Leading Your Finance Team Into the Future

by James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA | Feb 28, 2020
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Finance is on the precipice of drastic transformation. PwC describes the finance function of the future as being smaller than today’s, with resource allocation flipped on its head: transaction processing, reporting, compliance, and other rules-based activities will become increasingly automated, shifting the focus to analysis, decision support, and strategic insight. The major driver of this trend is rapid and rampant technology growth.

PwC envisions finance roles focused around digital tools; data mining and analytics; process design and ownership across traditionally siloed areas; transformation leadership and project management; and people who can see the “story” in the data and use data visualization to communicate actionable insights to nonfinancial business leaders.1

It is impossible to know exactly how finance and the individual roles within it will evolve. However, finance leaders still must prepare our teams for this uncertain, technology-driven shift. It is notable that PwC lists technology as only one of six steps toward optimizing the finance function. The other five are all about people, and cover communication, collaboration, interactions/relationships, skills, and clarification of decision rights.2 This perspective is good news: financial team leaders don’t need any specialized technological expertise or a crystal ball to prepare for the future of finance. Our mission, at its core, is to build teams that have deep technical expertise as well as a broad, big-picture, cross-functional understanding; teams that can blend both traditional financial discipline and new-age creativity; teams that can learn, adapt, and grow.3 In short, an engaged team – a learning organization.

Learning

Formal training courses are necessary, but alone they are insufficient to fully develop talent. If you are in a small or midsize company that does not have the training infrastructure of a Fortune 500 company or a large CPA firm, establish a budget for external education – and not just for the CPAs that need CPE credits. Bob Nelson, a thought leader and author on employee engagement, suggests making formal training more effective by meeting with employees beforehand to discuss learning objectives and afterwards to discuss what was learned (and, I would add, how it might be applied).

Relying exclusively upon formal training to prepare for the coming transformation, though, implies some person or group is going to mastermind what finance needs to look like, design the new roles and skills, develop a training curriculum, and deliver the appropriate courses. This ignores the uncertainty inherent in the future and a need to be agile and adaptive. The better route is to develop a learning culture, a learning organization.

There are endless opportunities to ingrain learning and development into a company’s culture. Cross-training employees within finance enhances skills and facilitates backup and succession. Leaders should focus their own efforts on the work only they can perform, according to financial executive and author Robert C. Pozen. This will not only free you up to lead, but also provides development opportunities for others. Pozen explains that asking yourself to define what only you can do is different than asking what you are best at. You may indeed be best at a particular task, but if somebody else can do it adequately, let it be a development opportunity for them while you do what only you can handle.

After-action reviews are another practice incorporated by learning organizations. Originating in the military, after-action reviews are structured debriefings aimed at drawing lessons from projects or recurring activities (such as month-end closings or annual audits). After-action reviews seek to answer what went right, what went wrong, and how to do it better next time. “Lunch and Learns” are a low-cost development opportunity. Every month or quarter, assign a team member to research and present a topic of their choice. This allows individuals to gain expertise in areas of interest to them and develop presentation skills while expanding everyone’s knowledge. A related practice is for team members to write memos or white papers about a topic or initiative in their areas. These activities should be formally scheduled and made a part of the employees’ performance criteria; not left for free time that, of course, never comes.

Leaders should set an example of continuous learning by reading voraciously – about finance, technology, their industry, and, more broadly, about management, leadership, decision-making, history, etc. Relevant biographies span many of these subjects. Inspire your team to read by talking about what you are reading. Bring concepts or stories into conversations; this will help you synthesize your own learning and find practical applications. Let people see books sitting on your desk. Share articles. Suggest, or assign, specific reading. Forming a book club within your organization can be a great way to institutionalize reading and, more importantly, foster discussion. 

Books on leadership topics may work well for experienced leadership teams, but “be sensitive to generational differences in how people learn, and be open to other media,” says Michele Juliana, a principal at RSM US LLP. Juliana is a leader who takes ownership of her team’s development and does not rely solely upon formal firmwide programs. Juliana suggests shared viewings and discussions of TED talks or other relevant YouTube videos, noting they “require less preparation and can be more interactive.”

A former colleague who had transitioned to industry from a Big Four CPA firm lamented that she missed having a peer group. In many middle-market companies, finance teams are smaller and have less peer-level interaction, but alternative opportunities can be created. If your company has multiple units or locations, hold forums where business unit controllers or other teams can meet to share ideas and best practices. Establish a “buddy system” where people are paired with their counterparts at other units. (This is a beneficial post-merger integration practice as well.) Look outside of the finance team and beyond your own company. “My personal preference has always been to connect people across lines of business or function, to break down barriers and create richer dialogue,” says Juliana. If you are private-equity-backed, create a peer group of counterparts among other portfolio companies. “Create networks with other, similar companies so that you can share ideas and resources, and plan joint events to get a larger audience and different perspectives,” suggests Juliana. To avoid competitive concerns, find companies in different industries grappling with similar challenges. There is no shortage of professional organizations, and you should advise your employees to join one. 

