Executive Interviews

Experiences shared
by leading experts

Ramon Legeren Alvarez - VP Finance, Head of Group FP&A and Global Controller at DSM Nutritional Products

  • November 10, 2020

How important do you think it is to have a career plan and, when making career moves, how much did this affect your decision-making process?

I think it is very important to have a career plan and, at the same time, I think it is equally important to remain flexible and adaptable, because my experience has been that the path to the dream job is not a straight line. What I believe is essential is to be very clear about what you ultimately want to achieve and start developing, as early as you can in your career, your perspective about that dream job, that ultimate goal in your career, so that the moves that you make in your professional journey are aligned with this objective. If I were to ask this question to someone earlier in their career, they may not yet be clear about what they ultimately want to achieve, and that is perfectly fine in the beginning of your career, but, as you progress, you really have to be thinking about that end-game, so you can build the relevant experiences along that path. In my career, I have been quite flexible in terms of roles, locations and industries, while I was also very fortunate to have great opportunities in the companies where I have worked, to build the competencies and gather the experiences that allowed me to become a well-rounded Finance professional and develop my leadership skills in the pursuit of my dream job.

What would be your advice to someone at an earlier stage in their Finance career, aspiring to be where you are now?

The advice is linked to the previous question; the first thing is to be very clear about what you want to achieve, and what your ultimate career and life goal is. The second one is to surround yourself with great people, and that will change along an individual’s career. Sometimes, it will be to follow a fantastic boss, other times it will be to join a team of high achievers that has a reputation for delivering high results, and, as you progress up in your career, it is about building great teams, formed by the best possible people, with skills and competencies that will complement your own.  The third piece of advice would be to look for stretch assignments and to get out of the comfort zone every time, thus being willing to struggle in the job, at least at the beginning, and have some failures, as these provide growth and learning opportunities. I believe that, if you don’t have failures, you are not aiming high enough and that applies to the jobs you decide to go after. For me, these jobs have provided the biggest learnings and were the most rewarding.

Often when we are recruiting roles in the Life Science sector, we are asked to find candidates within an industry background. Having made this transition yourself from a relatively different industry, how important do you consider this to be and what were the challenges for you in making that transition?

It is an interesting question, because, throughout my interviews to join DSM, in the Life Science industry, it never came up as a topic. I guess that is because Finance is not really industry-specific, so the transition that I have done myself and that I have seen other people do, joining DSM, it has not been extremely challenging. What I found that helped me was that I was coming from a B2B [business to business] business, where manufacturing was an important element. I think transitioning without the manufacturing or the B2B experience would have been a far bigger challenge. Some of the challenges the industry has in Finance are the long product cycles (which is specific to Life Sciences), innovation, regulatory, IP, or very heavy capital investments, which, for a Finance leader, are important elements that I had to become familiar with very early on. The global reach and the interconnected markets are a key aspect of this type of business, especially in large corporations, and being able to navigate the global environment is very important as you transition into Life Sciences, so having had that global background would be crucial. Finally, it is a market that is seeing a lot of consolidation and M&A [mergers and acquisitions] activity, so having M&A experience prior to going into Life Science would certainly help.

What are the most common mistakes you see at interviews and what advice would you give to candidates in regard to interview preparation?

One of the most common mistakes I see at interview is precisely the lack of preparation, and understanding the company and the role that they are interviewing for deeply. Not having done some research about the interviewers and, today, with LinkedIn and other social media, it is very helpful to know about who you are speaking to. When I see that someone has checked my LinkedIn profile before the interview, I take it as a positive sign; I can see this person is doing their homework.  At the same time, if you have not done your homework about exactly what you are going to interview for and with whom, you do not have the same opportunities to highlight your strengths, or your fit to the role and the company. Similarly, if the candidate clearly articulates how this role aligns with their career plan and has thought through that, it shows me that the person has accountability for his/her own career and has made a conscious choice to be there at that interview.

The second issue is not asking questions, or not asking the right questions. In my interviews, I always leave ample time for Q&A by the candidate. I will reserve the last 15-20 minutes for the candidate to ask questions, and I rarely need the time! It is a missed opportunity to show your edge and your passion, to build the connection, and to show what is really important to you as a professional and individual.

The last thing that I would mention is not noticing how important a first impression is. The first handshake, the first smile, the first walk from the door to the room, or in the elevator... Be prepared before you even go into the meeting room and be aware of non-verbal communication. 

Looking back through your established career, what would you identify as a personal highlight?

If I had to choose one highlight in my professional career, that would be my experience in South America, as a Regional Finance Director. I arrived in the region in very turbulent times in some of the countries, particularly in Brazil where I was based. It was an internal move, so I was familiar with the company and the industry, but as soon as I arrived, I had to get into turnaround mode, divesting parts of the company and rebuilding the motivation of the Finance organisation that had been through a lot of changes in the two years prior to my arrival. I left after two-and-a-half years, having built a lot of new skills, a stronger leadership foundation and great confidence. Equally important, I was succeeded by someone from my team, which gave me huge satisfaction. If I think about the experience that has accelerated my growth as a leader in my career, it is definitely this one. It was probably the biggest stretch assignment I had in my career, because of the different culture, the broad scope of the role and the challenging business conditions.

