Executive Interviews

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Faraz Naseem Syed - Head of Commercial Finance at Unilever Europe

  • November 07, 2022

Faraz Naseem Syed is the Europe Head of Commercial Finance – eComm & Omni Retailers at Unilever, having joined the organisation as Europe FP&A Controlling Lead – Logistics & Supply Chain. He previously spent over ten years at A.P. Moller, as Senior Manager – Corporate FP&A.

Within your career, I can see that you were given some good opportunities to travel and experience different countries. Can you tell me a little bit about how you adapted to, not only different cultures, but the change in diversity of your roles?

Yes, I’ve been lucky in the sense that, within APM Maersk specifically, they had great emphasis in giving global exposure to the key talent. I particularly chose China because I was interested in that part of the culture, along with experiencing the fastest growing economy in the world. Plus, if you're any sizeable global company, it's imperative that you will have a large footprint in China. So, this is a good experience to have under your belt.

One of the things I realised when moving to a new country was that you need to adopt to the ways of working and cultural business practises in that country, even if it's within the same company, it also has a lot of local influences. One thing that helped me was having a cultural mentor and I also tried to make some local friends - from my work and outside - and that helped me speed up learning about how things work.

So, you have to stay humble and respectful, adapt to local norms and culture, and work on fostering work relationships.

I know from our previous conversations that you’re passionate about making Finance more digital-savvy and data-driven. What have you implemented that you’ve found to be most effective and why do you feel it's so important in the Finance world today?

In one of the recent McKinsey CFO reports, they noted: "Finance organization’s adoption of digital is more common at the best-performing companies."

In one of my recent roles, I had a team of eight Finance Analysts and Managers. They're all quite smart, but large part of their time was spent on preparing monthly and quarterly reports, different performance review decks - so a lot of manual content. That left them very little time for driving performance-driven conversations with the stakeholders.

That’s where we decided to do a bit of reset and to bring in some technology to help us, as well. Started with the simplification of our reporting landscape by culling 20-30% of regular management reports based on their usage and effectiveness. We used data visualisation tools, like Power BI, to automate the maximum numbers of our standard reports and leaned on robotics and AI [artificial intelligence] to automate certain accounting and workflow management tasks.

We co-created this with our stakeholders and used agile ways of delivering and running iterations. Eventually, we managed to release about 50% of the capacity within the Finance team and this unlocked more time for business partnering for our Finance teams.

What do you think are the skills that helped you adapt as a Finance professional to partner with functions from Technology to Logistics to Retail?

As a commercial-minded Finance leader, I feel that having sound business acumen helps to succeed with your business stakeholders. Understanding competitive landscapes of your industry, value drivers for your business, having a view on potential disruptions and innovations can help you earn the seat on the table with business leaders.

Secondly, the art of storytelling. Often, you're working on a project for two or three months, but you must present the whole story to the board in 30 minutes. While you need to know the details, you need to also tell a story in a way that you can sell the idea to get this business case signed off, keeping the numbers simple enough so that they can also understand it, and key decision-points clear enough for the leadership to act.

That's a skill which I think, as a Senior Finance professional, is a very important art to master.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your role?

I think the most rewarding part is being able to experiment and try new things. This means looking at things from a fresh perspective. I personally believe that moves between divisions within a company or across companies gives you a bit of an opportunity to look at things from a fresh pair of eyes. And, if you have the mandate and bring enough experience, then you can also reset a few things and experiment around it. That’s something which I enjoyed generally in my roles.

How can a jobseeker stand out in the current market?

My perception is, right now, the market is favouring employees and they have lots of options. That's good for certain people who are looking for those career growth opportunities or to challenge themselves in a different environment.

One of the key things is to be clear on why you are going for that particular job in that particular company. Do your research well and have the answer of how this job fits in your career trajectory. So, you come across not just a casual job-hopper, rather someone who knows what he/she is doing.

Opportunity to work in different industries and geographies also adds breadth and depth to your career. Something I advocate strongly.

Do you think, from your experience, learning the company culture and adapting to that change is almost more difficult than doing the role?

Yes, I think especially for senior roles. I read an HBR article that said a lot of people who were superstars in a certain company, but then when they move to another company, they often struggled. And one of the key reasons was because they're starting over, having no network within new the company or understanding about inner workings.

Then it’s important to quickly learn the ways of working within that new company, understanding stakeholder map, key decision-makers and how the structure really works. It’s very helpful to work with an internal mentor who has a vested interest in your success.  

What are the recruitment challenges that you're facing, if any?

Overall, the market is quite competitive. It's also difficult to hold on to good resources, because they can easily move on if they are not happy with one thing or another, so that is a challenge as a manager, as a company.

Specific to our particular team and in terms of profile, I think, personally, I prefer Finance professionals who are also data savvy, because I think it's good to have the Accounting base - that's something you need as a Finance professional - but you need an affinity for data and technology, especially if you're starting a career in Finance. Because often we are working very closely with Data Scientists, which was not common many years ago. And more and more Finance professionals are expected to be familiar with basic SQL or Python to help with massive data-crunching efficiently.

What would you say is the best compliment that you've ever received?

As part of the recruitment process at APM Maersk, they used to have a psychometric assessment. That had a strong say in which function you’d be most suited. And the output described me as someone who is sociable, pushing boundaries, resilient and influencing. Even though it was a personality assessment, I took it as a compliment!

Thank you to Faraz for speaking to Becky KitsonSenior Consultant in our Finance recruitment team in the Netherlands. 

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