Interview with Jonathan Davis, CFO GDST

Jonathan Davis is the Chief Financial Officer at The Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) the UK’s leading network of independent girls’ schools, with over 3,500 staff, and nearly 19,000 students.  We talk to Jonathan about his current role and his journey to CFO.

GDST is a large organisation with a network of schools / academies, and thousands of staff and students. What challenges does this give you as CFO?

One of the biggest challenges is keeping in touch with the leadership teams in each of our 25 schools and academies, ensuring the various financial processes and controls are working well. We have a central team that’s in contact on a regular basis, partnering with the schools to look at monthly accounts and future-looking forecasts and budgets, so we try to avoid getting surprises as much as we can. The financial pressure facing the education sector – both independent and state-funded – also presents challenges to the organisation that the finance team is at the forefront in responding to.

At GDST, you’re accountable for both Finance and Procurement. Why are those two departments often combined at a leadership level?

I think because both functions are so strongly connected with the commercial and financial success of many organisations, it’s logical to have them aligned – both finance and procurement need to work closely with the teams and business areas they support so there’s often overlap in who they need to be talking too. Although my roles have largely been finance based, I’ve had the procurement function reporting to me twice now – procurement in a brewery is quite different to a family of schools though!

With the constant developments in Technology, what impacts do you see this having on the sector and the Finance Function?

That’s an interesting question and certainly as a society we’re getting more “tech-savvy”, doing more things on-line and expecting high standards in our interactions. I’m sure this has knock-ons to our expectations of the technology we use at work – whilst finance staff might accept something mediocre that they get used to, the non-finance users, such as purchasers or budget holders, expect systems to be easy to understand and intuitive. This means that software providers and those owning the deployment in organisations need to review more regularly when upgrades or larger scale changes are needed. This leads on to more difficult decisions about investment levels in technology and when the funding of new IT projects needs to be prioritised.

Having worked in several different business sectors, what advice would you give someone joining the charity sector from a commercial organisation?

I think that this varies depending on the sort of charity you’re joining and your reasons for doing so. Some people feel that the charity sector is the only place they would ever want to work, whilst others join later in their career having experienced the commercial sector too. If you’ve had a flavour of the commercial sector first, you’ll know how driven people can be and what drives them – the charity sector has equally passionate people, but they are often motivated by something different. The advice I might offer would be to consider what gets you out of bed in the morning and makes the day pass quickly – I feel we need to enjoy what we do at work, so getting the work-life and rewards in balance is a very personal decision.

What are the elements of your role as CFO you most (and least!) enjoy?

Wow, there are so many things I enjoy (genuinely!) – the variety, working with so many different people, as well as the ability to be involved in and shape the important decisions facing the organisation, feeling like I add value in what I contribute. To some extent I thrive on the pressure to do everything well and being responsive to all the calls on my time, but it’s probably these aspects that are more challenging to get right and can therefore sap your energy at certain points. Getting perspectives by trying to switch off (golf usually works for me) helps in managing stress levels.

For a senior Finance Manger whose career goal is to be CFO, what skills and attributes would you encourage them to focus on?

I would say that it’s important to have experienced all the aspects of finance at some point in your career, including financial control, commercial and operational finance, as well the support functions that finance provides (such as payables, receivables and payroll). Don’t be afraid of a sideways move to broaden your experience too. You’ll build skills as you get involved in a variety of areas and remember that to get on you’ll need to volunteer for new projects and drive forward business initiatives. Finally, look at what the leaders in your organisation bring – do they project confidence and authenticity in how they come across and their contribution to the business? Think about what aspects of their style you like and how you might do it differently.