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Transcript for Episode 1 of the IXN Thought Leadership Podcast Series
Becoming a world-class CFO and Finance team: What it takes, why now, and who’s made it?
Donna Papacosta: Welcome to the Intellectual Xchange Network Thought Leadership podcast, sponsored by SAP. I’m Donna Papacosta, your host for this podcast.
The Intellectual Xchange Network or IXN is a thought leaders network, by invitation only. IXN members are a select group of professionals, who through their research, writing and relationships are subject matter experts in their fields. As members of the IXN they provide insights, share ideas and help their readers and listeners become better informed on how they and their companies can improve. They are not paid nor are they spokespersons for SAP.
In these conversations, you’ll meet some of the members of the IXN, who will share ideas we hope you’ll find innovative and thought provoking.
This episode of the IXN Thought Leadership Podcast series was recorded February 22, 2013. Today we’re talking about becoming a world-class CFO and Finance team: What it takes, why now, and who’s made it? Our guests are Samuel Dergel, Mary Driscoll and Frank Ciannella.
Samuel Dergel works with Stanton Chase International, and specializes in CFO executive search. He is known as “The CFO Expert” and is a blogger and social media leader on the topic of the chief financial officer. Samuel is currently writing a book for CFOs called Guide to CFO Success: Leadership Strategies for Corporate Financial Professionals, to be published by John Wiley & Sons in 2014.
Mary Driscoll is Senior Research Fellow at the American Productivity & Quality Center. APQC is a Houston-based nonprofit that provides expertise on business process benchmarking and best practices for improving organizational performance. Formerly a senior editor at CFOmagazine, Mary is the author of Cash Management: Corporate Strategies for Profit, published by John Wiley & Sons.
Frank Ciannella is a Director in the Global Analytics Center of Excellence at SAP. He is a Certified Public Accountant and has extensive experience in SAP core financial and costing solutions, as well as planning, consolidation and profitability and analysis solutions. Before coming to SAP he was a senior auditor at a public accounting firm.
Donna Papacosta: What inspired this discussion was a recent APQC survey, referred to in an Industry Week article entitled, “Finance: CFOs can become game-changers if given half a chance.” This, combined with Samuel’s post entitled, “CFO’s, can you afford not to have an excellent Finance function?” really merits a conversation with Mary and Samuel, as well as Frank from SAP, so we can explore this in more detail.
Let’s frame the discussion starting with this question: Based on your conversations with CFOs and Finance teams, what pressures are they facing today that could be preventing them from becoming a world-class department? Do you want to start with you, Mary?
Mary Driscoll: Sure. I think that’s a really interesting question because we’ve been studying for many years, what are the dynamics in Finance? To say that Finance has to become a better business partner may strike some as archaic. Certainly, I’ve been talking about that and writing about it for a long time, but in my research, what I find is that many organizations hit a wall on their way up the maturity curve.
When I look at our benchmarks and research, what strikes me is that easily 50% of companies are quite happy to tolerate their Finance operating costs that are two times or even three times more than necessary. Why is that? I think there’s been a long period of lack of willingness to invest in the people, processes and technology that would make Finance not only more efficient, but more effective. That’s really what business needs today; it needs Finance to help them be an analytical competitor.
Donna Papacosta: Samuel, I’m sure you have an opinion on this.
Samuel Dergel: I think that the CFOs need to think of themselves as the CEO of their group. They need to run their Finance group like a business, realizing that they have to do customer service internally and be profitable. Another way of looking at is be cost-effective. To do that, they have to think of themselves as a business, they have to have a strategy for their Finance group, and they have to have a plan. Without these things, they cannot be successful.
Donna Papacosta: Frank, what would you add to that?
Frank Ciannella: I’d like to add a couple of comments around the pressures that CFOs face and my conversations with them. A lot around continuing regulation, whether it’s their home country, other countries, or just some of the regulatory authorities that are put onto the Finance organization. In addition to the changing workforce and what the incoming workforce is expecting from just an analytic and systems capability, the CFO also has to be concerned with deglobalization. It’s not just competing in your home country, it’s about competing globally and understanding who your competitors are. It also extends to the war for talent.
Much to Sam’s point, the CFO needs to be the general manager of the organization as Finance is looked at as a strategic business adviser throughout. I’d say another pressure that the CFOs face is internal. There’s a lot of system inadequacy, so too much of Finance time is being spent on data collection and gathering, and just not enough on high value-add activities. And as Finance supports the organization in the growth mode, they just can’t scale, and have often mentioned to me that that’s one of their major concerns and pressures they feel; just how do they support that growth mode of the organization?
Samuel Dergel: Frank, how many of them have a plan? How many of them really think it through and take the time to work to improve it from a 50,000-foot level, as opposed to trying put out fires on a regular basis?
Frank Ciannella: That’s an excellent point. I’d say the majority of them do not have a plan or they have a plan that they just haven’t been able to execute on. That’s one of the things I like to talk to them about, is putting that plan in place and being very methodical about executing on that, because that’s the only way that Finance is going to help the organization pursue its growth opportunities.
