What Works: Building a Strong Finance Team

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

For most finance employees, the individual development profile (IDP) may be the most meaningful innovation. To create these IDPs, employees and managers together structure a one-page snapshot that expresses career advancement and planning in a way understandable by everyone at Kraft. “It’s an entire plan on a page,” explains Oster, the divisional finance vice president.

With 55 finance staffers reporting to him, Oster likes the way the IDP summarizes employees’ technical skills and leadership competencies for quick analysis during semiannual reviews. The profile is used as part of the finance department’s unusual “one over one” conference system. In the one over ones, held at least twice a year, employees meet directly with their bosses’ bosses, reducing the likelihood that a single immediate supervisor could misinterpret a staffer’s plans or block advancement.

But there’s more to it. In Oster’s case, excluding his direct reports and their staffs, 20 individuals jump a level to meet with him. “After the one over one, I can be a stronger advocate for these individuals,” he says, “and they feel that if there were any discomfort with their direct managers, they could be open with me.”

Ellen McDonough, finance director of the enhancers division, meets with Nicoletti himself, providing some insights into his leadership. “It’s of critical importance to Ralph that [the IDP and the one over one] become institutionalized, and that employees take a critical role in their own development,” she says. As for her own IDP, she adds, “I have total ownership for what it says, and I have every ability to modify it if that’s needed.” (The one over ones, Nicoletti says, may take another year to reach the entire finance department. He hopes that the IDPs will eventually be adopted outside finance.)

Using the IDPs and one over ones not only facilitates career advancement for finance staffers, says Nicoletti, a 23-year Kraft veteran, but also serves as “the foundation for succession planning.” Routinely, when jobs open up he uses a bench chart created at the end of the review process. “If I want to look at our next division controllers, I know who’s ready at any given moment,” he says.

The finance department also makes provisions for career interruptions. When Kathy McKenna, assistant controller for financial reporting and accounting, felt a need to cut back to part-time in 1997 (one of her children developed a serious illness) she convinced Kraft to start a “financial resources group.” Made up of formerly full-time, primarily management-level employees interested in internal consulting work, the current group of five now assigns staffers to work on such short-term efforts as a postmerger divestiture or a particularly tricky quarter-end close.

The work-elimination program, though, may be the clearest example of a workplace initiative touching the bottom line. Troubled by slow product introductions in recent years, Kraft had one team search for unnecessary steps in the finance procedures that support new products. “We moved up the target analysis earlier, and aligned the processes so more insight is brought in,” says the CFO. “Now we have much better agreement about new products that we’re going to launch at the beginning of the year. In the past, we’d be homing in on that, but it wouldn’t be agreed to until we finished our budgets.”

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