Pathways — Mitchell Wu, Annecto

Starting from a non-traditional point in his finance career, Mitch has shown that taking a broad view of finance leadership can provide the ultimate value to an organisation, telling the story in a way which brings everyone on the journey.

Atlas Partners Director, Craig Gorton sat down with Mitchell Wu, CFO of Annecto, an aged care and disability provider within the not-for-profit sector. Mitch will discuss his career to date and the transition as CFO from the commercial sector to the not-for-profit sector, along with his three non-negotiables of leadership.


Tell me about your career to date, including early days and what were your foundational learnings along the way?

I started out as a young graduate, at Melbourne Water. They had a very good graduate program, which is different from some of the chartered firms that came to the university recruiting for graduates. So, I chose a different path, I didn’t go into the traditional chartered accounting environment. The graduate program was a three-year program, and you got to spend time in different areas of the business, starting from the accounting team to being out at treatment plants and working with the operations. The foundational learning is that you’re able to build relationships with all different cross-sections of an organisation and be able to get your finance terminology and learnings across to operational staff, and that gave me a huge boost because you were adding value to the organisation.

After that, I spent time looking at different opportunities within organisations rather than the traditional professional accounting firms path. So, I went to RACV and worked in marketing for 18 months, using the more creative elements to work. That was exciting and challenging. But with my grounding and learnings, there were opportunities within RACV as a team leader within the accounting and finance area. This involved exciting project work, like building the new RACV Club building in Bourke Street and the RACV resort in Inverloch, an eco-friendly lodge near the Gippsland region. Then I went to a multinational, Eastman Kodak Company. It was a living MBA experience, working in a disruptive industry where core products were no longer relevant to consumer demand. It was challenging for ten years, six years there as a CFO. Initially, working within the Asia Pacific region with a lot of traveling and then got promoted to the CFO role for the ANZ market.

With the restructure there, I took a redundancy and started my own business called Bricks for Kidz, which provided practical education to children between 5 and 12 years old using LEGO. I did that for about 16 months and kept that as a side hustle while working at Hallmark Cards for a year, another US multinational. Then, I moved to Annecto, a not-for-profit sector aged care and disability provider, and I’ve been there for six years. It’s been a diverse career trajectory, always seeking out something a little different at each stage. Looking back, I’m pretty satisfied that I’ve had different experiences that have rounded out my skill set and prepared me for whatever challenges ahead.

I’d like to get your view on your journey moving from the commercial sector CFO into the not-for-profit sector as a CFO. Was this what you expected?

To be perfectly frank, no. I thought with the background that I had, I could handle anything, but the not-for-profit environment is different. It’s values-driven, so the role of the finance person in the environment is to strike a very good balance between being a financial policeman versus an enabler to make things happen. Also, an educator on commercial aspects of the organisation, expanding the role of the CFO. When I came to Annecto, it was growing really rapidly, 15 to 20% per annum, and they needed a CFO with commercial experience to take it to the next phase of its journey. My challenge was to find efficiencies, provide education on commercial aspects, and improve systems and processes. The not-for-profit sector presents challenges like workforce shortages, inadequate pricing models, and high operating costs, especially in disability care where margins are very low. It’s a balancing act between providing care versus profitability. So, it’s been a good journey. I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve been able to add value to the organisation and, hopefully, the sector.

Did you take your learnings from the commercial sector into the not-for-profit sector, and what did you learn in that transition process?

Absolutely, Craig. I brought the learnings from the commercial sector, like project management skills, being able to engage and build relationships, and influencing skills. These are all very important, and I’ve applied them in the not-for-profit sector as well. I think the key difference in the not-for-profit sector is that you’ve got to be much more patient. It’s a relationship-driven sector. You’ve got to engage with stakeholders, build relationships over time, and then influence rather than come in with all the answers and dictate. So, it’s a different environment, but the skills that you learn in the commercial sector are very transferable. I think the learning curve was quite steep in the first 12 months, but once you get your head around the nuances of the sector, it’s quite rewarding.

It’s been an interesting journey to date, Mitch. What would you say are the key challenges that you’re facing in your role today at Annecto?

The key challenge is the environment that we’re operating in. It’s dynamic, it’s uncertain, and it’s changing rapidly. So, keeping pace with those changes and being agile, being able to pivot quickly to adapt to those changes is very challenging. The Royal Commission into Aged Care delivered clear common themes on expectations, these include quality and compliance, dignity and respect, control and choice and of relationships and connections to communities which adds an additional layer of challenge to what we’re doing. In addition, the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability provided 222 recommendations. We’re very much driven by government policy changes, funding models, and sector reforms, so it’s a very dynamic environment, and it’s a big challenge for not just Annecto but the sector as a whole. So, it’s about trying to keep pace with that, making sure that you’re agile and you’re nimble, and you’re able to pivot quickly to adapt to those changes.

Moving into the CFO piece, what would you be the top three lessons that you’ve learned as a CFO from sitting in the seat today?

