What Works: Building a Strong Finance Team

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

CFO visitations were just the first shots of the revolution at CNA. Next came targeting worker mobility, which Deutsch did with an emphasis on lateral moves. Encouraging job rotation “was a matter of making it a priority, and part of every manager’s job,” says Deutsch.

Increased mobility didn’t come without resistance from some individual managers and employees. Maggie Westdale, who had risen in CNA’s mergers-and-acquisitions area from analyst to department head, for example, ran into a roadblock when she sought a transfer. “I wanted to round out my skill set, but there was some desire not to let my skill set go,” says Westdale, now senior finance officer for property/casualty. That past frustration brings a laugh now, as she recalls Deutsch’s emphasis on mobility suddenly opening things up for her. “When you’re really good at something,” she says, “people have a hard time seeing how you can translate that into something different.”

The mobility project was especially strong in internal audit. “We had 45 percent of my officer team rotate out last year from audit into the operating area,” says Bill MacDonald, senior vice president and director of internal audit, who likes audit acting as a “feeder” area spreading its expertise throughout the company.

Such career development is not purely a 9-to-5 proposition. Deutsch, in fact, encourages flexible employee hours and work arrangements, and makes no apology for his own out-of-the-office schedule, which lets him spend 20 to 30 percent of his time at his Farmington, Connecticut, home office. “The fact is that I’m available,” he says, “and my assistant is phenomenal at finding me any time, any place.”

Victor Hugo Celis, a recent University of Illinois–Chicago graduate hired in a special CNA rotational accounting program for high-potential recruits, found himself matching his schedule to his customers’ hours in his eight-month corporate-accounting stint. “During a two-week time block, for 9 of the 10 days I would work 45 minutes additional, and then I’d be off the 10th day,” he says. “It was great.”

Despite CNA’s higher mobility, concerns from employees about limited promotion opportunities did come up in the Best Workplaces benchmarking report. It’s a situation caused by the reduction in the number of job classifications, which Deutsch says he is seeking to improve. Another criticism was that not enough time is spent with orientation of new finance staffers. “We hear that these are issues, and we’ll address them,” says the CFO, who has also built departmental identity with an “employee communication team” that gives him unfiltered feedback from the rank-and-file.

Progress since 1999 has been astounding, though, says Westdale. “We have gone from a stodgy old-boy insurance company — with people in positions for long periods of time simply because they’d been in positions for long periods of time — to a company that is really based on recognition and rewards. That has really given morale a good boost.”

Kraft: “A Plan on a Page”

Kraft North America takes pride in the work-elimination-team approach that helped shorten its monthly divisional reports. But there’s only so much one initiative can do in an organization with 1,800 finance staffers. (The unit’s total employment represents 60 percent of Kraft Foods Inc.) And in Ralph Nicoletti’s 18 months as CFO, the teams have been just one element in a drive encompassing career planning, recruiting, training, mentoring, work life, and networking.

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