Mary Driscoll: I have a comment on that too. In addition to a plan, I would argue that what really has to be in place is a strong and clear charter that ties the work of Finance to the enterprise mission. For instance, it’s easy to say, “We want to be a great Finance organization. We want to be really efficient and smart. We have metrics that show we’re doing more with less.” But what does that do for the organization? How is that helping the enterprise maximize return on capital? In the best-practice companies that I’ve had the pleasure of studying, it’s uncanny. You see that there’s a clear Finance charter and it includes language about the role of Finance in business decision support. These are not just mission statements that are hung on a wall and ignored; they are vital documents that inform the role of every single person in the organization.
Donna Papacosta: I think you’ve all done a really great job of painting the picture of the current state, so maybe we could move toward some of the contributing factors that can help to create this really effective Finance function. I know you can all touch on talent, skills, processes, best practices, systems, tools, all that. I don’t know who wants to start there.
Mary Driscoll: I’d say if there’s a lack of commitment from the top, you can just about forget about it, because in order to make any traction at all, there will have to be investments in process and people. Take for example, the process of financial reporting. It’s scary to see how many organizations are still reliant on manual data entry, spreadsheets, and have just not stepped up to the plate and said, “We’ve got to automate this process and put in some workflow technology to take the risk out of this.” Why that is, it baffles me, but you’ve got a lot of very talented Finance people using age-old techniques and tools. It just doesn’t make any sense, given the risks of error. Sam?
Samuel Dergel: People are a key component, but it requires, from my perspective, three: People, process, technology. These three components need to be able to work together. On the people side, having the talent that you need is very important. The challenge is, and you bring it up, Mary, that many people within the organization are using ways that aren’t effective anymore, but where does that come from? The CFO is a leader of the Finance organization. The CFO needs a handful of strong lieutenants across the board. If they want to be able to deliver value to the rest of the organization, at the executive level in Finance, it can’t just be about the continuous monthly, quarterly, year cycle; that’s part of it, but in terms of delivery. But it really needs to be addressed as to how do you actually get there? If you don’t have visionary Finance people that can’t see where it can go and they’re just used to doing it because that’s what was always done, the CFO’s going to suffer and the organization is going to suffer.
Mary Driscoll: Sam, that’s right. If I just may jump in here; take the example of planning, budgeting, and forecasting. In this day and age when businesses are moving at the speed of lightning, it baffles me to think that companies are still relying on an annual budget as a primary performance management tool. That just doesn’t make any sense when it’s clear that to be resilient, businesses have to respond to fast-moving market changes. Finance, in order to be part of the solution, has to be able to refresh its forecast and help the company navigate or get back on track when it’s fallen off track using driver-based planning and techniques of that sort.
Samuel Dergel: From my perspective, from a talent perspective, it really is a question of having the leaders making it work and not just accepting the way it’s always been. It takes effort and it takes time, but without the leadership getting in control of that, it will just continue in a vicious circle.
Frank Ciannella: I think that those are excellent points. I’ll even add something from a little bit different slant; maybe capitalize on what Mary mentioned. When I look at what can really help them become world class, I think of what capabilities do they have from a solution or systems and tools. What I find too many times is that what they have just isn’t easy to use; it’s not user friendly.
I think, if you look at from a Finance investment, it’s investing in capabilities that are very easy to use, very user friendly of course, easy to maintain, even from Finance. You don’t need to go back to an IT organization or elsewhere in the organization and wait for a month to get your capabilities met, because business is changing too fast. The ability to keep up with that, to go reforecast within a matter of hours or within the same day is critically important. So having these capabilities that are easy to use, very user friendly, very process-centric is really, really critical.
What I’m starting to see also is Finance organizations starting to gain much more interest in mobility; how can I enable my workforce, my Finance directors and VPs to work from anywhere at any time, having access to these systems and tools that make them most effective? I think of mobility capabilities, as well.
Donna Papacosta: We’re tackling a big subject here I understand, but I’m wondering if you can share some examples that you’ve seen where Finance teams are evolving to this more efficient status and overcoming some of the challenges that you’ve been describing.
Mary Driscoll: Donna, I’ve got a good example. I was speaking with a CFO the other day who is working with his counterparts in Marketing and Product Development, and doing what he called “layering business intelligence over financial forecasting.” What that means is working with people in Product Development to understand customer behaviors and preferences, and begin to connect the dots between customer shopping behaviors and purchasing behaviors. With that, translating that information, or layering that information, over financial performance forecasts to make revenue forecasts more precise and help the organization as a whole better allocate its marketing dollars, for example, its Product Development dollars.
Donna Papacosta: Samuel or Frank, can you think of an example that would help us to envision this future state?
Frank Ciannella: I would like to add: Whenever I talk to CFOs, one of the first things that comes up and how they’re able to transform their organization, because I work a lot on the financial transformation side, is they really have to have to have the foundation done and essentially running on itself, almost like a factory. What I mean by foundation, it’s the core processes that plant owns, it’s the transactional processing, the general ledger, it’s account reconciliation. Having those processes, those transaction-heavy processes, order to cash for example, having them run, be efficient, be very repeatable, very accurate; and the CFOs have been engaging their own, lately, have been wanting to take that. I’ve seen some of them take that and say, “OK, our next step is we want to then take our close process and shrink it down to as little time as possible.”