A learning organization consists of individual lifelong learners emboldened to look for trends, driven to understand the implications on their roles, and empowered to offer new ideas and reinvent themselves. If you do not have a team of lifelong learners, can you build a learning organization? Can you lead people to become lifelong learners, or is it a quality that either exists in an individual or does not?

Intellectual curiosity drives lifelong learning and is one of the primary intangibles I look for in hiring and promotion. Developmental coach and author Jennifer Garvey Berger explains that knowledge workers are paid to be curious about the world and to be learners; the core attribute is not how much you know, it is how much you are willing to question what you know and how much you are willing to learn. As Berger says, if all you want is that which is already known, you can Google it.6 Ian Leslie, author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, explains the importance of “need for cognition” (NFC),7 a recognized personality variable in the field of psychology and a measure of intellectual curiosity. As Leslie explains, people with a high NFC relish intellectual challenge and difficulty. As a result, they adapt well to change rather than react defensively to it – exactly the mind-set that will be required for finance transformation.

Engagement

Concepts such as intellectual curiosity and NFC suggest inborn characteristics, but the voluntary and self-motivated attributes that define lifelong learners imply a high level of engagement. Employee engagement and development are one of the five criteria of effectiveness in the Drucker Institute/Wall Street Journal Management Top 250 list of America’s best-run companies. Pairing these criteria recognizes that they are codependent. Others say that development is a critical driver of engagement.8 This got me wondering about a “chicken or the egg” question: Are intellectually curious people naturally more engaged? Or does engagement drive intellectual curiosity and the desire to learn? 

I posed this question to Effin Logue, chief people officer at Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP. Logue was unequivocal about engagement being the precondition for intellectual curiosity – at least in a professional context. “A person might be intellectually curious – but not about work,” Logue says. “Engagement is what motivates someone to apply their intellectual curiosity to their job. And engagement can indeed make someone intellectually curious, even if they were not already. The corollary to this is, if someone is not already intellectually curious by nature, they will certainly not be motivated to learn if they are not engaged.” Leaders who worry that intellectual curiosity is dormant on their teams may be comforted to learn that it can be stimulated by engagement – but there is concern over nurturing engagement that is not already present.

From Logue’s point of view, engagement is best described by a question and answer: “How are you expending discretionary effort? If the answer is on your work, then that is engagement.” According to Logue, the foundation of engagement is trust. “Organizational success is more relationship-oriented than ever, despite technology. Strong relationships are predicated upon trust: Doing what you say you’re going to do; keeping confidences; having each other’s backs; being forthright and leveling with people,” Logue says. “Leaders must show humility and model these behaviors. Communication is key.” 

Traditional team-building activities – such as community service or social outings like ball games, barbecues, escape rooms, rock-climbing gyms, go-cart racing, etc. – can nurture relationships and trust. Juliana offers an intriguing idea that builds teams and inspires learning: “Take advantage of local cultural resources to stimulate innovative and creative ideas. For example, take a tour of a museum and relate its historical themes to the behaviors and values you are trying to foster – courage, critical thinking, collaboration, empathy, curiosity, etc. After the tour, hold a brainstorming session with your team oriented toward the challenges and opportunities you are trying to address.”

None of these activities, however, can build trust without authentic day-to-day interactions, and leaders must set the tone. Trust that people are doing their work and allow them the flexibility to integrate work and life demands. Avoid micromanaging or diverting your team’s attention with every idea, issue, or problem as it occurs to you. Give your people time to work deeply and without interruption during their high-energy times of day. Avoid scheduling meetings in such a way that they leave only short fragments of time in between, insufficient for accomplishing any meaningful work. (For more on this topic, check out my column “Deep Work in a Distracted World” from the summer 2018 Pennsylvania CPA Journal.) Trust is cultivated by planning, avoiding fire drills, and respecting preferences in work styles and communication. Personality assessments such as DiSC, Myers-Briggs, or The Leadership Circle can help all team members understand and appreciate each other’s work styles. 

Juliana suggests scheduling “regular touchpoints for leaders and team members at all levels to interact casually and have the opportunity to provide guidance and mentorship.” If scheduling casual interaction sounds like an oxymoron, consider that we all get distracted by urgent priorities, and quality interactions can be the first thing to fall by the wayside. Leaders should make themselves accessible: via one-on-one meetings with direct reports as well as town-hall-style meetings with the whole finance team. 

