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Neil Amato: Welcome to the FM magazine podcast. This is senior editor Neil Amato. This episode is a special one. I’m talking to two colleagues, Alexis See Tho on the Magazines and Newsletters team and Barry Payne, the director of external relations for management accounting at the Association. We’re going to discuss a series in FM magazine that concluded online in mid-July and will be capped off with a print article in September. The series is the second set of finance leader Q&As in FM this year. Alexis, you’ve been one of the leaders of this effort, tell me some about the first series we ran and then how the topic was determined for the second series, the summer series.
Alexis See Tho: All right, so the first series, A year of evolution: CFOs on 2021 really focused on two things. What CFOs did at the outset of the pandemic last year in March and how were they helping their organisations stay afloat if there was a cash crunch or in rebuilding revenue streams to pre-COVID levels, if revenue and profits had been impacted. So we wanted to give readers, those working in accounting and finance, a sense of what their peers were doing globally and get ideas of what they can do for their own organisations. And for this current series here on skills, how did we get to the topic skills? Our team of editors got together and then brainstormed and decided that now that the pandemic has gone on for about a year, fires have been put out, people have gotten used to working from home, engaging with internal stakeholders, clients, suppliers virtually, do we go back to pre-COVID days?
Last year, AICPA & CIMA did a survey, and 54% of AICPA members and 48% of CIMA members said working from home will be a permanent aspect of work in the future. So, and even without COVID, we’ve heard of changes in the business environment because of digitalisation and that will lead to greater automation, AI. So the question that we really wanted to answer is how different will the role of an accountant and finance person be in the coming years?
Amato: So what would you say are one or two highlights from the series? From either those you have personally edited or those from other senior editors and freelance writers?
See Tho: Yeah, so our questions covered both what the finance leaders, the CFOs, the finance directors saw as the skillset finance leaders needed and we also asked what sort of skills do those who are just coming in into the profession need, what sort of skills. And we see a difference. Those who are already in the profession for ten, 20 years in their careers, they mostly focused on soft skills. They talked about how important it is to learn how to communicate well. It’s not just about presenting numbers but giving a story to the numbers. A CEO or somebody in a board wouldn’t have the time to, or the understanding of, the finance numbers to sit through, I don’t know, really technical explanations of what the finance team does.
But what they want to know is what does this number mean to the business? So a few of our members, Paul Gyles and Jesmin Ehsan in the Philippines mentioned this aspect of communication to senior executives and how to influence the decision-making process.
Amato: And, Barry, you’re in touch with many finance leaders in your role, and specifically, two of the people featured in this series, James Miln from Yelp and Darren Snellgrove from Johnson & Johnson. How in your mind are these leaders approaching some of the talent issues they face?
Barry Payne: Well, Neil, if you roll back a year, talent might not have been the highest thing, as you said, Alexis, on the minds of CFOs. But you look at our recent Economic Outlook Survey, and the availability of skilled personnel is actually the number one priority. And I think both Darren and James are looking at talent in slightly different and diverse ways. I think the role of the finance professional is morphing to not only include absolute excellence and mastery of the basics of accounting but also really engendering and having what I would call a digital mindset or being digital. So that’s really to understand the technology available to you and how you as a finance and business professional can leverage it. And we call those the deep skills.
Layered onto that are broad, boundary-crossing skills that I believe that James and Darren are really looking for now. the ability to integrate and assimilate information across different areas. The ability to your point, Alexis, to go into a virtual meeting or, hopefully a face to face, and to be able to create a story around the numbers, really understand your counterpart’s point of view and where they’re coming from and really help them work through that process. Along with always being the case, Neil, is understanding that business and really understanding the viewpoint that the customers and bringing that into play.
But I think one of the things that James and Darren really did hit on is the power of data. The power of data flows, understanding disparate amounts of data, working with patterns, but not for saving a true genuine data scientist but helping cross the divide between the data and the business outcomes and the insights.
Amato: Barry, what other discussions are you having with this finance leader group that I guess James and Darren are a part of? Tell me more about the group and what it’s thinking.
