In this episode of CFO Weekly, Thomas Kyei-Boateng, Chief Financial Officer at ISACA, joins Megan Weis to discuss the role of a CFO in aligning finance and strategy, FP&A teams, and helping business leaders make better decisions.
In his CFO role at ISACA, Thomas Kyei-Boateng leads all aspects of financial strategy, financial operations, finance transformation, and enterprise risk management. He also oversees the investment of ISACA's assets to create value for members and make the world realize the positive potential of technology.
Before joining ISACA, Thomas held various financial roles at multiple organizations, including the Senior Director of Strategic Finance at The College Board and the Senior Manager of Corporate Finance at PwC.
Welcome back to CFO Weekly, where we're talking with financial leaders about how to build efficiency in their teams, create time for strategy, and ultimately, get results, with your host, Megan Weis. Let's jump right in.
Megan: Today, my guest is Thomas Kyei-Boateng. Thomas is a strategic finance professional with 15 years of progressive experience and financial leadership roles at some of the world's biggest organizations, including Capital One Financial Corporation, PricewaterhouseCoopers or PWC Corporate Finance, and more recently the College Board, where he was senior director of strategic finance.
With a strong background across the spectrum of finance, including strategic planning, M&A, and investments, Thomas is looking to better align ISACA's finances with its strategic vision and invest in areas that position ISACA for accelerated growth. Thomas received his MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, Sloan School of Management, and obtained his Bachelor of Science and Business Administration with first-class honors from the University of Ghana. Thomas, thank you so much for being on today's episode.
Thomas: You're welcome, Megan, and thank you for having me. Thank you for your patience while we tried to schedule this. I know we've been going back and forth about this for the last four to five months.
Megan: It's been a long time in the making.
Thomas: That's right, a long time in the making, during which time I've had a baby boy who is now four months old. Big change, but nonetheless, I'm really glad to be here.
Megan: Absolutely, and we'll get into that a little bit later. I'd like to know how you're balancing life with work, but for the most part, today we're going to be discussing your career journey and the insights that you've managed to gather along the way, specifically regarding the role of a CFO, which I believe you are in your first role as a CFO.
Thomas: That's right.
Megan: I'm looking forward to hearing your story and learning from you. Let's get started.
Megan: Let's start with you and your story. If you could fill us in on how it is you got to where you are today.
Thomas: Oh, yes. No, thank you for that. It's been an interesting journey, a very thoroughly rewarding journey, but interesting nonetheless. I've been in finance all of my careers. 16 years of finance experience working across various finance positions in various organizations, and organizational types. I've been a banker, I've been a consultant, a transaction advisory consultant, I've worked in corporate development, corporate finance/FP&A, and now I'm a CFO.
I started my career in my native Ghana. I was born and raised in Ghana if you were guessing where the accent is from, where I grew up and went to college. Right out of college, I was very fortunate to get hired by what at the time was a small bank, which was like a boutique investment bank. Now it's no smaller, it's a large multi-business, multi-line bank, as most banks eventually began, but at the time I was hired, now 16 years ago, it was an investment bank.
I joined the investment banking team at the time. It was a bit fortuitous, but also a big career break for me, because I was the only analyst, hired that year. As a 22-year-old fresh out of college, you have an idea of what you want to do, but you have no idea what you're getting yourself into. That's why I feel it was very, very fortunate for me that I fell into the hands of these bankers who were very bright, very ambitious, but also very caring about the new guy who joined. They taught me a lot, mentored me, and guided me in the classic bank, "Do three years of banking analyst and go get your MBA journey."
That's what I did. I did two and a half years. Then I got the opportunity to come to the US for my MBA. I landed at Boston Logan Airport and started my MBA at MIT. Did that for two years, and a great, great, great experience. Got the opportunity to get acquainted with this American life. Get acquainted with people from all over the world, these very smart people doing incredible things, and learned a lot from them.