So I worked with a large chemical manufacturer in the Midwest that had acquired another company, had their core foundational processes working very well, and I was able to combine, consolidate, and close over 1,700 different legal entities in a matter of hours. They’re looking at it very methodical: Let me focus on my close and consolidation process. Then for this particular company, the next on the roadmap is how do I make my budgeting plan forecasting much more agile, and how do I react much more quickly to changing market conditions?
The examples I’m seeing is really a step. I think sometimes we get enamored with trying to do everything and swallow it all at one time, and it just becomes more of a mess than a true example of world-class Finance. Those are the examples I always like to inject in situations like this, because I think they really speak to the fact that, A, it’s not easy; this is hard stuff, but B, there is a path and customers are blazing that path forward.
Samuel Dergel: There’s recent example I have with a CFO that I work with who was planning to improve the Finance function across the board. My perspective is from a talent perspective, and the CFO asked me to ensure that the leadership and the team had the talent that they needed to be able to move forward. It’s more than just, are they there and are they good people? It’s, can they meet the plan? Do they have the knowledge, skills and abilities to be able to make it work? It comes from the top. When a CFO looks at their talent pool and knows what they have and what they don’t have, that can allow them to make some very effective changes and get them to a world-class state. It has to start somewhere.
Mary Driscoll: Sam, I would add to that that the soft skills are increasingly being underscored by CFOs that are truly committed to continuous process improvement. We did a survey last fall that basically proved that when CFOs make a genuine commitment to raising the so-called “soft skills” – negotiation skills, critical thinking skills, presentation skills. When a commitment is made to those things as well as the nitty-gritty aspects of finance and accounting, when those commitments are true, the people in Finance increasingly are considered to be reliable business partners by folks on the operating side. They’re taken more seriously.
Samuel Dergel: What I do find, and it’s unfortunate, but in many cases in the Finance group, the way that you move from junior, to manager, to director, to VP is by being technical. That’s great to start off. Some people can have the ability to gain those skills if they’re trained. They may not have had the opportunity to get those skills; some aren’t. Unfortunately, too many Finance functions have senior leadership that don’t have the ability to grow in critical soft skill areas. That’s certainly a challenge for the CFO who needs their leadership to step up.
Donna Papacosta: Right. Obviously, this is a situation where there are so many interconnected parts. I’m wondering if – we know that picking the right place to start is important in any kind of improvement initiative. Can each of you provide some advice briefly, as to what areas CFOs could focus on to improve their chances of success at this?
Mary Driscoll: What I do know is that the best-in-class Finance organizations that we find and document in case studies, 9 out of 10 times, you’ll hear them talk in terms of process methodology. You’ll hear them talk about Six Sigma, you’ll hear them talk about Kaizen, you’ll hear them talk about root cause analysis. It’s no coincidence that they get into the top-performance categories, whether it’s in cost efficiency or business partnering. It’s no coincidence that they also very much embrace that process excellence mindset.
Samuel Dergel: I agree that it’s a state of mind. If the CFO can get the Finance team to think about efficiency, effectiveness, customer service-oriented delivery, as Mary pointed out to me and I wrote on one of my blogs, efficient teams cost less. Spending money on talent ends up costing the CFO less. It’s proven, and it’s key. There has to be an effort to improve and make it work.
Frank Ciannella: Yes, Sam, I think you’re 100% right, both you and Mary. Mary, you were talking about the process side of it. Sam, you mentioned earlier, and I completely agree; it’s people, process and technology working together. So where do you start? I think, first off, the mindset is a given; the leadership and driving from the top down is absolutely a given. A lot of things that I advise CFOs on, and I think we all do: What do you have today that you think you can do better? Thinking from a process standpoint, how can you become more efficient, more effective? What are those process improvements? Where can you leverage technology to make your organization a better business partner? Then once you’ve captured those points, going back to the first question we had; what is that roadmap? What is that plan to then start looking at newer capabilities and how you’re going to drive Finance to become that world-class organization so that you routinely are reducing your days sales outstanding? You’re reducing the amount of time spent on your reporting packages every month.
It’s this transformational journey, really, that needs to be put in place. I think there’s very easy places to start, which is just looking at what you have today already and what you can improve upon without a large investment. Then of course, make those improvements, and then put a clear roadmap in place to march forward. Usually, that does take some investment and commitment, but in becoming world-class, that’s what it’s all about.
Donna Papacosta: Frank, that’s a great place to wrap this up, this conversation with you, Samuel, and Mary. I thank you so much for sharing your insights today. I think you’ve given people a lot to think about.
Mary Driscoll: This was fun. Thank you, Donna. Thanks ,everybody.
Samuel Dergel: Very much enjoyed it. Thank you.
Donna Papacosta: Thanks to our guests for today: Samuel Dergel, Mary Driscoll and Frank Ciannella. Until next time, this is Donna Papacosta for the IXN Thought Leadership Podcast Series. Be sure to look for the podcast on iTunes.
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