Culture expert: it’s not the first topic that jumps to mind as a ‘must-have’ when you’re looking down the CV of a growth company finance director. But after 140 of them attended this year’s Contemporary FD event – themed around culture – there was little doubt. FDs neglect culture at their peril.

It was actually in the after-event networking session that one of the speakers delivered the killed argument. “You know, how you set your financial targets – for revenues, investment, people, costs, the whole lot – is the very starting point for company culture,” she said.

“It sets the tone in the workplace, tells people how serious you are about the company’s values and long-term goals – it even defines your ability to conform to the ethical and compliance standards the board sets for the business.”

Good point. While the number-crunchers might be able to toil away in the spreadsheet mines without worrying over employee engagement or even ethical standards, for any growth-minded FD, those questions must be front of mind.

BRE CEO Peter Bonfield OBE made a similar point in his opening address. The goals and outcomes you set, as a board, will define the culture of the organisation. Set exacting short-term financial goals for your people, and they’ll deliver – at the cost of long-term value creation. He reminded the FDs present that theirs was role to introduce balance in board thinking. Above all, he emphasised, “you have to strive to be someone who says ‘and’ rather than ‘but’.” That shifts the culture into one focused on the future, on solutions and on creativity. (And, he warned, too many FDs become ‘but’ people…)

So how do we define and engineer better culture then? How do we make that explicit link to value? The opening panel of CFOs and CEOs explored the ways their own organisations had managed to do it – and the focus was squarely on working the HR data harder. Looking at grievances, staff churn, exit interviews and even how well-promoted department employees are in their new jobs can all help you attach hard data to culture.

To push home the point, the next panel tackled the investors interest in culture. Whether it’s hard-nosed VCs looking to bake in creativity and productivity to enhance their exit multiple or impact investors applying due diligence disciplines to social enterprise, it’s clear the money people are getting the message too.

They’ve always prized great leadership skills, and how the top team’s own behaviour shapes the organisation’s culture was the subject of the day’s second panel. And from chairman to CEO to CFO, they agreed that the tone from the top is simply critical. If you don’t live it, your people won’t either. The sheer visibility into businesses today – even relatively small ones – means your leadership style is a key determinant of whether talent comes to your business and what it does when it gets there.

And so to the two superstar keynotes of the day. Wow. There are lots of things that make Contemporary FD very different from any mere conference. But having addresses from one of the UK’s most respected and revered politicians; and a legend of All-Black rugby – that really put the cherry on the cake for the 2018 event.

Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP was simply spellbinding. She walked the hall through her decades of struggle to help the women’s movement achieve its critical gains over the past 50 years – but reminded everyone how far we still have to go. The culture of the workplace – whether that’s the Palace of Westminster or a fast-growth fintech – still defines us as people and organisations. And we must still fight actively to make them fairer, more open and more sustainable. Only by creating a culture where people feel ‘in place’ and part of the team will we ensure that the team is able to deliver.

The day ended with a roused address from former All-Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick. It’s not that we wanted to contrast the steadfast feminism of Harriet Harman with a classically chiselled male role-model. But judging by the longing gazes of the rugby fans in the room, Fitz was certainly that.

And he made a superb point: without purpose, you can’t build a winning culture. That can’t just be winning the next game – although you certainly must have the hunger to do that too. It has to be something bigger – sustaining the legacy of the organisation and of yourself. You train, you prepare, you sacrifice – but you have to enjoy it too. Best the best you can be – and that does not mean winning at all costs.

An incredible day, then. (And there was much more: networking, great food, workshop session – and we’ll share some of the FDs’ own thoughts on diversity and inclusion from their brainstorming session in a few days.) It was also, it its own way, inspirational.

Because the idea that FDs can add value today by simple being great accountants is utterly demolished by the reaction we got from delegates. Growth company FDs have always had to be one step ahead of just technical excellence. But seeing them chat after Contemporary FD – fired with enthusiasm about leadership, creativity and a wider definition of value – was proof that today’s finance chief must be a true renaissance executive.