After that, I joined a bank out of business school. I did various roles there, mostly as a corporate development person, and internal M&A work. At the time, this bank was really coming out of the financial crisis and was one of the very few banks that was doing well post-2008 financial crisis. They had cash on the balance sheet with assets heavily discounted. They were just scooping up access left, right, and center. I was heavily involved in that, helping the bank grow its size and its presence around the country.
Then I got an opportunity to leave to do consulting. I'll talk about it later on when we get into some of these questions you have about a career break, but I got the opportunity to join PWC in its transaction advisory services, covering Anglophone West Africa, so helping large corporate in the US, Europe, and private equity clients who are looking for assets in that part of the world and also looking to exit their investment in those parts of the world and helping them through those transactions. That was great. That was phenomenal, learnt a lot.
Along the lines, got married. I realized I was growing. It was a lot of long nights and different time zones and lots of air miles. I decided, look, with a child now and with a wife in New York, I just couldn't be doing all of that international travel, so I decided to find a job locally and joined the College Board, which is known as the company that does the advanced placement SAT exams, but which I've found to be a huge, very diverse organization as a senior director of strategic finance working directly under the CFO who mentored me in many, many aspects of corporate finance, board presentations, the strategic element of finance.
That's how I got the opportunity to be in this role. My current CEO, David Samuelson, got into his job as CEO of ISACA about two years ago now and was looking to make a change in the finance leadership to bring in somebody with my kind of experience, my kind of strategic lens to look at the finance function, so he brought me in 2001. It's been a very journey along with becoming a CFO, but I've loved every moment of it. I've had the highs, the lows, the late nights, the long miles, all of it. It's been fun and it's been very rewarding.
Megan: Were you traveling back and forth to Africa every week?
Thomas: Yes. Back and forth, and of course, Africa, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, and Liberia. Did a ton of African countries. I think before I left, I'd counted 11. That was fun.
Megan: Yes, but it does get old, I understand that.
Thomas: Absolutely it does get old. I must admit, it was today probably the best job I had.
Megan: I was going to ask if you had a favorite.
Thomas: No, totally. Today it is the best I had primarily because of who I worked for. We talk about turning points in careers, and for me, the biggest turning point in my career is actually a person, because of my boss at PWC, Andrei Ugarov, a remarkable leader. In 2014 when I moved from this bank, I was working out in Virginia, and I was frustrated. I was working what I considered to be a dead-end job. Everybody has one of those jobs along their career paths, right?
Thomas: I hated the place, I hated the people. I'm sure a lot of people also hated me. It wasn't the most desirable work environment if I'll call it that way. It wasn't great, it was an unfortunate situation, but fortunately for me, it happened in my late 20s, and early 30s, so I could get out of it and recover from it. I was looking to move and I got a call from Andrei, who was at the time, like I said, looking to build PwC corporate finance's business in Anglophone West Africa. Andrei is truly a remarkable leader.
I always say, if you look at Andrei and you look at me, you couldn't pick two very different people. Just looking at us, Andrei is maybe 6'2", 6'3", slender white American guy, and I'm a 5'8" muscular African guy, but together, we were a tremendous team. We were alike in more ways than we were different. We worked long nights, late nights.
I always tell people this story of how Andrei would email me at 2:00 AM with a comment about a deck and I would reply, "Do you want to talk?" and at 2:05 we'd be on the phone because we got each other like that, we understood working styles, we're totally aligned. We went through multiple companies, we saw hundreds and hundreds of businesses, just hundreds and hundreds of income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow statements. Although it was a lot of work like I've said before, with late nights, and different time zones, it was also truly formative. It's like putting a rod through fire and banging on it and forming it into this thing that you want to form it. It was transformational.
Megan: Sounds like it was fun.
Thomas: It was fun. More importantly, what I became, was also a great learning curve. I feel like after those five years at PwC, especially with Andrei, no number could get past me without me knowing exactly what that number represented for the business, for shareholders, and for board members, and that's really stayed with me.
