Digital transformation is disrupting company strategy and performance across industries, and with it the way internal organizations support a company’s growth agenda. While having a strong financial grounding is more essential than ever for finance professionals, it’s no longer enough.
The finance role today has morphed into something far more multi-dimensional, beyond reporting the numbers. As productivity benefits from automation technology increasingly converge with ubiquitous external and internal data, finance professionals are being asked to step out of their comfort zones to become not just statisticians but also strategic advisors and change agents.
As I think about what I look for in my finance team today, it’s a combination of the old and the new — a deep understanding of the internal workings of the business combined with a perspective on external factors, and a voice to deliver strategic insights on both.
I think of these skills as a collection of “super powers.” The good news is that, while innate to some, each of these super powers can be acquired through experience and learning.
Captain Strategy: Saves the Day with Perspective
In a 2016 Ernst & Young survey of 769 global CFOs, 57% of them cited “strategic risk management” as the top capability their finance organizations will demand five years from now.
I’d broaden that mandate to delivering growth and scale. Finance professionals with exposure and access to different parts of the business are increasingly being called upon to deliver strategic insights on how to run the business. There are several skill sets that make a good strategist, but chiefly, they need a well-rounded perspective.
I believe that getting the right educational training (I have degrees in accounting, marketing, and organizational behavior), and gaining exposure to different functions and experiences throughout your career, are key.
Within my own organization we have a rotation program for new college grads to expose them to different aspects of finance. We also encourage movement across other disciplines and geographies, and finance employees have moved into operational roles like sales operations or business operations.
Diversity in all its forms is table stakes in hiring decisions, in order to create well-rounded teams that can support our business growth.
Super Data: Sees the Trees for the Forest
There is so much data available today, it is both an opportunity and a challenge. A finance professional needs to understand and report available data, and most importantly, provide insights to help better run the business.
This means a quarterly review with sales, for example, is now less about reviewing the forecasts the sales team is bringing forward, and more about giving the finance perspective on the forecast — i.e., what are the probabilities of meeting goals or ranges of outcomes, based on historical data.
Finance professionals are wired to deal with numbers, so the skill set is not completely net new. The difference comes in parsing through all the ancillary data that’s available to the company to make more robust recommendations, versus drawing conclusions just from the available financial data.
It’s also about having a statistician’s mindset to financial and non-financial data and providing new, interesting insights that we didn’t have before. And it requires a greater level of comfort with technology, which on the one hand automates the reporting, but on the other hand still needs human judgment to evaluate.
The Storyteller: Builds Empathy and Gets Things Done
Creating insights gets the job only half-way done unless you are able to communicate them effectively. As my colleague Mala Sharma put it, “A great storyteller, whether it’s in finance, engineering, or legal, has a better chance of getting their ideas heard and acted on.”
Storytelling helps unravel the narrative behind an insight or idea in a way that’s understandable, transparent, and relatable to different audiences. It’s just as much about building trust and rapport as it is about being heard.
Learning public speaking, telling effective stories, and getting your messages across concisely are all things that I encourage everyone to practice as much as possible.
The Transformer: Is Able to Morph
The speed at which technology is transforming how businesses operate and deliver unique value to customers is astounding, and many companies are still playing catch-up.
Eighty-one percent of CFOs in the EY study cited offering the “opportunity in leading transformation projects” as a critical activity for producing the next generation of finance leaders. Being part of and, when possible, leading change are the most important skills that any professional can have.
Change, by its own nature, takes grit. It involves going against the flow, being agile and flexible, taking in feedback while staying focused, making calculated risks, and learning from failure without being discouraged by it.
I encourage all professionals to put themselves in situations where transformative change is happening. Test your “change IQ” and “change EQ” and develop these skills. When you see a business gap, see if you can create the change to solve it.
Today’s finance professionals need to go beyond their day jobs to accumulate their own “Justice League” of super powers — as strategic counselors, statisticians, storytellers, and change agents. Having strong fundamentals is the right start, which must be augmented by experience, training, and exposure to different roles, functions, and industries.
Mark Garrett has been executive vice president and CFO of Adobe Systems since 2007.