Payne: Yeah, it was exciting because along with my colleague Tom Hood, we created quite recently a Future of Finance Leadership Advisory Group. It’s made up currently of around 20 to 25 CFOs, controllers, SVPs from a whole range of really, really cool companies. And when we initially met, the conversation as you would expect was really dominated by, well, what’s the next step in the pandemic and how can finance help? And a lot of our CFOs had working models, returning to the office, hybrid working, at the forefront of their minds. A lot of CFOs are involved in and are responsible for real estate and some of those things. So that was really, really big on their minds.
The other two is really how truncated digital transformation has become. And what was revealed in those discussions, pretty much like a report that we produced last year with KPMG, was there was so much of a focus on really leveraging digital, we really need to think a little bit more deeply about how we bring our skills and our mindsets together to be able to leverage and make the best of that technology. So they talked about the role of upskilling and mindset and being digital. And also finally, Neil, this concept of the role stretch. And what the role stretch means is that absolutely we need to be a steward to our business, we need to keep the books clean, we need to report accurately. But how can we do that and how can we leverage automation and all the other things that we have in order to free up time and capacity for individuals in the finance organisation to create insight and effect and anticipate decisions down the road. And how do we do with that role stretch? And that’s a really, really big theme that the group is working through.
Amato: Great, thank you for that. I want you two to respond to something James Miln said in my interview with him. The clip is related to career, and we’re going to play that clip now.
James Miln: Very importantly is, and what finance often can bring, is an understanding of the bigger picture and the linkage to strategy. And I think you do that best when you also are very curious, you’re very intellectually curious about how the world works, how the organisation you’re going to be part of plays a role in that. And almost like how then you can add the most value and get the most value out of the opportunity you’re in. So for me, it’s like you always have the accounting, but it’s that digital side of the accounting integrated into business operations today that — and the digital skills associated with that which can be very micro. But you need to be able to take a much bigger — if you want to stand out, you’ve got to be that person who can connect the dots and see the bigger picture.
Amato: Alexis, first if you could respond to that and then Barry.
See Tho: I think what James said makes perfect sense, especially for a business such as Yelp, that has to do with big data, having new reviews entered into their app every second or every millisecond from users globally. So I think — and that’s nonfinancial data, but it’s data that is extremely valuable to help the business understand its customer, improve its business. So I think his advice for those who are coming in that understanding data, manipulate, and analyse it, and come up with insights, I think that’s a key skill that finance has to take up. And I think a lot of finance teams have already taken this up.
It’s no longer just about financial data, it is also nonfinancial data and with what Barry mentioned earlier with more digital transformation that’s happening. A business model that is digital does not mean that all my processes or all my data, they have become digital instead of analog or paperless or processes are automated. It’s more than that. It’s knowing how to use these data that’s coming into the business, financial data, and nonfinancial data and using them to create value.
Payne: Yeah, what stood out for me, Neil, was his notion of being comfortable navigating the complexity of the data that you’re working with whilst understanding the bigger picture. And James put it amazingly well, joining the dots. Yeah, I think what Yelp does incredibly well is that data manipulation and data visualisation is excellent. But in order to take it one step further, it’s really challenging the finance group to understand the ultimate customer and how data interacts and interrelates with each other and going out there and speaking to people in the business.
I think it’s coupled by the fact that James said in the article as well that what they’ve done, him and his CFO, they’ve created a clear vision for the role of finance, how they add value to the business. And something I know that James is particularly proud of is that they’ve actually used the CGMA Competency Framework as a framework to be able to make decisions around individual development plans. So whilst this complexity, bigger picture, might seem daunting, maybe now to chunk it down and help individual associates work through how they can develop to get better in that area.
Amato: Again, the article on James Miln and the others in the series, which concludes in mid-July, it has a dedicated page on fm-magazine.com. And for the listeners of this episode, we’ve created an easy-to-remember tiny URL, it is tinyurl.com/CFOskills2021. Barry, Alexis, thank you so much for being on to share more on this topic.
See Tho: Thanks for having me.
Payne: You’re welcome, Neil. Take care, everyone.