Megan: Well, it sounds like you've had an amazing career to date. Let's talk about your current organization. Do I say I-S-A-C-A or ISACA?
Thomas: ISACA is how we pronounce it, yes. Sure. what do you want to know? Tell me.
Megan: What is it that they do?
Thomas: Sure. ISACA is a technology association for professionals working in what is called the digital trust domain. By that, I mean that guys that are making sure that the internet is safe, that our digital ecosystem is safe.
Megan: So hard to do these days and becoming harder every day.
Thomas: Exactly. Yes, that's right. It is a professional membership association of 170,000 people in right now over 180 countries. It's really large in membership and large in presence and scope. The members span the spectrum of cybersecurity, data privacy, information assurance, and risk. What ISACA does is offer training in these areas, offer frameworks and content development for our member base, offer certification, and offer what we call enterprise assessment. Certification, you may see a lot of IT professionals with certifications like CISA, what we call the CISA, at the end of their names, CISA, CISM, CRISC, all of those ISACA marks, and we train people and certify them in these areas.
Then we also actually do what I like to call implementational enterprise assessment products. If you pick a name, if you are a Northrop Grumman or if you are a Boeing and you need some guys should come in and assess your IT maturity and IT security and benchmark you against where you want to be, we do have a line of business that does that and help organizations become more secure technologically and more mature technologically.
Megan: Well, they not only assess but also recommend?
Thomas: Yes. Guidance is the watchword here, is to provide guidance.
Megan: You've been there now for just over a year?
Thomas: That's right. I joined a little over a year ago now.
Megan: What have been your proudest achievements to date and what are you hoping to achieve in the next couple of years, let's say?
Thomas: Great question. My proudest achievement to date is just surviving.
Thomas: It was like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. Like I always say, the keyword when drinking from the fire hose is to keep drinking and not suffocate. I took in as much as I can, build alliances, led quickly on the job, and adapted to the organization. It's just a very unique organization. It's a member-based organization, very mission-focused. A lot of the people that work there and all our members really want to see the world safe and secure, they want to make sure that this conversation is secure, that your emails between you and I are secure, and information that you are sharing with all the websites you buy from is secure and is used for the intended purposes.
It requires a very passionate, dedicated group of people. It makes the organization very unique and quite different from other places I had worked. I really had to get acquainted and get to know the organization. I can read financial statements, obviously, I can read balance sheets and make a recommendation, but really understand the meaning, soul, and heart of the organization and make sure that the decisions that I'm making are geared towards having that purpose. It's been a really proud journey for me.
Megan: How is it that you immersed yourself? How did you get familiar with the operations in the business in your first few months of being there?
Thomas: A couple of ways, it’s to say, listen. I always say that the answer always lies with people. I was fortunate to inherit a finance team with significant experience there. I listened to them, I listened to the people I had met, and all the good, the bad, and the ugly I noted down. I encourage transparency and openness with me. Just share with me why certain things have worked over the years. I remember my favorite question to my team was, "What shouldn't I touch? If I make it all the changes that I want to make, what is the one thing you want me to leave as is?" Being very honest and being open and listening is one way I did it.
The other way is also getting out of my comfort zone and having difficult conversations with my peers and people outside the finance organization. Building strong alliances with the CMO, the CTO, the COO, other C-suite executives, the head of sales, and the head of product, and making sure that I truly understood the situation that I had walked into.
Megan: You've been working to advance the alignment of ISACA's finances with its strategic vision. What does that process look like?
Thomas: It's still an ongoing process, an ongoing journey. As I said, I really do believe that finance and strategy should be closely aligned. The way I put it is, in finance, you make sure that resources are going to strategic priorities, and strategies, and you make sure that plans and initiatives reflect our financial realities. It's been building that sort of close collaboration with the business.
