Steven Groves FCPA: Big budgets and bold moves

Steven Groves FCPA, CFO Department of Defence. Photo: Anthony Geernaert.

CFO Steven Groves FCPA has big responsibilities and a budget to match at the Australian Department of Defence.

At a glance

  • Joined the Department of Defence as CFO in May 2018.
  • Formerly CFO at the Department of Home Affairs (including its earlier pre-merger entities of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and the Australian Customs Service); CFO at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs; deputy CFO at the Australian Taxation Office.
  • CFO’s team: more than 600 staff and 70 contractors; departmental budget of about A$39 billion.

My Role: Developing strategy

Getting up close to warships, LHDs (landing helicopter docks), helicopters and Bushmaster troop carriers can be all in a day’s work for the CFO at Defence. It’s a perk that I enjoy when time allows, and I have my sights set on a Collins Class submarine and a jet this year.

Typically, though, I have a conventional CFO role. As a senior member of the Department of Defence executive team, I spend a lot of time in meetings and trying to fit in work between those meetings – a scenario with which other CFOs are no doubt familiar.

I’m based at the Defence headquarters in Russell Offices in Canberra, but, when possible, I enjoy getting out to visit Defence bases and talking to people on the ground. It’s all part of a program for senior executives to hear first-hand about issues, and what can be done better.

I’ve been in the CFO job for two years now, and still have a lot to learn. I have had a great team working with me, and that has made the transition easier. The big difference is scale – with a A$39 billion budget and such a massive organisation, there’s a lot of pressure in relation to financial and budget management. The finance group I lead needs to quickly assess opportunities and threats and develop and implement strategy as a result.

I’m enjoying the CFO role and the opportunity to be part of shaping the development of Australia’s security environment to 2035, in response to the 2016 Defence White Paper.

To succeed, we will need the right finance function and the right finance people to support change within the organisation. Every day is different, and the challenges are constant.

It’s an exciting time to be working here. We also need to ensure we can support the things we can’t predict, like the Defence response to the bushfires earlier this year and now the COVID-19 pandemic.

Game changers: Bold move

In a former role at the Australian Taxation Office, I headed the management accounting area and was really relishing the job, so it was confronting, in 2005, when the CFO at the time encouraged me to leave that role and take on a new challenge to oversee the financial operations area. This included financial statements, tax, treasury and asset management – areas in which I hadn’t had a lot of exposure to that point.

While it was daunting, it proved to be the best career move I’ve made, and it allowed me to develop into a more well-rounded financial leader. The switch also helped me get my first CFO role at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, in 2007. In effect, the change forced me out of my comfort zone and showed me how transferable skills can be. Taking a chance also helped me early in my career. I grew up in Townsville, Queensland, and, when I was studying, a close friend encouraged me to join the public service.

I arrived in Canberra in 1995, and have progressively worked across a number of government agencies, predominantly in financial management. Knowing how the public service works is a specialty, and I’m pleased to have carved out a career in this area.

From a CFO perspective, the Department of Defence job is probably one of the higher-level finance posts in the Commonwealth. This job is the culmination of my public service career and the conundrum for me will be, when I do decide to leave, what next?

CPA Library resource: The traits of today’s CFO: a handbook for excelling in an evolving role. Read now.

My Challenges: Transformation test

In the next 18 months, we have to build our financial management function and focus on reforms to guide Defence through a significant growth phase. That requires upskilling people, improving systems and processes, and consolidating the finance team’s reputation as a trusted financial adviser and business partner.

We have a mix of people working at Defence. Some have been in the department for a long time and I respect that experience, but I like to balance it out with a mixture of people who come from other Commonwealth agencies, state agencies or the private sector. They bring a different perspective to how we could and should be doing things.

Despite having more than 600 people in the Defence Finance Group, I spend most of my time managing relationships with peers across Defence. There is added pressure when you’re working with people who have a great sense of service to the country, whether they are in uniform or public servants.

I’m aware of that responsibility – and want to play my part, too.

Lessons learned and best advice

1. Take a long-tern view
Treat work and your career like a marathon and not a series of sprints, so you can plan and manage the successes and tough times.

2. Focus on your wellbeing
Our work can be all-consuming, so you have to manage your energy levels or run the risk of burning out. Find an outlet – I swim or cycle most mornings when work allows.

3. Take advantage of your past experience
Draw on previous roles to plan for the knowns, and to help staff navigate to a solution when problems emerge. Such experience helps you and the team work through issues, many of which you have seen before.

4. Learn from leaders you admire
I’ve worked with many exceptional leaders over many years, and have made a point of cherry-picking their specific skills and advice and incorporating them into the way I work.

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