Career lessons learned from Adam Black FCPA, CFO of ANU

Adam Black FCPA. Photo: Anthony Geernaert.

Adam Black FCPA, CFO of Australian National University, believes treating people well goes a long way towards ensuring strong financial customer service outcomes follow.

At a glance

  • Joined Australian National University (ANU) as CFO in November 2017.
  • Formerly assistant director-general and CFO at the Department of Education and Training (Qld) from 2009-2017; executive director, financial and asset management, and CFO at the Department of Infrastructure and Planning (Qld) from 2007-2009.
  • CFO’s direct report team: six; ANU central finance function: 80.
  • ANU annual revenue: more than A$1.3 billion for the 2018 financial year.

My role: taking people on a journey

As CFO, I run a full-service financial service function, and I’m also on the university executive, which means I’m also the chief financial adviser to the senior leaders of the university and its governing bodies.

My day is typically full of meetings, and I never quite know what issues will arise each day. As CFO, my focus is on where the Australian National University (ANU) will be in the next five, 10 and 20 years, as well as in the next six months! That means setting a financial strategy that aligns with the university’s vision, and I spend a lot of time working with colleagues to determine that future. 

I’m not a micro-manager. I expect my team to run the day-to-day tasks, and I hire good people and good leaders to do that. You need a team you can trust – one to which you can delegate and give full accountability. I also oversee the university’s procurement function, as well as the fleet, mail and printing operations, so that’s different to the standard CFO.

After spending 25 years in Queensland Government roles, colleagues ask me if it has been different working in the world of academia at ANU. However, I spent much of my government time in the education sector, so it’s not that different. They are both large, decentralised environments in which there’s a lot of autonomy, but with the need for direction and support from the central management team.

A university is also like a government in terms of stakeholder management and engagement. You have a lot of people to bring on board for a journey if you want to change something systemically across the organisation. If I pursue my plans and keep the goals and vision of the organisation top of mind, I believe I can bring others along on that journey.

Game changers: government opportunity

In 2007, I received a big career break with the Queensland Government that changed me as a leader and, I suppose, determined my future career path. I was asked by my mentor, a senior public servant, to design and project manage the creation of the finance function for a brand new government department.

As it turned out, the role quickly morphed into me becoming the CFO of that department, so I guess in a way I became an accidental CFO.

On my first day on the project, in January, I discovered that regular key financial accounting had not been done for the entire financial year to date, and we were just about to enter the auditing period.

Similarly, budget development processes had not been undertaken. I had no finance staff as such, so I very quickly had to hire people, build key relationships and partnerships with external contractors and create relationships with Queensland Treasury and the Queensland Audit Office.

Then I started doing a set of financial statements for a government department that was a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise.  

It was quite a resilience-building exercise – and I had a few sleepless nights!

The job forced me to change my focus and think about my strategic approach, my vision, how I work with people, and my leadership style. It fast-tracked my learning – and my career.

My challenges: agent of change

One of the reasons for joining the university was to work with our Nobel Laureate vice chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt, and a world-class team of academics. The university has a quite visionary strategic plan and reform agenda, and many of the initiatives within it require the full support and knowledge of the CFO and the finance team.

The ANU is the pre-eminent university in Australia, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We have to be flexible and agile to respond to an evolving student market, foster international relationships and respond to domestic policy changes.

As CFO, I’ve had a lot to do with identifying and quantifying the financial impact of those issues and ensuring we have appropriate financial risk mitigation, as well as long-term financial strategies, in place. I see it as an opportunity to protect and grow the university and make sure it continues to be Australia’s national university.

The finance function also delivers the full suite of financial services to the university. My team does a fantastic job but, like many organisations, we still have a way to go to become a fully contemporary organisation with regards to financial processes and practices. We are undertaking a number of end-to-end transformations, including a budget and reporting framework transformation and procure-to-pay.

Staff attraction and professional development are also an ongoing focus. I often reflect on a comment from Richard Branson: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

I like working with people and taking care of my staff. I concentrate on hiring and retaining the right people, building them up, developing reward and recognition programs and investing in people’s futures, because the best thing we can do as senior leaders in an organisation is to ensure we have the right people.

CPA Library resource: How to hire A-players: finding the top people for your team – even if you don’t have a recruiting department. (eBook). Read now.

Lessons learned and best advice

1. Set clear goals
As a leader, you must set a vision. I am focused on where the CFO or finance function needs to be in the next five years, because that’s critical to how we as a team support the university into the future.

2. Be yourself
People can tell when someone is genuine or not. I don’t hide information or knowledge from staff. Particularly in periods of change I keep them in the loop as best I can, including telling them what I don’t know. I treat people how I like to be treated.

3. Show resilience
Make what you think are the right decisions and stand behind them – and, remember, you can’t always be popular.

4. Select roles assiduously
I am well recompensed, but I never take on roles for money. I accept roles I’m passionate about. I love the public service for what it does, and the ANU plays a similar role in shaping the future of the nation.

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February 2020
February 2020

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