You’ve Got a First-Rate Finance Department

The hallmarks of a great workplace for finance professionals aren't necessarily what you'd think.

1. Finance Department Employees Know What the Finance Department Does

“Why are we here?”

It’s a question for the ages, pondered by everyone from Martin Heidegger to Woody Allen. Existential crises aside, employees in world-class finance departments understand their roles. And they know that their roles aren’t limited to printing out Excel files.

The reality is, CFOs are no longer numbers cops. Likewise, their team members should have a “line mentality,” says Marge Johnsson, founder of finance consultancy The Johnsson Group. She believes finance staffers should know how the rows of data on their computer screens fit in with a company’s objectives.

Top-notch finance chiefs foster a service-oriented culture in their departments. In an earlier interview with CFO.com, Coach Inc. CFO Mike Devine said, “I’ve always built my finance teams on the theory that finance is a customer service organization, and our customers [include] senior management, the board of directors, and line management.” Added Devine: “I tried to breed that feeling of, ‘We are here to serve.’ ”

Ralph Packard, CFO of mutual-fund giant Vanguard Group, takes a similar approach. Packard says he plants the service seed as soon as a new employee starts work. To get a sense of where finance fits in at the company, each new finance staffer goes through a comprehensive orientation process for the finance group, in addition to the general corporate orientation.

In addition, Packard notes that advances in technology over the past five years have allowed finance employees to gain perspective. “Technology has removed a lot of the grunt work,” he says. “Before, they were recording transactions and keeping books, and they didn’t have time to think about what the numbers meant.”

Admittedly, the connection to larger company goals is not as obvious for some finance employees as others. It’s easy for a risk manager, for example, to see how her work is crucial to her employer’s business. But what about the payroll clerk?

That’s where the “why are we here?” question comes in. CFOs who preside over world-class finance departments shape the culture of finance to adopt a prevailing sense of mission. Some, like Packard, even draw up a mission statement for the finance organization.

Not surprisingly, Packard notes that work is more enjoyable for employees when they have a sense of purpose and an awareness that they contribute to greater goals.

2. Other Employees Know What the Finance Department Does

Finance workers may work in back offices, but they should get out a little, too.

Experts agree that employees across a company should see the finance department as a business partner. In fact, image is so important for a finance department that John Wilson, CEO of J. C. Wilson Associates, a San Francisco recruiting firm specializing in finance, scopes it out at the beginning of each CFO search. “If you were to ask other parts of the company what they think of the finance organization,” he often asks clients, “what would they say?”

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