Hard Times

Why finance executives are overworked and under stress.

J. David Higginbotham, assistant controller and Sarbox project manager for publicly held TiVo Inc., in Alviso, California, has seen that first hand. “Internal controls are viewed as a hindrance,” he says. “Especially in Silicon Valley, there’s a very entrepreneurial spirit. They just want to get out there and make the company grow. They don’t want people coming in and second-guessing if they did the right thing for the business.”

Promoter and Protector

When Bill Brand joined Orica, an international mining-services company based in Melbourne, Australia, the company was looking for great things from its North American division. Those expectations were far north of where the division was actually performing.

Brand, who joined as controller, was named finance director of both the North American and South American divisions after a year, responsible for more than $600 million in annual revenues. One of his first tasks was reducing companywide staff by 40 percent, but ironically, he was also charged with reducing turnover in finance.

To stem the tide, he took on a lot of the staff work himself, not wanting to scare off remaining staff. The result: Brand ended up working 70 hours a week, he gained 30 pounds, and his blood pressure skyrocketed. “I wasn’t spending any time with my wife and two children,” he says. “I took more on my shoulders than I probably should have to insulate my new employees.”

To most CFOs, doing the right thing for the business means leading by example. So it is not surprising that CFOs have led the cost-cutting charge of recent years by slashing their own staffs to the bone. Consequently, there is often not enough talent or experience left to get the job done right, which creates even more stress for the entire department.

“If you run your department without appropriate people, you’re always under stress. You’re always behind,” says Higginbotham. “And when you cut too much,” adds Brand, now practice director at Hudson Financial Solutions, a project-based finance outsourcing company, there is additional “pressure at the top.”

That pressure is compounded by guilt. Stress, after all, tends to roll downhill. And many CFOs believe that reduced staff and greater regulatory responsibilities are forcing staffers back into the traditional “bean-counter” role — the exact opposite of what they hoped to do. Consequently, when pressed, finance executives admit that much of their work overload stems from a desire to shelter junior staffers, who they fear will leave if the pressure gets too great.

“The biggest challenge for me,” says Nolan, “is to let people know that there is a path of progress in their own jobs. But with the pressure to keep the head count flat, how do you help people progress when they still have to handle the same stuff, year in and year out?”

As it turns out, many financial executives have proven fairly adept at reducing stress among their staffers — 60 percent, in fact, report that morale in their department is either mostly positive or very upbeat. And it’s mostly their own doing — 38 percent say their company is doing nothing to address the pressure on finance employees.

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