What Works: Building a Strong Finance Team

How do you build a strong finance department? Motivate, stimulate, and innovate.

This is especially true since the economy is dictating fewer new hires, and getting more out of current employees. The result, says AFP president and CEO Jim Kaitz, is that “the focus of the finance department has shifted from a recruiting to a retention mode.”

Indeed, retaining finance talent emerged as an overriding theme in the Best Workplaces program, which ranked companies in five specific areas through questionnaires, employee surveys, and executive interviews. Kraft North America led other companies in two areas: innovation and personal and professional development. Vanguard was specifically cited for achievement in work-life quality. The FedEx Express unit of Memphis-based FedEx Corp. demonstrated sophisticated use of technology and tools, and Metropolitan Mortgage & Securities Co., of Spokane, Washington, was recognized for employee job satisfaction.

This year’s benchmarking started before the latest wave of accounting scandals broke. But those scandals promise to affect the program going forward. Next year, Hackett managing director Richard T. Roth says, questionnaires will cover “more ethical issues, as they pertain to recruiting, performance reviews, and training.”

Observes Kaitz: “You can’t minimize the impact of the accounting scandals,” but you can’t paint the accounting profession with a single brushstroke, either. The top workplaces “represent the best of finance, and we need to reassure ourselves that such companies are out there.”

CNA Financial: Stodgy No More

When CFO Robert Deutsch arrived at $13.2 billion CNA Financial in 1999, he immediately hit rough waters. Morale in the finance department was abysmal. An internal survey had revealed that the 900-person department considered itself “at the tail end of the whole company,” he says. In focus groups, says Pam Thomas, now head of human resources for finance, “we heard things like, ‘Management is a figment of my imagination’ and ‘Nobody cares what I have to say.’”

The new CFO’s plans to reform the work environment were complicated by the soft insurance market and CNA’s related financial turmoil. In response, CNA laid off about 10 percent of its 16,600-person workforce, reducing the number of finance jobs to 800. In addition, it restructured, eliminating redundant positions and flattening the hierarchy. The result: fewer advancement opportunities among remaining staffers — a challenge for a finance chief eager to correct low worker morale.

Deutsch’s previous work in specialty-insurance shops had taught him the importance of acting quickly to improve attitudes and efficiency. In that entrepreneurial world, he says, finance can be “as easy to turn as a speedboat, rather than the huge steamship that CNA represented.” With nothing to lose, he decided to apply the speedboat approach.

One of his first steps was to move closer, literally, to finance staffers, working in various vacant cubicles around the finance department. “It astounded people at first,” says Thomas. “He’d sit down at a desk next to them, plug in his computer, and start working.” Explains Deutsch: “My predecessor was a hell of a nice guy, but he stayed up on the 40th floor. And that’s the last place you want to be if you’re going to understand the company and get anything done among the finance teams.”


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