That’s a hard one. I’d say building strong relationships is key with your key stakeholders. So, for a CFO to be aligned with the CEO, the executive leadership team, and the board. You must be aligned with the strategy and the values of the organisation as well to be able to do the job properly and meet the needs of the organisation. So, if you’re not aligned with any of those key stakeholders, then it makes the job very difficult. Because you need the support of all those people to carry out the strategy and tasks you need to do as a CFO. So, the key task is for any organisation or CFO, which has been the last three organisations for me, is to seek out those particular key stakeholders and try to engage with them. You’re not going to agree on everything, but as long as you establish mutual respect and everyone’s mindset is, what is best for the organisation, and you make a call based on that. It’s hard sometimes for CFOs, but you need to leave your ego at the door in those discussions and find an agreed path forward that’s beneficial for the organisation.

I mentioned before the soft skills. That’s very important for a CFO. Finance staff need to have soft skills because the financial or accounting roles have become a lot more people focused. You still need to have a certain level of technical understanding, but your success within organisations is going to be based on your soft skills. As you work your way up the corporate ladder, you’ll be managing staff related issues at least 60-70% of your day. Certainly, for a CFO or in the roles that I’ve been in, you’ll be dealing with people issues and not just your staff but also your internal clients that you’re dealing with on a daily basis. It’s never going to be easy navigating your way through that, displaying your integrity and sticking close to your values as well and your authenticity, if you can show that, it shows through on the other side as well, you’ll gain a lot of respect in everything you do. So, soft skills are important. I’d say focus on that. And the last one is good communication skills and being a good storyteller.

And just to dive a little deeper into that, when you talk about being a good storyteller and communicating effectively, especially with the board and the executive leadership team, can you elaborate a bit more on what you mean by that?

The board and ELT need to understand the financials and the commercial elements of the organisation. Putting it into a story format assists them to understand and kept informed. It’s being able to explain and tell the story in a way that’s understandable in layman’s terms, so the whole thing hangs together. So, chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, it follows sequentially within a financial year. You’re looking at monthly or quarterly as the chapters in the financial year. And if you keep the plot going and the storyline consistent, then there are no surprises at the end of the financial year. That’s the key and being transparent. It’s better to be able to say that things are not going too well. Here’s the reason why. Here’s the story. Do you understand this? OK, we’re in this together. How do we get out of it? As opposed to not telling the right story, causing more problems at the end of the day. That’s a role of the CFO because you’ve got links to every part of the organisation.

You might act on a lot of governance committees because of the CFO role, which touches upon so many elements within the organisation, providing advice or insight as required, which means we’re very busy. But I think you can tell what the pulse of the organisation is at any point in time.

Turning to mentors, have you had any mentors or anyone in the past that had influence or a strong impact on your career?

I don’t have a mentor per se, but I do like to mentor people, which I love doing. I need advice, there’s no one that I can call up. But what I’ve learned over the years is that the people that I admire and respect as leaders or as my managers in the past, I’ve taken bits and pieces of how they were thinking, how they would respond, or how they would work, taking those bits and pieces and trying to utilise them in the way I work or perform in my roles. Conversely, the people that were not good managers or leaders, I’ve made sure that I don’t follow that path and don’t display characteristics that align with those behaviours. So, it’s interesting, you can learn more from the bad leaders than from the good leaders in some respects because there’s something that they’ve done from a negative point of view, and you make sure that you don’t show that trait.

Finally, have you got any key pieces of advice for future leaders?

For me, it’s challenging the status quo. When you come into a new role, obviously, you spend whatever it is, the first 30 days settling in. But don’t always look to do the same thing that’s been done before. Always look for a different way of doing things. It’s about challenging the status quo, an opportunity for innovation, thinking outside the square.

You’d be surprised what can be accomplished and who you can bring along on the journey. So, most of my best meetings with my finance leadership team, we spend 15 to 30 minutes a week saying, “Okay, what are some of the things you want to do that for whatever reason, budget constraints, upscaling needs, if you didn’t have all those constraints, what do you want to do or what can we do?” And we’ve had some really good ideas sprout out of that. Some need to be parked away because they’re too far out there, but others, we said, “Hey, okay, we hadn’t thought about that, but that can be achievable.” And then you make it happen.

So, I’ve always promoted that, and even like an ideas box, we just want to make sure that as a leader, you nurture some of those innovations and never shut the door on it because even one idea today may seem implausible, but maybe 6-12 months down the track, you might want to grab that document again and say, “Hey, you know, I can see where this is going.” So, never shut the door, always keep those ideas with you all the time. And the other one is for future leaders to build a good team around you because you need a good team around you, behind you, because you’re not always the smartest person in the room. So, have some good, smart people around you.

As a leader, you provide the vision and the strategy, but sometimes you need the right people to help you implement them. And as a leader, you need to guide them along on that path. That’s the key. I think the last thing is probably just being a good listener as a leader, one of the pitfalls of a leader is that sometimes you feel the need to be the loudest or to be able to come up with all the ideas. A good leader is also able to listen and take feedback as well as listen to your staff’s ideas. These are the three things that I have applied to all the leadership roles that I’ve held in various organisations, and they’ve stood true to my values, and I’ll stick to it.