Christian Nilsson, CFO EP Division at ABB

What led you to pursue a career in finance?

First of all I completed my studies, both my Undergraduate degree and my MBA, in Economics and Finance, so the foundation of it was done through academia. Then the reason I continued to pursue a career in finance was that I was really lucky to always be in companies that valued finance. When you get into a finance environment, you realize from a functional point of view it is probably one of the best areas, where you are really involved in everything. You have the opportunity to positively influence growth and performance across all elements of the business. My studies are how I initially got into finance, but my experiences are really why I stayed there, as I always found it really engaging. This could be different from company to company, but I have been lucky with the ones I have worked in.

Being a sparring partner to the business head is a prerequisite for a CFO. What do you feel makes an effective sparring partner?

You have to be able to speak business, not just the natural areas of finance, but understand the competitive landscape, the product, manufacturing and the go-to market strategies. It’s not just the ability to talk about, but also to make informed decisions on, those topics. When you are in the finance function you get an enormous amount of information, data and transactions and you have to be able to see the wood through all the trees. You might have hundreds of trees, but you have to be able to stand up and tell your manager for example, “It’s these three areas which you need to be engaged in and I’ll take care of the rest”. You need to help focus the engagement and understanding of the leader so he/she can really push in the right areas. 
Then of course there has to be a trust. If you do not trust the business head and they do not trust you, not only financially but also in discussing people and organisational issues, then you can not be an effective sparring partner.

Lastly, I would say that it’s fundamental that as well as the business head viewing you as a strong technical finance expert, he/she needs to look at you as a strong leader. If you do all these things, but you are not looked upon as a strong leader, you can not be an effective sparring partner.

Tell me about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be particularly significant in your career?

It is more of a process that has been significant for me. First of all, I spent the majority of my early career in GE and this has really helped me to achieve many accomplishments. I was fortunate to work for a company which supported my growth and gave me opportunities to move into new financial areas where I needed development. This gave me a much deeper financial base and meant that I have the knowledge and experience to advise on a real breadth of topics.

GE always supported my career and instead of saying “You are strong in this, so let’s grow you in that area”, they said ‘”You are very strong in this, perfect, now where do you have your gaps?”  For example, I had a gap in the area of tax and so I was moved into that area. 
Of course the further into your career you are and the more senior you become the less you can do that, but my biggest accomplishment was to have that challenge and opportunity. For the first 10-15 years of my career everytime I went into a job I could generally say it was a tremendous learning curve. You need to have the personality, which means you are willing to learn quickly. GE is not a very forgiving culture, so you learn fast otherwise it does not work. For me it took me from being in accounting to going into tax, manufacturing, commercial and corporate finance, as well as integrations and a lot of other technical areas.  For me, I feel very happy that the company provided the opportunities for me, but prouder that I took those opportunities and never shied away from taking the tough jobs. You have to be in the right company culture, but also willing to step up. 
Whilst I knew that I did not want to become an expert in some of the roles I took on, these have served me well in my later career and have been some of the roles I have appreciated the most.

Now there are very few times where I am in a discussion where I can’t say that I can speak about this topic because I spent 2-3 years of my career in this area. This really framed me, the way I think and my leadership approach.

You recently joined ABB, what attracted you to the organisation?

Many things - first of all I was really engaged by the job. If the job itself does not excite you it doesn’t matter which company it is, but on the flip side if you like the job, but not the company, then it does not work either! 

There are many things that excite me specifically about ABB. Firstly, it is a true global player. It is really operating in every single angle in the world and it is really conducting itself in a very global manner. Many companies will say they are global because they have sent a few expats somewhere, but ABB is truly global in its culture and its way of conducting business. This is very fundamental for me and really excites me about ABB. 

Also, when I was about to join the company I gained a very good understanding of the leadership that I spent time interviewing with. And I was very impressed by the capability,  the strength and the diverse mindset. I also like the industry, I like what they are doing, the fact it is manufacturing and the breadth of industries we work in across ABB, but specifically throughout my division. 

Finally as a financial person it is important to me that ABB is a company that really values the financials. It is not a purely financially driven business, but it is a company that puts financial considerations in all the decisions we make and demands a lot of strengths from its finance leadership team.

ABB recently announced the acquisition of GE Industrial Solutions, what do you see as being the key advantages of this acquisition for the EP division?

First I have to say we have announced the acquisition, but the completion of the deal is not expected until the first half of 2018, so it is not a part of ABB yet. 
We believe that the integration into ABB’s Electrification Products (EP) division will result in a unique global portfolio and very comprehensive offering for North American and global customers. They will benefit from ABB’s innovative technologies and the ABB AbilityTM digital offering coupled with GE Industrial Solutions’ complementary solutions and market access.
 
In the ‘war for talent’ what do you feel are the key factors for recruiting and retaining high calibre finance professionals?

It is always a give and take situation. When you are interviewing candidates, good candidates are also interviewing you. It should be and has to be like that. For me, what is imperative to get the highest calibre talent, is that we offer continuous challenges and learning. High calibre people want to be able to come in and be challenged in what they do and learn new things. I look for candidates who are really willing to make that commitment and it is also up to us to be able to offer that. 

Secondly, that ABB offers a very diverse and open environment. I think that is important, especially for the younger talent, to work for a company which offers global opportunities within a diverse yet inclusive culture.  You always need to offer jobs where employees feel they can really drive value. Are employees able to drive change and improvements all of the time and are they allowed to challenge the status quo and make an impact? At ABB I really believe that is something that we can say is a strength that we offer. 

Finally, I think for me that I always want to be viewed as an individual in a company. Of course in ABB with over 140,000 people, or in any big organisation, the business leader can not know every person’s name.  Neither can I, in the EP division of 44,000 people, but you should interact with your teams and colleagues, by building an individual approach. I think it is important how you act as a leader. There is not one approach which works for everybody, you have to be agile and change your leadership style and approach. Different cultures and levels within an organisation demand different things. It is important for me to treat people as individuals, respect and recognise cultural differences and social structures and this is also really important to ABB.

What would be your advice to someone aspiring to be where you are now?
 
For me this ties back to the way I developed my own career. One piece of advice is definitely to take the tough job, not the one you feel comfortable with, as this means you will be underselling yourself and you will not get challenged enough. When I say tough, I am not talking about the number of hours you work; it could be a cultural angle that makes it difficult, or a functional area that you do not have much experience in. Take the job where you feel a bit excited and at the same time a bit afraid!

The other part that is very important to me is when someone has energy and passion. You can teach most things in finance and learn different functions. What you can not teach is that you as a person, when you come into work, are energised and passionate about what you are doing. If I am not passionate about what I am doing I will lose interest.

It is also important to continually look for ways to improve yourself and the job you are doing. Whatever you are doing, never come in and just treat the job as the status quo, you should always improve what the person did before you. I expect when someone takes over my role in the future they will come in and say there are a few areas which I feel Christian did not do as well in. Your responsibility is for continuous improvement while you are there, whether it is doing something simpler, faster or simply better.

The last point I believe is fundamental, to take accountability. If you don’t take ownership of your mistakes then to me that it is even more of an issue. I respect people the most when they actually stand up and say “You know what, I made that mistake”. Then the question is, how do you fix it? True accountability is not only taking ownership when you do a great job, but when you make mistakes. As a finance person you own your financials; the business delivers them but you are part of the business and you own your commitments. I think it is particularly important in finance, but also across the company. For me this was a career enhancer, when you recognise that you made a mistake, as long as you fix it and do not make the same mistake again!

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

Fundamentally there are two things. Firstly, I get motivated and inspired in my job if I make an impact on my colleague or team member.  If someone in my team gets promoted, that is probably the most energising and rewarding part of the job. Secondly, it is when I feel I can add shareholder value to the ABB company. 

If I can do these two things, that really excites me. When I wake up in the morning I think, “How can I improve the results that deliver shareholder value? How can I impact one of my colleagues at work?”  Relatively simple, but this is what really energises me at work.

 

 

 
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