To be effective in today’s challenging business environment requires a high-performance Finance team.  And that’s easier said than done in today’s very competitive hiring environment.

How do you find the right talent?  How do you retain them and get the highest performance out of a diverse work group?  Building that team was the topic of a recent panel discussion hosted by the NYC chapter of the CFO Leadership Council.  The moderator of the discussion was Seyda Pirinccioglu – SVP, CFO at a number of companies.

The panel included executives with experience building high-performance Finance teams.  This included Michael Facendola, CFO at Truveris, Anthony Graziano, Regional Managing Director at  Randstad, David Shanklin, Head of Culture Strategy at CultureIQ, and Chris Spade, CFO at Showtime Networks.  Here are some highlights from the discussion.

What Does a High-Performance Finance Team Look Like?

One panelist commented that it’s all about getting the best results.  That means having efficient Finance processes, effectively partnering with the business, and helping the company achieve its margin goals.  CFOs should always be thinking about what’s working vs. what’s not working – and making adjustments.

High-performance Finance varies depending on the stage or lifecycle of the company.  More mature organizations have more specialized functions, with specialists in each area.  Startups need utility players who can play multiple roles in Finance & Accounting – Accounts Payable, Financial Planning & Analysis, Financial Reporting, producing board packages, and other functions.

Strong leadership is a common trait in Finance organizations with highly engaged employees.  The leader must define clear goals, build and coach the team to achieve goals.  CFOs need to understand what drives the performance of various team members – e.g., pay, purpose, greater meaning, and potential.  And they need to be aware of detractors from high performance – e.g., economic, social, and inertia (doing things the same old way).  CFOs should talk to their people to understand what motivates them.

The Role of the Leader in Driving High Performance

The panelists recommended leading by example.  Working hard and taking on tough tasks are key to demonstrating leadership to the team.  With limited resources, it’s key to have people who can wear multiple hats.  CFOs shouldn’t just assign tasks.  They should explain why they’re asking for something.  They should tell their people it’s OK to question the status quo and should look for opportunities to improve Finance processes.

A high-performing Finance team can provide great value to the business.  It needs to be ingrained into the strategy and operations of the company.  Finance needs to show the business it can add value – it’s not just there to cut costs.  CFOs need to be team players, expect excellence, and have fun.  They should let team members know it’s not just a job.  It’s about moving forward in their career paths.  A good leader drives high performance by helping staff build the skills needed to get to the next level.

How to Drive a High-Performance Culture

One panelist commented that creating a high-performance culture really starts at the top with senior management and trickles down.  Leaders must have respect for people, their personal priorities, and their needs – before business priorities.  If there are problem managers in the business, leaders need to raise the red flags and address the issue.

During the interview process, leaders need to get team members involved in vetting candidates.  When building a team, CFOs should manage up the chain and filter information to their teams in a positive way.

Other panelists agreed that tone at the top is important.  CFOs need to lead and hire strong people to handle day-to-day tasks.  This is tough to achieve if tone at the top is not supportive.  All roads lead to Finance, so the function sets a good example for other groups.  If Finance isn’t getting the right resources and support, that sends a strong signal.

How to Get Companies to Invest in Finance

Like other functions, the CFO needs to fight to get the people.  This can be tough when the CFO is pressuring other groups to be efficient.  In order to grow the function, the CFO needs to demonstrate the value and also benchmark against other companies.  Prioritizing and identifying gaps in the organization are key.  CFOs need to demonstrate how Finance can take work off other teams to increase overall organizational effectiveness.

CFOs need to find out the reason behind headcount requests in Finance, then look for alternative ways to get the job done, if possible.  In smaller companies, CFOs need to right-size the organization for growth.  In a larger company, the need is to stay lean and mean, avoid layoffs.  CFOs should use an interview committee to assess candidates and be rigorous in the team interview process.

What Attributes to Look For in Hiring

The best approach is for CFOs to leverage their networks in recruiting.  Tools such as LinkedIn can be very useful.  CFOs should use recruiters for key positions as needed.  They should decide on the profile, personality fit they’re looking for in new hires, then provide a clear job description to their recruiters.  Auditors can also be a good source of talent.

