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Are you a scorekeeper or a business partner?


By Jack Hagel

The CFO of the future will be less tactical and more strategic, deeply versed in operational finance, and will maintain a keen focus on customers, shareholders, and employees. The finance chief will have worked in functions across the organisation, becoming a masterful manager of people and communicator of results and strategy to a range of audiences. And he or she will foster a team that will accept a lifetime of learning and application of skills.

Finance no longer is just about recording and reporting performance. It’s about partnering with the whole organisation to mitigate risks, drive strategy, and add value. The problem: The rising talent pool isn’t evolving fast enough for the new demands of the role.

About 68% of US CFOs said it was a challenge to find skilled candidates, according to a 2015 survey by staffing firm Robert Half, which polled 2,100 finance chiefs. Last year, 87% of UK CFOs said they faced challenges finding skilled talent.

So finance leaders must venture beyond the once-siloed scope of their department to become business partners critical to the success of the broader organisation.

That was the crux of a CGMA panel, “From Conformance to Performance: Developing the Finance Leaders of Tomorrow,” hosted Tuesday by Bloomberg Radio in New York.

“The technical skillsets that we have as financial professionals are not adequate anymore,” said Ash Noah, CPA, FCMA, CGMA, vice president–External Relations for Management Accounting at the American Institute of CPAs, who was one of the panellists. “So we need to go beyond that.”

Here are some key themes that emerged from the panel.

Master the basics, then build

Understanding the regulations and mastering technical knowledge is the price of admission for high-level finance jobs today. Finance professionals must take a wider view of the business if they are to lead in the future. They need to move from being a scorekeeper to being a business partner, panellists said.

Panellists encouraged cross-training, pursuing roles outside of the finance function, and examining the company through an operational lens. If that education can’t come through work experience, then academic and professional credentialing programmes can help introduce young finance professionals to the concepts.

“Employees who enjoy embracing challenges, that’s something that we look for,” said Linda Zukauckas, CPA, CGMA, executive vice president and corporate comptroller at American Express. “We also look for employees who are focused on building partnerships, continuously improving. … That technical aspect of it is a non-negotiable.”

She also encourages employees to closely follow the company and its competitors to develop a strong view of her industry’s landscape.

Industry knowledge and breadth of exposure across the organisation is critical; it develops relationships and perspective – and ultimately better employees, said Robert Falzon, CPA, the CFO of Prudential Financial.

“You want to understand what’s driving value beyond the balance sheet,” he said. “… Understand how the market looks at your company from a valuation standpoint, and that should help focus where you want to spend your time and where you want to learn and be better as an organisation and as an individual.”

Get out of your comfort zone

Falzon’s circuitous career path with Prudential – which included roles in investment banking, real estate investment management, and corporate finance before rising to CFO in 2013 – is proof that movement within an organisation helps develop well-rounded professionals.

Prudential’s finance employees – there are about 2,000 of them around the world – are developed through a variety of rotating job assignments and training programmes. The company wants flexible “financial athletes.”

“We try to intersect technical skills and those people and then leadership skills as well,” Falzon said. “Ultimately, you develop this group of professionals where they’ve got this broad base of experience in training, and as you’re looking to plug holes or fill opportunities, you’ve got this great pool.”

Be willing to take some career risks for the benefit of learning the broader business, he added. Don’t focus on promotions; focus on learning experiences. Falzon himself moved from a corner-office job to a cubicle job within Prudential knowing that in the long run, the education would benefit him. “From a career progression standpoint, it was a big step back,” he said. “But it was a whole new field for me.

“Sometimes you need to get in that elevator that goes down and then take it back up again.”

Zukauckas added: “People oftentimes want to stay in their comfort zone, and that may be the quickest path to promotions,” she said. “… And [when] you’re looking for people that you want to plug in because you know you can count on them to deliver, they’re more often than not the people who have the diverse skills who have taken some risks in their career, who have made lateral moves at the sacrifice of promotion to become a more well-rounded finance person.

Hone your soft skills

Soft skills – communication in particular – are critical if you want to advance, panellists said. 

“Technical expertise is highly valued,” Falzon said. “And those are the people who tend to get promoted. But that promotion requires a whole different skillset. … As you climb up that food chain, you rely less and less on your technical skills and more on your soft skills.”
 
The ability to communicate strategy to the lowest staff member as well as the highest-ranking board member is critical. “Boil it down in a way that you’re getting all the substance through in a way that is understandable,” he said. “There are brilliant people who talk about these really complex topics, and your head will spin as they go through it. Those aren’t the most brilliant people. The most brilliant people take those really complex topics and help you to understand it.”

Elizabeth Pittelkow, CPA/CITP, CGMA, director of accounting and compliance at logistics software company ArrowStream, touted the value of public speaking training. Early in her career, she recognised public speaking as a weakness. But she was in a role that required her to make presentations to management about controls and financials. “It was something I was very nervous about,” Pittelkow said. “I had to practise what I was going to say before meetings.”

So she joined a public speaking organisation and has continued with it for the past ten years. “It has given me more confidence,” she said. “And it’s something that set me apart from my colleagues.”

Develop data analysis skills now

A deep understanding of the relationship between financial analytics, risk analytics, and strategy is an important part of being able to grow value in any organisation. And as analytics spreads to new parts of any business, finance will play a bigger role in influencing decisions throughout the organisation. 

American Express is a case in point. The company relies heavily on data to determine what its customers want, where they want it, and how they want to make transactions. “It’s really critical to our business, and it gives us the insights that we need,” Zukauckas said.

“[Data analysis is] a core competency that we look for in all of our finance professionals – that aptitude and the ability to be able to analyse results, analyse business situations, and think about them not only from a go-to-market strategy perspective, but also ‘What do we need to be mindful of from a regulatory perspective?’ in the US and in many markets around the world,” she said. 

Make the connection between development and talent

Young finance professionals should take advantage of internal training at their organisations. And companies should devote resources to developing internal talent, panellists said. After all, development is an important retention tool for many employees. And the cost of replacing an employee can often exceed the cost of training and retaining existing employees.

“If you’re not in tune to the dependency on the talent of your organisation and the investment you need to make in them and the investment they need to make in themselves, I don’t think long term you have a sustainable business model,” Falzon said. “There needs to be that connection between the development and retention of talent and that way in which that translates into making you more sustainable in the marketplace.”

And it doesn’t always have to come at an enormous cost to the company. Mentoring and in-house courses may require planning time but not a lot of cash.

“You can get creative and find a way to do it that doesn’t require as much of an outlay of financial resources,” Zukauckas said. “But it’s a non-negotiable.”

Senior leadership needs to take responsibility for training if the company is not going to fund it, she said.

Pittelkow, the ArrowStream director, described an internal training programme through which an employee picks a class to teach and then develops a lesson around his or her own research. Pittelkow herself has taught courses on ethics and listening.

“It keeps our cost down,” she said. “… And it’s great because you teach about what you’re passionate for.”

Photo: Elizabeth Pittelkow, CPA/CITP, CGMA, director of accounting and compliance at ArrowStream Inc. (left), Linda Zukauckas, CPA, CGMA, corporate controller at American Express (center), and Robert Falzon, CPA, the CFO of Prudential Financial (right), discuss the transforming role of the finance professional Tuesday during a CGMA panel hosted by Bloomberg Radio in New York.

Jack Hagel (jhagel@aicpa.org) is a CGMA Magazine editorial director.