Elizabeth Stratford FCPA explains the importance of roles that resonate on a personal level and where it is possible to add value.
At a glance
- Took up her current role in January 2018.
- Previously the director of corporate services and CFO at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
- The CFO’s team is about 180, with 11 direct reports.
My role: incorporates finance, procurement and strategy
My role has carriage of the financial, procurement and strategic planning functions of the principal department, which is Communities and Justice. I also have a coordination and policy advisory collaboration role with our Stronger Communities cluster entities, which comprise other New South Wales Government departments.
We are the third-largest cluster in the state, with about 54,000 people. From a service delivery perspective, the principal department includes corrective services, courts and tribunals, child protection, housing and law reform. In the cluster, we have police, emergency services, sport and the broader justice and related independent regulatory agencies.
Right now, during COVID-19, we are looking at a whole range of accounting standard changes, and that means preparing financial accounts for seven different entities within the principal department. I have got a team working through that, while also providing advice to our cluster partners and providing feedback to central policy agencies on the impact of the changes.
Concurrently, we have a whole budget process under way – complicated by COVID-19 timing – which incorporates a refresh of the cluster’s Outcome Business Plan. There are many stakeholders involved, so it is rather intense.
Throughout all this, we have been supporting not only our cluster, but also state-wide procurement of PPE (personal protective equipment) to manage the response to COVID-19.
That is the day job. In the midst of this, we have had about 160 people working from home for the past five or six months, adapting to an alternative way of communicating, or having to use technology at home.
The joke in the group is that the introverts are having a great time, but the extroverts are suffering.
Game changers: finding my value place
I had that moment previously in my career, where I went to a role that was really exciting on the face of it. It should have been the perfect move, but when I arrived, I realised that it was just not the right cultural fit.
Interaction with the broader business was very formal and restrictive. I had been used to having an open and autonomous relationship with my business owners, whoever it was that I was supporting and at whatever level.
It was that misstep that led me to take on a role that was sold to me as 80 per cent CFO and 20 per cent corporate services, only to find that it was almost the complete opposite.
Funny how being thrown in at the deep end can be the best medicine. The role made me realise my capacity to do a much broader role. I also realised that I really enjoyed having visibility across a whole organisation, and being able to identify opportunities across functions that could take a whole organisation forward.
Another observation about career choice that took me a long time to realise and understand was that, in making the fundamental shift from private industry into government, I had found my value place.
I had found the sector where I resonated with what we were delivering, and it aligned with my own moral compass.
My challenges: articulating value
The challenge for us is how to measure performance and determine whether we are doing well. The business case is still about return on investment, it is just that it is investment in social outcomes.
Take our goal to reduce rates of re-offending. How do we determine whether what we are providing to an inmate in a correctional facility is at a service level that will deliver against that goal?
If you think about somebody who is inside one of our systems, they probably come from a vulnerable background. When they leave our system, what are the networks they have around them to help support them not coming back?
They might be exposed to a lot of things they can’t manage, and they may not have people to support them. They may falter and return. Does that mean we haven’t done our job right? Depending on where you stop measuring, perhaps, or perhaps not.
The difficulty for my sector is in articulating to government if we should or shouldn’t get funding for a program, because the measurement of a program is difficult.
If you think about the longitudinal nature of programs delivered through child protection, which include therapy and family support, those things have a very long lead time.
If we are investing in a family up-front that is vulnerable, we can put supports in place to keep family members together, but that requires investment over a long period of time. What is the end point at which you can say that we have been successful? That is our challenge.
As the CFO, I need to articulate this upwards, so that we can be competitive when it comes to the scarce allocation of resources and to ensure that we are delivering to New South Wales.
Lessons learned and best advice
Align your role with your values
Find a role that aligns with your personal value set. Sometimes this will happen without you realising it.
Team is absolutely key. The culture of a group of people working together will make or break that group. Investing time in that is important. There are times in your career where, just because of the people that you are with, you will love that space and you will do great things.
Communication is critical, particularly in a space like mine, where you have really complex subject matter and are trying to articulate that in a different language for diverse stakeholders to understand and support. Clarity of language is key.
Choose your partner wisely
If you have a life partner, make sure they are someone who has your back. There are days when you need to be able to come home and know that someone will look after you. Whatever your family unit might look like, you need to have picked your partner well – and that could well be a faithful pet.