For public consumption, finance executives are happy to talk about what wonderful teams they have. In private, most are not very impressed with the talent at their disposal.
Finance managers rate few of their direct reports as effective in the behaviors and skills that drive excellent performance by the finance function, according to new research by CEB. And on average, finance workers are more skilled in the areas that have the least positive impact on value creation.
CEB, a subscription-based research and consulting organization with thousands of corporate clients, recently interviewed 673 finance managers at 78 global companies. The managers rated their direct reports – there were a total of 1,884 of them – on about 75 technical skills and 90 “soft” skills. The ratings were on a 1 to 7 scale, with seven equating to “very effective.” Researchers grouped all the skills and behaviors into five areas of competency particular to people it characterized as learners, doers, persuaders, strategists and builders.
Learner competencies include things like seeking feedback on performance, looking for opportunities to improve and willingness to change opinion. Doers have strong functional expertise, and they also take initiative, execute independently and break down problems into manageable tasks.
The skills that typify doers and learners may sound like important ones for finance professionals, and they are. But they are “table stakes,” says Kruti Bharucha, a CEB senior director who oversaw the research. “It’s not that they’re not important, but everyone in finance has to have functional expertise; that’s not negotiable.”
Given that perspective, the survey results are fairly remarkable. In the survey, managers assigned a six (“effective”) or seven rating for doer competencies to only 28 percent of their direct reports. Just 17 percent met that level when it came to learner competencies.
Still, ratings were even lower – much lower – for the other three competencies. A paltry 5 percent of those rated were considered “effective” persuaders, who articulate views clearly, simplify complex ideas, tailor communication styles as needed and challenge business assumptions. For “strategist” competencies – like strong understanding of business operations and emerging technology, as well as the ability to discuss financial performance in terms of key value drivers for the business – a mere 7 percent were rated effective.
Eleven percent were considered effective at builder competencies, which include creating vision, fostering buy-in, setting business-aligned goals for their teams, developing talent pools and challenging unethical behavior in others.
Overall, finance managers appear quite dissatisfied with the talent levels on their teams. Bharucha acknowledges as much. “We weren’t particularly surprised that the ratings were so low,” she says. In fact, she adds, one reason CEB did a report on talent is that when it conducted its annual interviews with CFOs last year, 85 percent said talent was a major concern.
“And it’s still a huge concern,” Bharucha says. “There is simply a shortage of finance talent available in the market. We hear it in every single conversation we have with CFOs. They feel they don’t have the right skills on their teams, especially at the middle-manager level. They feel many of those people are not building competencies that will set them up for effective decision support in the future. They are also not able to delegate effectively.”
Effective delegating is a capability many finance departments sorely need. “After the financial crisis, finance is overwhelmed with ad-hoc requests,” the report states.
But while finance-team members got the highest ratings for doing and learning, those capabilities were not judged to be difference-makers. Managers in high-performing finance teams – identified by answers to questions about things like feedback from business partners and how much influence finance has on business decisions – were asked which set of characteristics they considered the most important for driving finance-function effectiveness. The results: builders, 48 percent; strategists, 31 percent; persuaders, 18 percent; doers, 3 percent; and learners, 0 percent.
“Finance and its HR partners have become adept at recruiting accountants and [other] technical professionals who have learned how to apply new regulations quickly to financial statements and manage short-term variation in their careers,” says the report. “However, very few professionals have been taught the skills that will help them succeed in a more judgment-based role, which also requires advanced analytical and interpersonal skills.”
Judgment-based guidance is needed for strategic thinking about such key needs as business development, interpreting data and making recommendations about market share and pricing, the report notes.
In light of the research, CEB offered a series of recommendations for finance executives. Perhaps the most important relate to hiring. For one, finance should redesign hiring strategies around critical competencies and embed them into skill-development and performance-management protocols, the CEB says.
In addition, CEB recommends case-based interviews, where candidates are asked to solve problems related to hypothetical or real projects. The cases should be on topics unrelated to finance, which can reduce the influence of a candidate’s expertise and experience. That will lead to an evaluation of behavior strength, not just knowledge.
Case-based interviews also are good for assessing critical-thinking capabilities. Many companies, CEB says, do so using a standard set of behavioral-based interview questions and treat the assessment process as a tick-the-box exercise that adds little value to decision making. The best finance departments use case-based interviews to evaluate candidates on hard-to-teach and hard-to-observe competencies.
Other CEB recommendations:
- Invest in training on soft skills. Even among finance teams that see themselves as business partners, only 41 percent make such investments.
- Reward builder, strategist and persuader competencies. Most finance managers currently reward only doer and learner competencies.
- Fine-tune strategies for rotating finance staff among roles. Rotation is a powerful recruiting tool and a strong engagement driver for employees, but a general rotation of finance staff throughout the company does not lead to better performance. Only intra-department and international rotations have such impact.
- Tap sources of talent that may not be obvious. Doing so can generate 20% more candidate leads. Try looking at start-up firms, media firms, overseas graduates of U.S. colleges and management trainees.
- Coach your staff. Coaching consists of: highly structured, personalized guidance on professional growth; narrative-based advice using stories, analogies and tangible examples; helping staff expand their professional networks; identifying work challenges; and teaching new skills. Coaching is more effective than classroom training, mentoring or leadership-development programs.