The interview process is critical.  Managers need to check the boxes from a technical standpoint.  But it’s also critical to assess cultural fit.  It’s necessary to understand the key traits of candidates – passion, grit, learning, agility.  With younger applicants, managers should dig into their histories, such as activities and interests in high school, college.  This can show a lot about what motivates the candidate.

Biggest Challenges in Creating High Performance Finance Teams

The panelists highlighted several challenges here.  Overcoming resource constraints is a challenge, prioritizing projects constantly.  In a small, fast-growing company, the CFO and team may need to meet daily to revisit priorities, key areas of focus.

Finding talent is a key challenge.  Then retaining and developing people presents challenges as well.  CFOs need to ensure they have the training and resources needed to be successful.  This needs to be balanced with costs.  For business CFOs, managing time and having meaningful interactions with direct reports is critical.  CFOs need to keep 1-on-1 meeting commitments.

One panelist recommended making the company part of the extended Finance team.  This involves ensuring there’s clear communication with other business groups and instilling financial discipline.  This will make Finance more relevant and productive.

Focusing Finance Staff on Higher-Value Tasks

This was a great panel discussion with many great points make by the panelists and a number of insightful questions posed by the audience.  One topic that was not touched on is reducing the number of mundane tasks performed by the Finance team.  As anyone who has worked in Finance knows, many staff roles consist primarily of time-consuming, repetitive, manual tasks rather than providing the analysis and guidance that they have been trained to deliver and that the organization needs.

This mundane work, coupled with the high expectations placed on Finance professionals by the rest of the organization, can lead Finance employees to disengage from their work.  Having Finance systems in place that enable the organization to automate manual tasks and streamline key Finance processes can free up staff members to focus on value-added analysis and supporting decision-making.

To learn more about this topic, download our free white paper entitled “Holding On to Your Top Talent:  Why Infrastructure Is Key.”  Best of luck in building your high-performance Finance team!

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8 responses to “Building a High-Performance Finance Team”

  1. Jean Dane says:

    I love that John included that interviewing candidates not only for technical skill but a culture fit for your company is critical to a candidates long-term success. Whether the candidate is a right fit for your company is as important as if they have the right technical skills.

  2. Rick Odom says:

    As a mature organization, we are actually moving away from specialization and focused more on the “utility players who can play multiple roles.” This has allowed us to create a lean, more cost effective staff and set an example for the rest of the organization. Interesting article. Thanks, John.

  3. Brian says:

    Great article. I agree that having established processes within Finance is instrumental for success, as this will allow the team to spend more time analyzing and less time consolidating.

  4. Megan says:

    This is a great point – “CFOs need to find out the reason behind headcount requests in Finance, then look for alternative ways to get the job done, if possible. In smaller companies, CFOs need to right-size the organization for growth. In a larger company, the need is to stay lean and mean, avoid layoffs.”

  5. Derek Hazelwood says:

    I think the biggest challenges can come from the Finance department’s relationship with IT. Functions in finance across the board have grown to be more system-dependent than ever before. A good working relationship with IT is essential in getting almost every key initiative in Finance done effectively. Finance departments need to focus on hiring “dual-threat” employees that have skills working in different system environments. It can be difficult to foster a relationship with IT, but the first step to doing so is knowing what you are talking about! Great article.

  6. Kate says:

    Headcount seems to be a huge factor with most companies right now. How can we be most cost effective with the people we have? Hiring people that can wear multiple hats is a great start. If the entire finance team is talking we could alleviate a lot of pains we come across. And it will definitely help the cause of fighting for other departments to be more cost effective if they can see the finance team is doing the same.

  7. Janet Golla says:

    Article is true to life. Our biggest challenge is the repetitiveness of the work, which has really caused disengagement.

  8. Maureen says:

    Very well written article! I agree with you that, CFO shouldn’t just assign tasks. They should explain why they’re asking for something. They should tell their people it’s OK to question the status quo and should look for opportunities to improve Finance processes.

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