One of the things I did was make sure that we revamped and improved what used to be the FP&A team to make sure that we had more people with the right skills to partner with the business, because at the end of the day, if you're waiting for close and to publish results, that might be too late for you to know where we are going strategically. You have to sit in business meetings, you have to sit in leadership meetings, you have to hear the conversations to make sure that you are making recommendations that drive the organization towards what it's committed to its members, to its directors to go where it's committed that it's going to go. You make sure that resources are directed to those initiatives and those activities.
Megan: Speaking of resources, so another part of your role is investing in areas that position ISACA for accelerated growth. What is your approach to determining which areas to invest in?
Thomas: Companies go out and do hire what they call value creation teams. Especially when I was in consulting, I did a lot of that work, deal strategy, and value creation. They'll go out and hire PwC or BCG or bring in somebody from one of those organizations to sit in the business. This guy is going to drive value creation and is going to make sure that we are growing top-line and bottom-line. Every time I see that announcement, I'm like, "Oh, that is the CFO job. That is the finance department's job." I truly believe that because the finance department more than any other department sees the numbers, and we see through the numbers what is going on in the organization.
I like to say, everything that is done in the organization will be reflected in a number one way or the other. I've been empowering my team to actually become partners and advisors, the rest of the business, to become the in-house PwC, the in-house BCG, or the in-house McKinsey, offering not just reporting and various analyses and other bread and butter of the finance department, but also strategic insight and personal improvement and technical accounting services to the department, to the executive leadership team, to the board of directors.
For example, one of the things I'm doing now is scaling up our enterprise risk management team. My director of enterprise risk management, when I was hiring him, I told him, "Look, you think of yourself as a thought leader in this organization. You are the expert here, help me, help the board, and help the departments become better at this. You cannot do that if you're only reporting, 'The risk is high, the risk is low, the risk is medium.' You have to work with us closely to address why it's high, why it's low, why it's medium, and lead us on the journey to where it's supposed to be."
That is the way I see it, it's really empowering the finance department to be the best partners that we can be to the rest of the business, offering insight and improvement in all aspects of the business.
Megan: I think that the fun part of accounting and finance, is being able to partner with the business and think strategically.
Thomas: No, totally. Another example that I always give is, I'm a big sports fan and I say, "Okay, the financial statements have a scoreboard." We are in the NBA finals and you see the score, Boston Celtics 116, Golden State Warriors 100. That's the score. The score tells one data point about the game. As finance people, we do watch the game. It's up to us to give more insight about the game than just the scoreboard, to say, "Okay, hey, these are the KPIs and this is how the KPIs compared to previous years or to our peers in the marketplace or to what we put in the budget or where we want to be. These are the reasons why."
Just like any sports analyst would do on a Monday morning after a game, it's like, "This is why they missed 50% of their three-point shot. This is why they are not shooting as well as they typically do for their free throws." That's what I want my team to do, to partner with businesses and say, "Hey, this is why this business line is not growing. This is why this product is stalling. Hey, by the way, the industry is changing. These guys are doing A, B, and C, why aren't we doing it?" It's empowering the team to do these things. It's mission-critical for me.
Megan: I like that analogy. Speaking of scaling up teams, how are you dealing with the current talent shortage that exists in the United States right now?
Thomas: Oh, it's been a nightmare.
Thomas: It's been a nightmare. I saw it couldn't get worse and it kept getting worse. For us, the biggest breakthrough has been the recruitment of a truly talented VP of people and culture. She has helped us on a journey to remove some of our own internal roadblocks, to hiring, and also to retention because it's the dual stream. People are looking to hire your best people and you are struggling to hire people. Attrition is up and the hiring rate is slowing down.
A new VP of people and culture came in and said, "Okay, you cannot really affect the macro environment, right? The great resignation is real and you cannot change the systemic factors that much, if at all. Let's work on ourselves, let's look at our processes, let's look at our people, let's look to make changes to remove internal roadblocks to hiring, and let's look to incentivize people to stay."
That's been really transformational. We've put in place retention packages, we've been on a listening tour, we've identified what we call critical path or single points of failure and made sure that we have bench strength or we are keeping these people happy, and then we've expanded our recruitment team to just get more hours for people to add talent.
