This article is written in collaboration with Kaplan. All views expressed are the independent opinion of DollarsAndSense.sg
It is not every day that you get to speak with and learn from a senior finance leader of a Fortune 500 Multi-National Corporation (MNC).
So when we learned that Ken Hickey, CFO of Microsoft Worldwide Operations, was in town for the Kaplan MasterClass Series, we seized the opportunity to sit down with him for an in-depth conversation.
Ken’s career spans nearly 30 years, with 12 of those years spent in various leadership positions around the world with Microsoft. Among the wide-ranging topics discussed was how technology has changed the business and finance profession, and what can students and young working adults do to put themselves in the best position to succeed in their careers.
DollarsAndSense (DNS): Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. As CFO of Microsoft Worldwide Operations and a lecturer at University College Dublin (UCD), your time must surely be in short supply. What’s a typical day like for you?
Ken Hickey (KH): I’m based in Dublin, Ireland. When I begin my day at about 8am in the morning, the first thing I do is catch up on the phone with my Asia team in Singapore, as it is near the end of the work day for them. We use a lot of video conferencing technology to bridge the distance between us. After that, I will usually take an hour to exercise.
I’ll then head to work and spend some time with my Europe and Middle East teams who are based in the Dublin office. The rest of my day is mostly spent in meetings, on the phone and in video conference calls.
From 3pm onwards, the United States Seattle office comes online, so I get on calls with them until about 8pm. While my days are pretty long, I do take personal time in the middle of it to head to the gym or spend time with my wife and family.
As a lecturer for UCD, my lectures are all on Saturdays, which works quite well for me. I do enjoy my lecturing work very much. Instead of watching TV to unwind on weekday nights and weekends, I prepare for lectures, mark papers and set exams.
DNS: You have an Accounting Degree and a Master of Business Administration (MBA), among other professional certifications. What are the skills and knowledge you learned in formal education that you use daily as a CFO?
KH: My formal education has been very important to me.
Having deep subject matter expertise from my training as an accountant helps me understand various aspects of Business and Finance. When you study Accounting, you actually cover a wide range of topics including Taxation, Financial Strategy, Business Strategy, Systems and Change Management.
When I did my MBA, it brought my learning to a new level and gave me much deeper insights into Marketing, Transformation and Strategy. I came out of the programme with very different perspectives about business and the world.
Sometimes, you don’t even appreciate the relevance of what you study until years later. When the right situation comes along and you can connect the dots among different subjects, you realise that the knowledge you’ve acquired after all that time is there for you.
DNS: You’ve been in Microsoft for more than a decade in various roles and have worked at many other companies in your career. What are the biggest changes you have observed in the field of corporate finance over the years?
KH: When I started my career in finance, it was about 30 years ago. Back then, we were still filling things out using pen and paper.
The biggest change I’ve experienced over these past 30 years is how technology has changed our profession from transactional work to business insights-driven work.
In the past, most of the work that finance accountants did was preparing the data. In fact, we used to spend about 70% of our time preparing and structuring the data, before we could do anything else.
But today, with technology like Power BI, PivotTables and digital tools, you can easily have the data in any format you need and analyse it immediately to derive business insights. With machine learning, we even have the capability to predict and make forecasts in real-time.
The finance professionals’ role is now focused on using data to drive decisions and actions in the business and creating value from those actions. The quicker you can convert data to decisions, the better.
Contrary to popular belief, technology and automation doesn’t always take away jobs. The number of people in my department has not gone down but has actually increased. The difference is in the nature of their work.
Today, members of my finance team are more skilled and hold more senior positions. They spend more time on partner relationships, understanding business requirements and working on special projects.
What they don’t do any more is data entry and reconciliation, and they love that. My team at Microsoft is not afraid of Artificial Intelligence, because they’ve already seen how it empowers them to do more interesting and higher value work.
DNS: What are the biggest mistakes you see fresh graduates make at interviews, or when they start working under you?
KH: We have lots of interns and fresh graduates joining us and we love working with young people as they have a lot of enthusiasm and energy. They’ll take on any challenge and project, nothing is impossible to them. We love that kind of can-do attitude.
