6 March 2023
With the rise of technology, globalization, and environmental and social concerns, the responsibilities of the CFO have expanded beyond traditional financial management. As a result, there is a growing need for CFOs who possess a diverse range of skills, including strategic thinking, leadership, and a strong understanding of non-financial factors that impact business success. In this context, women may be particularly well-suited to excel in the “new-age” CFO role.
Research has shown that women tend to have a more holistic approach to decision-making, are more likely to consider the long-term implications of their actions, and are better at collaborating and building relationships. Furthermore, women are often more attuned to environmental and social issues, which are increasingly important considerations for businesses. By leveraging their unique strengths and perspectives, women CFOs have the potential to drive positive change in their organizations, while also achieving financial success. However, despite these advantages, women remain underrepresented in CFO roles, highlighting the need for greater gender diversity in the financial industry.
To gain a more in depth and personal perspective on the topic, DigitalCFO Asia spoke with Claudia Soh, CFO of Etiqa Insurance Singapore.
Changes To The Role Of A CFO & Their Expectations
In the past, a CFO’s key duties were to produce financial results correctly, to keep tabs on how much expenses had been incurred and if the company was profitable for the month, quarter, or year. We did not have time to do much more, because of the immense amount of manual work to be done.
However, the power of technology has allowed the CFO role to evolve from operations-centric to business-centric. The digital transformation of the financial function also brought significant changes, especially with the automation of financial workflows. For the first time, the financial team was freed from the tedious and time-consuming manual processes, allowing team members to take on more business-related tasks, like analyzing financial data for better macro and granular insights.
Data is incredibly important to the CFO for many tasks, whether making informed decisions or engaging with the company’s stakeholders to make the business more financially resilient and sustainable.
“That’s why I believe the modern-day CFO must adopt a consultative approach. If there is just one resolution for a CFO to make in 2023, I think it should be to reduce friction between finance and business units,” says Claudia Soh, CFO of Etiqa Insurance Singapore.
The CFO must first understand the business owners’ pain points before deciding how best to support their projects, backed by intelligence from data insights. That would create an opportune time to get stakeholders’ buy-in for best practices that could improve the company’s capital position and profitability.
Automation In Allowing CFOs More Room For Value-Added Decisions & Increased Productivity
Claudia Soh joined Etiqa Insurance Singapore as the company’s CFO in April 2022 with exciting challenges. The first was to strategise a financial roadmap to help the company scale in a new growth phase, and the second was to prepare our financial processes for an overhaul of accounting standards. Things have been unbelievably hectic from get-go, compounding the financial maelstrom of 2022, which disrupted banking and financial services globally through the rest of the year.
“Despite all that was going on, I must admit that I enjoyed every minute of it,” says Claudia Soh, CFO of Etiqa Insurance Singapore.
Etiqa, being a relatively young company, is endowed with a digitally forward IT setup that is not bound by legacy systems and processes. Because of that, the company has the digital maturity to implement technology where improvements are needed, whether it is to automate internal processes for better performance, or to enable value adds for enhancing the client experience.
The finance team at Etiqa is pro-automation and robotics. They even built their own automation for performing bank reconciliations. Of course, making process improvements is a continuous endeavour for the finance function, as it is brimming with repeated, manual workflows and tasks that must be digitally transformed systematically. Those automated workflows are enhanced, simplified and streamlined, to consistently generate accurate, efficient and compliant outputs. Additionally, such automation can be replicated across different process with minimum tweaks, to eventually cover accounts receivable, payable, reconciliation, payroll and so on, with minimal learning curve and staff resistance.
The other major advantage of automation is in improving data capture and quality. Done correctly, data can be harnessed from their operations and in their interactions with clients, to provide clarity into what is happening, with context for how and why such a thing is happening. The more contextualised information they have, the better Etiqa can predict and remediate problems before they occur.
Customer data is becoming more valuable with the personalisation trend. If companies have better insights into a client’s likes and dislikes, habits and preferences, they can find ways to humanise the insurance experience a little more to exceed their expectations.
“An example is the value-added experience of our travel insurance. On the day of a client’s trip, we will send over an SMS at pre-departure to wish the person a safe journey, together with the number to an emergency hotline that connects the caller to a free travel assistance service. The client also has the option to key in the flight numbers for the trip, which triggers another SMS upon arrival. This will contain the belt number to help the client locate and retrieve the check-in luggage upon arrival at the airport,” recalled Claudia Soh, CFO of Etiqa Insurance Singapore.
Characteristics That Make Women Well-Suited For The “New-Age” CFO
“As a woman, we have had years of multitasking expertise, from running the household to managing finances to caregiving. These skills are transferable to the workplace, and it lends itself well to being a CFO who is able to multi-task, while leading with empathy,” says Claudia Soh, CFO of Etiqa Insurance Singapore.
Claudia believes that regardless of gender, it is important for the CFO to acknowledge the collective ownership of the company with other management team members. Despite the limited resources situation faced by all companies, the CFO must think beyond prioritising such resources for maximum returns to the company.
Returns may not necessarily translate to profits – it can also be an uplifting of the brand or for CSR purposes. By taking collective responsibility, you will naturally balance your limited resource pool to attain your desired outcomes. This allows the CFO to serve as a check and balance for the CEO. You must know when to say “no” to your CEO and provide him with the necessary information to make decisions.
That’s how the CFO role has evolved.
In terms of leadership style, Claudia learnt a lot from being a parent to two teenagers, and she tends to share the rationale of her decisions, be it at work or at home. Of course, it might be easier to simply say “yes” or “no” to a proposal, but she believes it is more useful in the long run if she shares how she made the assessment and why she came to that conclusion.
“I am a believer in open communications with my team. I embrace diversity because there is strength behind the differences. We should nurture this source of strength to be creative and nimble in solving problems,” empasized Claudia Soh, CFO of Etiqa Insurance Singapore.
As a modern CFO, being adaptable to change in this shifting economic landscape is essential. As a leader, embracing technology in a meaningful way, being consultative to business owners, and nurturing diversity in the team, are Claudia’s instinctive strengths that complement her desire to be adaptive.
Thoughts On Women CFOs Being A Rarity In The Industry – Should More Women Be In Leadership Positions?
“Statistically speaking about 30 percent of CFOs are women. While this is not the majority, I see this number growing,” says Claudia Soh, CFO of Etiqa Insurance Singapore.
Like other leaders, Claudia is passionate about gender diversity, fairness and equal opportunities, but never to the extreme. Winning the leadership position should be based on meritocracy, and not on whether a gender quota has been met. A hard line stand on either extreme of this gender equality debate is counterproductive.
Fortunately, the Etiqa management team is quite well balanced in terms of the gender ratio. This evolved organically over the years, and not through any deliberate means such as KPIs. As long as there are women and men with the right capabilities vying for the same position, I think most companies in Singapore should adopt a gender-neutral lens to evaluate the candidates for suitability.
“For me at least, that is how I expect gender equality to work,” says Claudia Soh, CFO of Etiqa Insurance Singapore.