Megan: She sounds like a game-changer. You're currently in your first CFO role. What advice would you offer for other people who are maybe considering a path to CFO or maybe on the edge of becoming a CFO?
Thomas: I think it was the Greek philosopher who did this, said something along the lines of, "First say to yourself what you will be, then do what you have to do to be it." My advice would be along those lines, you have to become a CFO before you are made one. Find out what CFOs do and start doing those things, even if you are not a level below the CFO, two levels below the CFO, because you know what? Those sign through. Ask yourself what would the CFO like to know and go out there and offer it to her.
That's the way I've always approached my roles, even before I became CFO, is like I am operating with empathy for my leader. I'm trying to understand what their goal is, what their operation is, what your mission is, and what is important to them and I'm offering that service to them. In doing that, you do get a good career progressing, but you prepare yourself to become the boss, you prepare yourself to become the CFO, partner if you are in a consultant firm or an accounting firm. That's, for me, the biggest advice.
I remember in my previous job before this one, in one of my performance reviews, my boss, the CFO said, "One of the things I like about you the most is if I ask for A, you come back with A, B, C, and D." That's because I was showing empathy for her. I was thinking of her. I was telling myself, "If she's asked for A, then she probably needs B, and oh, she would also need C and then D. Why wait to be asked?"
I put myself in her shoe like, "Look, if I'm good for that board meeting, what would directors want to know?" Yes, she's asked for trends for the last five years, but okay, the directors don't want to suggest the trends. There's probably a follow on question, so let me try to anticipate that follow-up question and try to provide as much information that will make the job easier. Really performing at the CFO level before you become a CFO, will be the biggest advice I'll give to anybody that wants to be on this journey.
Megan: That's great advice.
Thomas: It works for other roles too. This is not just the CFO role here, works for other roles.
Megan: Any role.
Megan: Perform the role that you want to be promoted to or figure out what is required of that role and start doing it.
Thomas: That's right. You get yourself ready in the process, and when the time comes, you're ready to step up and you are not daunted.
Megan: Do you have any aspirations to be a CEO someday?
Thomas: Not right now. Have thought of it. I really want to be a very successful CFO. I always talk to my CEO and I say, "You know what? I want to be on a CFO ranking." I want to see my name in the papers to say, "Okay, best CFOs list," and you see Thomas there. For me, my biggest obsession now is to become the absolute best CFO I could be over the next three to five years. Then we will see if that's the journey I want to be on.
Megan: It sounds like you're well on your way. As you look out, let's say, the next six months to a year, and maybe you touched on this a bit with the staffing issues, what are your biggest challenges this year in 2022?
Thomas: I'll talk about the external factor, which is definitely the talent-related challenges. It's recruitment, but like I also said, it's also been retention and motivation and promotion. It's all tied together in our risk assessment. In our organization, we call it talent-related risk. That is the biggest headache I've had to deal with in the last two quarters, and even before that. I see that continuing for at least the final two quarters of the year, but that's the macro factor.
Internally, the biggest challenge for me and my team will be prioritization. ISACA is going through a lot of transformation. I may not have mentioned it, but ISACA is 50-plus years old. It started originally as a technology association. It still is an association at heart, but right now about 75% of our revenue comes from what I call products and services, not the association membership to use, right?
In many ways, it's becoming a high-performing organization like any other, and with that, we can't operate the same way you operated in the last 50 years. All of a sudden, we've had to go through digital transformation, replacing our subledger, we're going to replace the main ledger system, onboarding highly talented people, changing our reporting structure, and changing our board committee structure to reflect the organization that we are today.
It's a lot of work for my team, it's a lot of work for me, and sometimes we do struggle with what comes first, what's important? For me, for the rest of the year, it's to really guide my team and myself to actually get this prioritization right so that we deliver on our commitments to our members and to our board.
