As the CFO for Technology at ANZ Bank, Louise Higgins' mission is to partner with the technology division to drive the best commercial and strategic outcomes for ANZ. This involves helping the business with its digital transformation initiatives, and ensuring that it supports the business strategy. Tania Brown, commercial lead for AWS Asia Pacific & Japan region, spoke with Louise about the critical role of the CFO during transformation.
Listen to the entire inteview on the AWS Conversations with Leaders podcast
A Different Path to CFO
Tania Brown: What was the journey you took to get to your current position?
Louise Higgins: My career has been diverse and best defined by pursuing the things in which I’m interested. I did a brief stint in law, then seven years with the BBC in London as they were pivoting from analog to digital, with an enriching experience across production, operations, finance, and business administration. I then went to investment banking for a few years before running radio stations for six years as COO for Nova & Smooth when Nova was supplementing their traditional radio business with new digital adjacent companies. After a brief stint at a digital startup, I took on a big challenge with the Australian Broadcast Corporation to oversee the design of another technology transformation.
For my next position, I wanted executive ownership of working with a business going through a technology transformation. This role at ANZ gives me that.
Know the Way, Show the Way
Tania Brown: Why is it important for you as CFO to be involved in leading large-scale business transformations?
The CFO has two important roles to play; to explain to the business the benefits of the change and to be a translator between it and IT.”
Louise Higgins: These transformations are very complex. They’re high stakes, and they don’t work unless everyone believes in the need to transform and sees the value that technology will bring. Everyone senior has to be passionately committed, from the chairman down through the board and the leadership ranks to as many levels below as possible.
So as CFO, I have two crucial roles to play.
A digital transformation is very different from the kinds of IT projects enterprises are used to. For instance, you are pivoting from a capex to an opex world, and that opex is hitting the P&L long before you get any relief from the costs of the previous hardware world. So, you’re asking a business, a P&L, a board, and often shareholders too, to take a leap of faith and to accept that we’re going to disrupt our P&L and the way we’ve thought about finance and funding, in the belief that there is economic value several years down the road. So, my first role is to bring all those important stakeholders along on the journey.
The second role is as business translator. Technologists, as they should be, are focused on the technology outcome, and the commercial nature of what they’re doing isn’t always front of mind. I take what we aspire to do with the technology and translate that for the business stakeholders, so they can be confident it’s supporting the business strategy.
Tania Brown: The role of the CFO today is different than it was five to ten years ago. What changes do you see?
Louise Higgins: Going back a few years, I think a large part of what drew people to finance and the CFO role was consistency. Accounting and finance were rule-based, and there was a lot of recording and analyzing of things that had already happened. The technical element of finance still is essential, particularly in large, listed companies, for reporting and compliance and so on.
But every business is becoming digitized in some way, shape, or form, often in the way they distribute their products to customers, such as broadcasting going on-demand or banking going online. And even for companies whose mode of distribution hasn’t changed, then their value chain, or supply chain, or production has. So, technology is increasingly at the core of what every company does, even if they’re not a technology business.
In finance, a new skill set is required for dealing with the unknown and getting everyone comfortable with it. And that’s driven a huge change in what’s required of senior finance professionals. That’s why we are seeing people with a much greater diversity of experience, from line management or operations, moving into CFO roles.
The Biggest Barrier Is Mindset
Tania Brown: What’s the hardest part of getting the business stakeholders on board with a digital transformation?
Louise Higgins: The reluctance to take the leap of faith. Before digital transformation, even capital projects with long payback periods involved building tangible assets that you could see, feel and depreciate. Now we’re often not building it, it’s run by someone else, you can’t see it, and you need to put not just capex, but a lot of opex, into it too. And the ROI typically does not turn positive for somewhere between five and eight years. So, there is a psychological barrier to get people through.
In a digital transformation, you’re asking a business, a P&L, a board, and often shareholders too, to take a leap of faith.”
I have found that what often compels people is the do-nothing case. “If we don’t do this, what will it look like for us?” It may mean continuing to maintain expensive legacy assets on life support. It may lead to lost market share, as your internal processes or distribution become uncompetitive.
Companies like to play it safe. The way that you have to do things in a transformation can make people quite uncomfortable. The CFO is trusted to be objective and can convey with confidence, particularly in an area that’s new to most businesses, why it is important and why it stacks up, for internal and external stakeholders.
A Career Support System for Women
Tania Brown: Switching gears slightly, few CFO positions are held by women; only 16% among ASX (Australian Securities Exchange) 200 companies. What advice would you give to women who aspire to be CFOs?
Louise Higgins: In most professions, the first few rungs on the ladder tend to have a gender balance, but it falls away the more senior you get. I don’t think we’ll fix this just by companies doing more or women trying harder; it’s more structural than that. For women, sometimes it’s easier to sacrifice pushing hard in their careers because the broader ecosystem of children, relationships, interests, friendships, and wider family, matters more to them.
One way that women can reduce the tension between their career and everything else is to invest in a support system for the long term. At an early point in your working life, it can feel expensive to have a nanny. But services like nannies, daycares, after-school programs, and cleaning services can help sustain a woman’s career for the long term.
Tania Brown: That’s excellent advice. To close out Louise, could you share with us your biggest takeaway from leading a large-scale business transformation?
Louise Higgins: The biggest is that I get far more done if I operate at a sustained pace, as opposed to going hard, taking a break, then gearing myself up to go hard again. And support systems at home and work make that consistency easier to achieve.
About our guests
Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for Technology, ANZ Bank
Louise was appointed Chief Financial Officer for the Technology Division of the ANZ Bank in 2019. In this role she oversees the financial and commercial strategy for over A$2bn worth of expenditure. Louise began her career in London with the law firm Freshfield’s Brushaus Deringer, before moving to the BBC for seven years. In 2017, Louise became Chief Financial & Strategy Officer for the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC). She also has a diverse non-executive career, including board positions with Commercial Radio Australia, Visit Victoria, Qudos Bank, and Canteen Australia.
Commercial Lead, Strategic Pursuits Team, Asia Pacific and Japan, AWS
Before joining Amazon, Tania was the Director for Real Estate Accounting Services & Digital Solutions at CBRE. In this role, she provided leadership across Asia on all real estate accounting matters from the property level up to fund and led the digital solutions sales teams. Tania also founded a startup while living in Asia, Jacq Leigh, an ecommerce business providing laptop bags for women. She has spent 10+ years in finance leadership roles and is also an ACCA qualified accountant.