As is true in many other professions, finance staffers climb the corporate ladder by excelling at skills that don’t exactly match what they’ll need when they reach the top. A case in point is talent management. Although this skill has value at rungs along the way, it becomes ever more crucial as the CFO’s desk comes into view.
Hiring and managing finance staff was the theme of a panel discussion at a recent conference for CFOs hosted by Argyle Executive Forum. Topics discussed by the panel, which included three finance chiefs, included the four “I’s” of talent management, the influence of the fluctuating economy on talent development, and how to cope with a new generation of workers that has far different expectations for career advancement than those of previous generations.
An edited version of the discussion follows.
Moderator Bruce Nolop, retired CFO: What are your overall philosophies for talent management?
Cliff Lange, CFO, Boston Mutual Life Insurance: I tell my junior people that they should treat every day as an interview for the rest of their career. It amazes me, at age 53, how many stories I still hear about things people said and did in business back in the 1970s or 1980s that stick with them for the rest of their career.
In hiring, I tell my team to satisfy the four “I’s.” In reverse order, the fourth “I” is intellectual skills. We all want to hire the best and brightest, but that’s just a starting place, similar to learning how to skate for a hockey player. The third “I” is intensity. I look for people with fire in their belly. At age 32, I saw a fellow come into the company I worked for then who was 52, and he had more energy than most people do at 22. I made a vow to never let myself be bored with work and to always find it exciting.
The second most important [“I”] is interpersonal skills. Everyone has met bright stars with sharp elbows who could be fired if they didn’t improve in that area. I hate to see talent wasted, so I really help people develop those skills. And the first “I” on the list is integrity. Someone could be very intense, hard working, and have great people skills, but if they’re not trusted they’ll ultimately hurt the business.
Carim Khouzami, CFO, Baltimore Gas and Electric: We constantly challenge younger employees by rotating them around to new positions, often pushing them outside their comfort zone. We take accountants and put them in investor relations. We take tax professionals and put them in treasury. Such nontraditional paths ultimately result in well-rounded employees with opportunity and experiences that keep them excited about work.
Mark LeClair, senior vice president, Volt Consulting Group: My talent-management strategy is about investing a significant amount of time to determine what you need from a skill-set perspective. A lot of people have knee-jerk reactions to a gaping hole in their team or look to replace the skills lost when a position turns over. They’re not focusing on exactly what they would want that person to do from a long-term perspective.
Nolop: What are you doing differently in talent development as a result of the economic environment?
Frank Boykin, CFO, Mohawk Industries: People are working harder, and there are certainly those who are concerned about the future. So we’ve put more focus on communicating. The more they hear about what’s going on, whether it’s good or bad, helps the organization. Within the finance group, we’ve started quarterly town-hall conference calls with group members across the world.
Lange: Whenever there’s change, there’s a predictable curve that people fall on. And there are four buckets on that curve. You’re either an innovator, an early adopter, a late adopter, or a resister. I say to my team that no one can tell you which one to be. You actually get to choose. And here are the kind of opportunities available for innovators and early adopters, while late adopters and resisters can end up hurting not only the company but [also] their own career prospects.
People are naturally inclined in tough times to focus on the short-term threat. As leaders, we can instead help them look at the long-term vision and give them something to hope for.
Nolop: To what extent are decisions on your organizational structure influenced by your talent-management objectives?
Khouzami: Everyone talks about succession planning and having one or two people who could come in the next day and potentially replace you or people on your team. But say I have a manager who’s very good and probably ready to be a director. If I just make him a director, I have two directors where I really need a manager and a director. The result of that is you get very top-heavy. And if you start filling in the bottom, before long you have a fat organization again.
To keep key people in the organization and engaged, you have to move them around to the different areas of finance, and even potentially outside of finance, like operations or the front office.
LeClair: A lot of people make the mistake of trying to normalize job descriptions, compensation skills, or titles on a peer-to-peer basis, as opposed to doing more customization for the individual to allow for a certain level of creativity, to allow for a uniqueness as the roles change. Spending a lot of time trying to make neighbors consistent with one another is not always the right strategy.
Boykin: Career progression and succession are a key focal point for our finance organization right now. But it’s not my job to develop an individual career path for any particular person. It is my job to make sure we’ve adequately explained the opportunities, made them available to people, and ensured that they understood where they could go and what they needed to do to succeed.
One of my divisional CFOs, who is very talented, became vice president of sales. You don’t often see that. Another person, who was in charge of financial planning and analysis, moved into operations and is now running two large plants. I think that’s great public relations for finance.
Nolop: We all know that a lateral move may be the best way for someone to get more well-rounded. It’s their best career move. On the other hand, the new generation wants instant gratification. They want to be promoted. And as the job market gets better, there will be more competition from companies offering them promotions. How are you addressing the problem?
Lange: People won’t leave — even for better pay or a higher title — if you let them use their strengths so that they shine, and give them a pass on weaknesses that aren’t holding them back, instead of trying to force them to be better at something they weren’t created to do.
Sometimes we forget how much influence we can have on someone with a simple handwritten thank-you. I still have such a note that was written to me 30 years ago. You don’t throw those things away.
LeClair: If you have three or four layers between you and your field staff or transactional people, you really need visibility into how your direct reports are managing them. Make sure they are mimicking your standards and expectations. The newer generations aren’t keen on micromanagement. They’re focused on having a certain level of creativity and bandwidth to move around and ebb and flow with the next opportunity and issue.
Nolop: As Cliff Lange mentioned earlier, interpersonal relationships are as important as technical and analytical skills, or more so. How do you develop those soft skills?
Boykin: For many CFOs, it’s not in our DNA, and we have to work hard at it. At my organization, we assign mentors to the high performers and high potentials to work with them to develop those skills. We’ve also used professional coaching in a few cases, which at the price, $25,000 or $30,000, is a significant investment in someone.
Khouzami: I try to bring junior-level folks to as many meetings as I can. They’re going to look around the room at people who have been successful and see their mannerisms and the way they conduct themselves.
Audience question: A company that I worked at for 20 years religiously used a behavioral tool during the interview process. Over many years [the tool] provided a very unbiased view of how well certain people will fit into certain roles. What do you think about that?
Khouzami: We use those kinds of tools — but they’re just that, tools. They don’t have the final say.
LeClair: We don’t use behavioral assessments. To see how candidates are in front of other people, I like to put them into different situations, like a meal, a group setting, and a one-on-one setting, and using intuition to get a feel for their behavioral attributes. Also, for an assessment of their technical skills, give them a sample piece of work to do. There are people who have excellent résumés but are terrible performers, and people with terrible résumés who are wonderful performers.
Lange: I’ve found four questions that give me deep insights into people. They are, one: What do you want people to say about you at your retirement dinner? Two: Tell me about a time where you overcame adversity. Three: What techniques do you find most effective for communicating with someone who is abrasive and hard to work with? And four: Tell me about a time when you kept your integrity even though it hurt.