Attention Deficit

How to balance important strategic projects with routine responsibilities.

Check In, Check Off

There are several tactics that can help keep both special projects and routine finance tasks on track simultaneously. Above all, the CFO should set the tone for finance employees who are plugging away on both kinds of work, letting them know that all of their contributions are valued and important. “I’m not directing them on a day-to-day basis, but they need to know I care deeply about the project,” says Samuel Strickland, CFO of Booz Allen Hamilton. Strickland oversaw the spin-off of the consultancy’s government business three years ago and managed its IPO, which was completed in November.

Abely of Abound Solar says various to-do lists keep his attention focused on his immediate tasks and prevent him from becoming overwhelmed by larger, looming goals. He consults a personal checklist nearly every day, and he keeps regular tabs on quarterly and annual plans for the company as well. Abely also has weekly status meetings with three key finance employees, including the controller. “You’ve got to set expectations for when things can get done and find out the critical items on the path to getting something completed,” he says.

Regular check-ins can serve both as morale boosters and as a form of peer pressure for employees working on a daunting project. In the case of Booz Allen’s IPO, the 23 key people involved in the project met twice a week and later twice a month. “Nobody wanted to go into the meetings not having accomplished what they said they were going to accomplish,” says Strickland.

One caveat: finance chiefs should think carefully before planning too many meetings. Status sessions can be helpful, to be sure, but they also take up valuable time that could be spent tackling important tasks. “People have a horrible habit of having meetings to have meetings,” says Leigh Stevens, senior product architect at consulting and training firm Franklin Covey. For effective group updates, Stevens suggests meeting at a regular, consistent time, and that each agenda item be assigned a limited discussion time.

Getting Help

For some projects, finance chiefs may need to apply their risk-management acumen to their own workloads. “It’s a constant question for CFOs to ask: Where is the biggest risk at this particular time and what resources do I have to address it?” says Catherine D’Amico, CFO of Monro Muffler Brake, an automotive-services company. “It’s not always easy to figure out.”

Last winter, D’Amico passed some of her daily responsibilities to her controller so that she could work on-site in New Hampshire while completing the purchase of a tire-store chain. Since the new business “lacked sophistication” in its finances, D’Amico felt compelled to review the numbers in person to confirm their veracity, and to ensure that the store’s employees — whose bonuses that year relied on those numbers — would feel confident in them as well.

CFOs say outside advisers, including management consultancies, accounting firms, and lawyers, can be crucial at such times, not only to help structure the stages of a large project but also to support and fill corporate staff positions while a pressing project consumes the CFO’s time. Small and midsize companies with limited financial resources can particularly benefit from outside assistance, which may include temporary finance expertise such as that offered by B2B CFO, Tatum, and others.

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