A common perception is that finance workers are enforcers. Even the job titles associated with finance impart a certain aura of severity — controller, chief auditor, etc. But short of bad press, no perception of finance is worse than indifference.
“Sometimes,” says Wilson, “the [client's] CEO will say, ‘I don’t think anyone notices the finance department.’ That, to me, is the worst condemnation.”
It also tips him off to the skills he should be looking for in candidates. A CFO he places will have to change a finance department’s image, which he says “is hard to do; it takes time. If a CFO can do that, it’s a tremendous achievement.” (Of course, some candidates simply aren’t cut out for the CFO’s job.)
The Working Council’s Roberts offers a quick test to gauge how a finance department is perceived by others. When finance works with another department, he says, do staffers in that department ask, “What have you done for me lately?” If you and your staff hear this question a lot, Roberts believes it could be a sign that your department is not viewed as a true business partner.
3. Non-Finance Employees Understand Finance Stuff
At companies with superior finance departments, employees don’t actually have to work in finance to understand the company’s financial performance. Indeed, world-class finance organizations serve as ambassadors of fiscal understanding throughout a company.
As Roberts puts it, finance should be “supplying the kind of financial thinking and tools that allow the enterprise to make the right business bets.”
Take the case of Active Network, a La Jolla, California-based online network for athletics enthusiasts. Active Network CFO Natalya Smith says she exchanges information between finance and business units by holding regular departmental, managerial, executive, and companywide meetings.
Among these get-togethers is a monthly operations meeting, in which senior managers and line managers review financial results of each business unit. The managers then relay the numbers and their significance to the company’s various departments, including sales and customer service. About every two months, all 60 Active employees convene to get the lowdown on company performance and bone up on company-wide issues, including finance.
According to Smith, the regimen of meetings allows her to disseminate financial knowledge to all employees — and gets them interested in crucial financial concepts. “It piques the curiosity of non-finance people,” she says. “You’ll have the head of IT asking, ‘what exactly is EBITDA?’ ”
And as our panel members point out, when line managers know what EBITDA is, they’re that much closer to knowing how to contribute to it.
4. Finance Employees Understand Non-Finance Stuff
There really is more to life than money.
In the best finance organizations, finance staffers know how the company operates — not just how the finance department operates.