Megan: Lastly, what advice do you have for CFOs looking to drive strategic value, and grow revenue and margin, particularly in this inflationary environment?
Thomas: It's not one solution, it really becomes organization-specific, but you have to live with the first principle. The first principle is that, what are the things that do not change? The things that do not change are customers who always buy for value, so you have to create value, and two, economics are real, inflation is real, so you cannot ignore the macro factor. There's a lot of change, there's a lot of uncertainty in the macro environment right now. Interest rates are going up, but there is still low inventory in the mortgage, in the real estate market, so we don't know where the housing market is going to land. We talked about talent. Hiring is still a challenge, but at the same time, we see some layoffs and hiring freezes.
I would say, for any and every CFO that's looking to drive value, economics are real. You have to really look at the economics of the business you are in and be realistic about it. if you don't have a long runway, you need to lengthen that runway by making cuts to non-essential services. If you do have cash on the balance sheet, you have to be on the lookout for opportunities as they fall by. It's really paying attention to the macro environment and embracing the realities of economics. This is what I would say.
Megan: I guess, goes back to your comment about prioritizing limited resources.
Thomas: That's right. It's always elementary economics. The resources are always limited compared to the options on the table. It's part of a good CFO's job to look at all the options versus the inevitably limited resources and say, "This is the two, or three things that will create the most value." Talking about two to three things, another recommendation will be not to stretch yourself too thin. I do believe that as CFOs, we all understand the value of compounding. I like to add that you create value from compounding, but also compounding what's good.
If something is returning 3%, yes, you can compound it, and you can invest in it, but you probably have it from doubling down on the two or three things that return 15%, 20%, or 25%. I know it's not always easy because there are always competing priorities, from teams, for resources, from board members, for the various different things that each member cares about, for CEOs, for pet projects. It's a lot, but we just have to embrace the realities of economics, and as I said, you benefit from compounding and compounding what's good.
Megan: Thomas, thank you so much for being my guest today.
Thomas: No, thank you. It's been a pleasure speaking and you're doing such a fantastic job. I really, really relish the opportunity to be on the show and I look forward to continuing to monitor how others are sharing their ideas on your platform.
Megan: Yes, thank you for that. I really enjoyed speaking with you and hearing about your experiences. Sounds like you're doing amazing things. I wish you all the best and good luck with your four-month-old son.
Thomas: Yes, thank you. Talking about prioritization, he takes up a lot of time.
Megan: I hope you get some sleep. To all of our listeners, please tune in next week, and until then, take care.
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In this episode, we discuss leveraging your cyber security strategy, aligning finances with strategy, accelerating business growth, and how to become a CFO, among other interesting topics.
Leveraging Your Cyber Security Strategy
ISACA is a global association for cybersecurity, risk, assurance, and privacy professionals that helps business and IT leaders maximize value and manage risk regarding information and technology. The organization is an advocate for professionals involved in information security, assurance, risk management, and governance and offers training programs, frameworks and content development, certification, and enterprise assessment for its members.
“It's a very unique organization, member-based, and mission-focused. Most of the people that work here and all our members want to see the world safe and secure”
FP&A Teams Aligning Finances With Strategy
Finance should ensure that resources are going to strategic priorities, and strategy should ensure that plans and initiatives reflect our financial realities. It's about building a close collaboration with the business. One of the things Thomas improved is the FP&A team to make sure that they have more people with the right skills to partner with the business.
“I really do believe that finance and strategy should be closely aligned”
Accelerating FP&A Teams Growth
Thomas believes that CFOs should focus on determining and investing in areas that accelerate business growth. For that reason, Thomas is empowering his team to become partners and advisors for all business members, offering not only reporting and analyses but also strategic insight and technical accounting services.
“Everything done in the organization will be reflected in one number way or the other”
Becoming a CFO
Find out what CFOs do and start doing those things. Manifest empathy, understand your leader's goal, vision, mission, and needs, and try offering solutions to achieve them.
“You have to become a CFO before you are made one”
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