What would you consider to be the most rewarding part of your current role?

By far the most rewarding part of my role as a leader has been seeing the people around me grow and develop. This was not the most rewarding part when I was starting my career as an individual contributor, probably not even as a young manager; what gave me most satisfaction at that stage was to solve problems, make an impact and to be recognised in front of senior management. In the last five to ten years, I get much more excitement and happiness seeing my teams solve those problems, making the right decisions without me being involved, and them being recognised for their contributions and leadership. The answer to this question has changed multiple times throughout my career and I am sure it will change again in ten years from now. It is important to find the professional satisfaction in different places as you move on in your career, to keep renewing your own motivation.

What would you consider to be the most important attributes for a successful Chief Financial Officer (CFO)?

I found this a tough question, as it forces me to look at other CFOs and also to do self-reflection about the sort of CFO I would like to be. 

I would refer to three aspects of the leadership of CFOs: the first one being communication. It is often underrated and not trained enough, especially for a CFO that has to translate numbers into operational and strategic insights, and decisions. An effective CFO must be able to present information to a variety of different parties, both internal and external, and do it in an impactful way.

The second one is having a strong and intuitive understanding of the business. It is impossible to become a CFO without strong competencies in Accounting and Finance, but that is not enough, definitely not today and probably not enough in the past, either. A good CFO must have comprehensive knowledge of how the business works, especially the commercial aspects. Commercially astute Finance leaders are rare, and those who can also navigate the commercial intricacies are the ones that can become very successful in their role.

Last and definitely not least is integrity, because, to the outside world, the CFO is seen as the guardian of the shareholder value and the stewards of the company. They must also be the internal conscience of the organisation and, in my opinion, it is critical for a CFO to have and to show this high level of integrity. Walking this fine line between supporting the business and, at the same time, making the right decision for the corporation is what distinguishes the CFO from other executives.

Due to the current crisis, we have seen a shift to more remote and flexible working styles, and most businesses believe this will be a permanent shift. How do you think this could impact Finance and any potential challenges?

I have personally seen the great benefits of flexible work, and the opportunity it offers to employees to balance better personal and professional life, look after their health, and the positive impact to the environment. I don’t conceive a future of working that will not have an enhanced level of flexibility than in the past. Broadly speaking, the main challenge I see in remote working concerns the culture and values of the company, and our ability to keep them visible and present in our daily jobs; it simply makes it harder to create a cohesive culture when the interactions with colleagues and leaders happen over the phone or video.

As far as the Finance function is concerned, a big part of the value that Finance brings, particularly in business partnering roles, is the ability to connect the dots, to manage risks, and to anticipate results and events before they even happen. In a remote set-up, the interactions are obviously a lot more limited, the opportunity to connect informally, to hear about a customer or supplier information, or even just have an ad hoc discussion with a colleague are far less, hence the value or the role of an effective Finance business partner may be limited, due to the lack of opportunities to get information and connect the dots.

Digital transformation is a key topic currently. As a Finance leader, how actively do you involve yourself in the implementation of these technologies, and what do you foresee as the possibilities and challenges for your Finance organisation?

I have been getting involved in this area for the last few years, but definitely not as much as I should. I am very committed to changing that in my new role, as I see a lot of value that can be created in the digital space, particularly in Finance.

There are some obvious possibilities, the low hanging fruit of digitalisation that many companies, including DSM, have jumped into: automation and robotics; digitalisation of reports; and advanced analytics. When we speak about digital Finance in multi-nationals these days, those topics are typically part of their digital agenda.

The next step in the digital roadmap should be the application of Artificial Intelligence and digital tools for predictive analytics. This is where I think Finance can add much more value than we do today: predicting the future, through data, and using the digital opportunities that we have in our hands to stop looking backwards only and start looking forward to help steer the business with new insights. 

With regards to the challenges, the first one is that sometimes we are still missing the overall vision of digitalisation for the Finance function, or it’s too broadly defined. It has so many elements and is applied to so many initiatives that I have not yet come across that very clear and compelling vision and roadmap that everyone can understand.

The second challenge is the gap between the current capabilities and those that are required in digital Finance functions, starting with myself! The younger generations will be able to drive those changes faster than we will, but there is still a clear gap.

The third challenge, certainly connected with my Finance role, is cyber security. The more digital we go, the more data is available in the cloud in digital formats and is accessible all over the world.  Therefore, the higher the risk of confidential information ending up in the wrong hands.

Thank you to Ramon for speaking with our Associate Director, Meriel Graham.

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment.