Last month, AFP announced the formation of its APAC FP&A Advisory Council (FPAAC). The networking and advisory group meets three to four times a year to discuss best practices, common challenges and innovative initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region. We’ll be profile individual members of the council, beginning this month with Martha Sierra, Regional Head of FP&A for the British Council. Her remarkable career has spanned multiple countries and continents, and required her to take on unique challenges with each new role.
AFP: Let’s start with your early career. What did you study in college?
Martha Sierra: I studied Business Management and have a post graduate degree on Human Resources Management at “Los Andes” University, in Bogota, Colombia, which is regarded as one of the best in Latin America. Later when I moved to London, UK, I obtained by CIMA qualification, as Chartered Institute of Management Accountant.
AFP: Like many FP&A professionals, you started out in accounting. How did you like that experience? What made you decide to make the shift to FP&A?
Sierra: From the start of my professional journey, I had a natural interest in business management, which covers a lot more than accounting. I’ve had roles with a scope that have included the management of HR, facilities, IT, finance and resources teams. Starting as finance manager opened doors for me and made me understand that my real passion was with the financial management. I used the early opportunity of starting as an “Accounts Assistant” to get myself well positioned with the business team and demonstrate that I can add value. It was not easy, but through hard work and good networking skills, I managed to be recognized as a strong professional.
AFP: How did you come to join the British Council?
Sierra: I had other experiences in commercial banks/institutions before, but I have always had it clear that what I wanted was to work for an organization where I could grow personal and professionally, that had wide international cover, with a mission that was linked to culture and education, and that offered the chance to explore different cultures and geographies. I had a big inclination to work with UK companies, as I have family links with this country. When I saw the position advertised in the paper, I knew this was my dream organization. So, I prepared my CV and took it in person. I had the chance to meet the recruitment manager. I was called for an interview and offered the job soon after.
The British Council is a fantastic organization. Our mission is to create international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and build trust between them worldwide. It does this through a wide range of education and arts programs, the teaching of English worldwide and the offer of a wide range of exams that validate the level of required education. This organization was ticking all the boxes, including the wide international presence, as we have a presence in more than 100 countries. I have traveled extensively and to very remote locations, I’ve lived in five different countries and I have achieved successes professionally. Every job I have is a new adventure, a new start and an experience that is—in essence—very different to the previous job, which explains why I’ve stayed so long! I still enjoy working for the British Council.
AFP: Yes, I see that your work on the Council has resulted in you relocating to a number of different regions, including Nepal, Madrid, London, and now Singapore. How does finance differ in these regions? What are the similarities?
Sierra: Although there are similarities in the basic aspects of finance—ERP, processes, business structures—the challenges that I’ve faced in each role have been very diverse. From dealing with the complexities and challenges that working with the senior management in corporate involves, which I experienced during the seven years I worked in our headquarters office in London, to understanding the context and realities of our local teams in South Asia, where providing training and mentoring to the team, as well as setting processes, systems and the finance discipline, were the key priorities.
Working in South Asia, based in Kathmandu, Nepal, for 3.5 years, was an amazing experience. I confronted the reality of working in extremely different and difficult settings (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.), but I experience directly what the essence of the work of the British Council is. I evidenced the meaning to what this organization is about.
Director, Resources in Spain was my next role and has been—without a doubt—my biggest and potentially more rewarding professional challenge. This country was, at the time, the biggest country in the network with a complex setting and challenges of very different natures (legal, fiscal, staff, and business related). My role there transformed more into a change manager, with a clear focus on the financial aspects of the operation. This is where I learned, through hard experience, how to get the buy-in of the business managers and teams and where I successfully brought people with me in the process of change implementation. As per the context, Spain as a country is beautiful and the team I had was amazing. We worked so close and so hard for five years, that they have a special place in my heart.
Singapore (East Asia), where I’ve been based for the past six years, is a very different—but equally amazing—world. East Asia is all innovation, drive, creativity. It’s where “the future” and the engine of the organization is, which gives me and my team the opportunity to contribute and have direct input in areas such as the design and implementation of new digital products. I’ve experienced the journey that finance has had in this organization and can clearly see that we now have a more solid and respected place in the organization. We are now perceived as a critical member in all the business units’ leadership teams, as real business partners, with a voice in decision-making forums.
As I look back, I recognize that my life has been a big adventure, enabled by the opportunities that I’ve come across in this organization and my determination to take on big challenges, always supported by my family. I hope there are more, new challenges for me in the future, as I’m still ready to take them!
AFP: What is the biggest challenge as an FP&A professional in Singapore?
Sierra: The biggest challenge working in this region has been to become an ‘enabler’ for a business that is pushing ahead and growing (pre-COVID and post-COVID). I felt the organization’s bureaucratic processes and the old-fashioned systems were in some cases holding them back. Since I started here, we (working closely with my manager) have worked on establishing a very professional and skillful finance team that responds to the challenges/expectations of very demanding and ambitious managers, complemented by the implementation of better processes and tools, even if they are still Excel based, in many instances. The organization went through a global “finance change program” that has improved all aspects of the wider finance function. In FP&A, I can confidently say that we have today, the full confidence of our business leads in the work we do. We have a deep knowledge of the business.
My role in East Asia has been very varied and interesting. Thanks to the work done with my team and manager, East Asia’s finance team (not only FP&A) has a leading place across the organization’s network (we are seven geographical regions). We take the lead in many aspects and are constantly starting innovation and change.
AFP: How has Singapore been handling the pandemic? Has it been difficult for financial professionals to keep up with their tasks, or has it been fairly smooth?
Sierra: Singapore is a very regulated and organized country. The management of the pandemic has been exemplary—we have a total of 26 deaths in a country of 6 million people. The public services, including medical services and the general country infrastructure is of high standard and is complemented by the good response from the population who are, in general terms, very compliant. This region has experienced pandemics before, with SARs and the Swine Flu, so they were well prepared for this new challenge.
The pandemic closed doors to tourism, which is a big part of the economy. However, this is a country with a strong economy that has offered generous financial support to all businesses and people. Life is now back to normal in general terms. All businesses operate normally, and we are starting to open borders to other countries. I think financial professionals might have found a less dynamic professional market during this time, with less opportunities to move/grow, but I’m confident this will change as we open up more and more in the future.
AFP: What led you to join AFP’s APAC FP&A Advisory Council and what do you hope the Council will accomplish in the coming months?
Sierra: As an experienced FP&A professional, I understand the importance of being up to date with the latest trends and challenges faced by the finance function, in a complex and ever-changing business context, such as the one we are living in at the moment. Apart from taking advantage of the learning and development opportunities that are available to us, networking is—in my view—a critical success factor in our profession.
When I heard about the AFP, I decided to get in contact with the company straight away. I was very impressed with the offer and the interesting portfolio of products, so decided to include it as a professional development supplier for finance in my organization, which was strongly supported by senior management.
I was absolutely thrilled to get the opportunity to contribute with the AFP’s future plans, growth and focus, by being part of the Advisory Council. I hope that through the work done in this forum we make sure AFP is widely known and recognized as the number one FP&A professional development organization!
AFP is your source for FP&A expertise. AFP members have access to the FP&A Maturity Model, a roadmap to help organizations develop a baseline for their FP&A practice. AFP also administers the Certified Corporate FP&A Professional designation, which serves as a benchmark of competency in the FP&A profession.