel comfortable and confident that I can deliver.”
She also cites the presence of the company’s many female leaders as a motivating factor. “PwC places a strong emphasis on gender equality, so I never felt that being a woman put me at any kind of disadvantage. It just wasn’t a consideration.”
The workplace culture, she explains, is also incredibly supportive. “I don’t like competitive environments to be honest, I wouldn’t thrive in that atmosphere. I like the support and the nature of the work we do, and the collaboration.”
This extends to the support for employees to manage their work around family commitments. Sally has a three-year-old son and since he arrived, she’s had to get better at setting boundaries in her day.
Although her role can involve calls later in the evening with people in different time zones, she now blocks off her calendar around crèche pick-up time. She cites Parkinson’s Law, that work expands to fill the time you set aside for it, and says she simply had to become more efficient in her role.
Delegating is also key, and has benefits for her whole team. “I now spend more time coaching junior team members so that they can manage tasks and projects independently. We have such good people on our team, highly intelligent and hard-working individuals. They will do a great job if you direct them well and give them the guidance they need.”
For young women interested in the sector, Sally makes an excellent case for pursuing finance transformation. Not only does its global nature mean that there are opportunities for travel, it’s not a male-dominated space despite what people might think. There are many female financial leaders, especially in the tech sector.
She also enjoys the variety in her day-to-day work, and the challenge that brings. Each client has different requirements, from small changes to complete overhauls, and no two companies are the same. “You can be doing short projects that are, for example, focused on process efficiency. Then you might move to another project that is focused on some kind of technology implementation,” Sally explains. “You get a variety of experience that allows you to stretch yourself and build your skill set.”
It’s this consistent opportunity to develop that has kept Sally at PwC over the years. “At the beginning of my career, I would have expected a change at some point. But I’ve been able to develop my skills and build my career in PwC without moving companies.”
What’s more, the sector itself is rapidly evolving, so Sally believes that it’s a particularly exciting time to get involved. “It really does feel like there’s a large-scale transformation happening in this space with the move towards automation and cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems,” she says.
“Finance functions are now looking towards predictive analytics as opposed to backward-looking reporting.” As a result, finance professionals of the future will be more like strategic business partners, with most routine finance tasks automated.
It’s this big-picture aspect that Sally particularly enjoys about her job – looking at emerging trends and technologies, and figuring out how they will affect her clients. “You’re at the leading edge of all of the developments in the space, which is what I really like about it,” she says. It means a new challenge is always emerging: the future, after all, is a moving target.
Implementing sound financial management in your business is essential for success. Find out how PwC can help you put your finance function at the heart of your strategic plans here.
PwC is currently recruiting for a variety of roles in their Consulting Team: pwc.ie/careers
Photography: Melanie Mullan