Purpose

A well-known parable describes a traveler who came upon three bricklayers and asked each what he was doing. The first replied, “I am laying bricks.” Said the second, “I am putting up a wall.” The third bricklayer said, “I am building a cathedral to God.”9 While the first two bricklayers were focused only on what they were doing, the third bricklayer answered why he was doing it. This is the essence of purpose. Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek writes, “Very few people or companies can clearly articulate why they do what they do. When I say why, I don’t mean to make money – that’s a result. By why I mean what is your purpose, cause, or belief? Why does your company exist? Why do you get out of bed every morning?”10

Whether or not your company has defined its own purpose, finance leaders must guide their teams to connect with a higher purpose beyond day-to-day tasks. Start by asking the same big-picture strategic questions about your finance organization that a CEO would ask about the overall business: Why does your organization exist? What is its purpose and its role in fulfilling the company’s purpose? Who are your customers? How does it deliver value to those customers? How will people within the organization behave toward its customers and toward each other?11

Finance leaders must evangelize to their teams the value of their contributions to the company’s mission. Think about it: the finance team establishes order in the form of systems, processes, metrics, and analytics that instill financial discipline and enhance profitability and cash flow – without which no organization can survive long enough to fulfill its purpose. Then shout it out, loudly and proudly. Finance may not be on the front lines selling products or services to external customers, but it has customers of its own: business unit leaders, lenders, investors, the board of directors, regulators, and even fellow employees dependent upon a well-functioning payroll department. Remind your team of the core attributes of the accounting profession, such as integrity and professional skepticism, that enforce checks and balances and maintain trust with internal and external stakeholders. Lead your team to see every interaction as an opportunity to exemplify purpose and values, to provide a positive “customer experience” that makes someone else’s day easier and more pleasant. Many of your internal customers cannot assess your financial skills one way or another, but, to paraphrase poet Maya Angelou, they will know how you made them feel. Aligning strategy with purpose, and in turn distilling strategy down to actions and responsibilities within job descriptions and performance evaluation rubrics, makes a tangible connection between purpose and day-to-day work. 

A heavy workload in a dynamic, high-change environment may not be “fun” as it is typically defined, but a sense of purpose can help turn stress into something positive. After all, human satisfaction and intrinsic gratification come from overcoming challenges, learning, improving, and striving for excellence. Contrast that to a job that is without stress but devoid of meaning.

Conclusion

Small and midsize companies often lack the development infrastructure of national or regional CPA firms and Fortune 500 companies due to resource constraints or an organizational culture that fails to emphasize learning, engagement, or purpose. But most of the ideas offered here are not costly or resource-intensive, and they can help create an engaged team of lifelong learners in finance, regardless of the broader organizational culture. 

There is another pair of obstacles to implementing these practices: inertia and cynicism. Introducing some of these ideas to foster trust, engagement, and learning may face some eye-rolling skepticism, suspicion, and resistance. But this, too, can be overcome. Says Logue: “All it takes is one leader to pick his or her head up and realize, we may be doing OK today, but it’s not sustainable. Only by building a team of engaged, lifelong learners can we reinvent ourselves for the coming finance transformation.” 

Are you that leader? I do not claim to have mastered these practices, and I write this in the spirit of aspiration. I hope it inspires you to do the same.  

1 “Your Finance Function Is Ready for Change, Are You?”, “The Future of the CFO,” and “PwC Perspective: Finance of the Future,” PwC white papers and presentations (2019).

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Bob Nelson, PhD, “How Learning & Development Impacts Employee Engagement,” Training Industry Inc. https://trainingindustry.com/blog/performance-management/how-learning-development-impacts-employee-engagement

5 Robert C. Pozen, “Managing Yourself: Extreme Productivity,” Harvard Business Review (May 2011). https://hbr.org/2011/05/managing-yourself-extreme-productivity

6 “The Mental Habits of Effective Leaders with Jennifer Garvey Berger,” The Knowledge Project podcast, episode 43 (Oct. 15, 2018).  www.learningleader.com

7 “Ian Leslie – The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It,” The Learning Leader Show with Ryan Hawk podcast, episode 323 (Aug. 11, 2019).  www.learningleader.com

8 Nelson, “How Learning & Development Impacts Employee Engagement.”

9 Siobhan Kukolic, “Are You Laying Bricks or Building a Cathedral?”, Huffington Post (Oct. 18, 2016 - updated Oct. 19, 2017). www.huffpost.com/entry/are-you-laying-bricks-or-_b_12387634

10 Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Portfolio, 2009. 

11 Elsbeth Johnson, “How Leaders Can Focus on the Big Picture,” Harvard Business Review (Nov. 9, 2016).

 


 

James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA, is CFO of Simplura Health Group in Yardley, and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at jcaruso@simplura.com.
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