What’s interesting, is that they come to the workplace with their own set of expectations. They are often surprised at the culture of openness and empowerment at Microsoft. We don’t spend a lot of time telling people what to do because we hire them to figure it out. And I believe this is the case in many organisations today.
When graduates come in, they need to be self-starters and show initiative. Those who can do so will be very successful. Those who wait for others to tell them what to do tend to have a less positive experience.
As a university student, all the expectations and deadlines are set for you. The workplace is very different, so students need to shift their mindset and change their operating habits when they enter the working world.
DNS: For senior management like yourself, you’re very likely to be at the cutting edge of your profession. How do you continue to learn and develop yourself?
KH: It is very important to have curiosity. I read very widely, but am especially interested in topics such as Digital Transformation, Artificial Intelligence, Culture and Leadership.
Organisations like McKinsey, Harvard Business Review, Gartner, EY, PwC and Deloitte produce lots of research that is available for free, and I subscribe to all of them.
Aside from reading, I take notes diligently. Whenever I attend an event or meet with someone and something strikes me, I write it down as I might otherwise forget it. It might not mean much to me at this point in time, but I could revisit this information years later and find that I can use these learnings and insights. My OneNote application is really helpful in this respect, and it enables me to find information very easily.
DNS: Tell us more about the Business Strategy unit that you teach.
KH: The Business Strategy subject I teach at UCD is divided into three key parts.
Part 1 covers strategic position and analysis. Where does your business stand? What are your internal strengths, like resources and competitive advantage? What are the external forces affecting your company, such as the operating environment and industry trends?
Part 2 is about business strategy choices. Given your company’s position, what are the business models available to you? What are the choices you can make? For example, do you pursue a cost leadership or differentiation strategy, or both, by creating a new market segment?
Part 3 is all about strategy in action. How do you implement your chosen business model? How can you overcome resistance to change? It covers things like the role of leaders and the power of culture in a company’s success.
DNS: Is there any advice you would give prospective students considering a business degree? Should students aim to be a generalist or specialist?
KH: I don’t have an absolute answer, but here’s what I believe: starting off as a specialist is very important. This is because when you have deep subject matter expertise on a certain topic, it gives you credibility, which establishes a foundation for future discussions on other topics.
Once you are competent as a specialist, you can then move on to learn other things and become even more valuable.
I liken it to a Swiss army knife. There are many tools hidden within, but there is always one very big, capable blade. Your specialisation is that big blade. Everybody needs to have a speciality, and be known and relied upon for it. Other smaller tools must be developed as well of course, so you can do many other things.
That’s my advice – be a Swiss army knife.
DNS: What skills and knowledge do you consider indispensable for anyone looking to work in Business or Finance – and what’s the best way for students to acquire them?
KH: It is very important to know how to work with people and build strong relationships. Nobody can do anything alone these days. Being able to work well in a team is indispensable.
I recently read that years ago, the Nobel Prize for Physics was won by individual luminaries like Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Niels Bohr. In 2017, the same award was won by a paper that had 355 co-authors. It goes to show that in today’s complex world with its complicated problems, it’s all about the team, and you need to have strong people and communication skills.
Another important skill you need is to be able to take complex ideas and simplify them, to bring clarity for people to understand. When you can do that, you can really drive solutions.
To be successful, your presence and involvement should also make people feel positive and encouraged to work on something, so you get the best out of people.
Finally, you must be resilient and tenacious in the face of obstacles, and not give up on the right thing. These intangibles are critical to have, as opposed to simply understanding the technology or having the relevant knowledge.
DNS: Many Singaporeans work really long hours. What advice can you give to those who still want to develop themselves and seek out new skills?
KH: The number of hours that people work these days is a challenge. I would say that work-life balance and your own health are also very important. You should not neglect yourself.
I would challenge people to find time in their day. Not everything we do has the same importance or impact. At many jobs, people just do the exact same thing today as they did yesterday. Focus on the most impactful things at your job by separating the idea of impact from activity.
Examples of activities: I attend a meeting. I send an e-mail. I have a conversation. I do a revenue forecast.
Examples of impact: I drive a business goal. I succeed in improving revenue.
Look at the activities you’re doing and ask if they are creating impact. If not, then stop doing it as it is just a waste of time.
By improving your efficiency and effectiveness, you can give yourself the time to pursue other interests.
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