5 Secret Skills of Highly Effective Finance VPs

August 18, 2023 Theresa Rex

Finance vp catching up on the latest skills in the industry during her break

In today's rapidly evolving business landscape, the role of finance VPs and finance directors can look like any number of things. Taking on these roles means stepping into positions that carry multiple definitions: leaders, strategists and expert accountants — and much more, depending on the structure and specific goals of the company. CFOs and Controllers tend to get most of the focus in conversations about finance leadership, because those roles can be a serve as a useful shorthand for the dual functions — strategy and analysis, respectively — of finance and accounting in business. The finance VP tends to bridge that divide: they must have the accounting bona fides of controllers and the leadership skills of a CFO as they oversee internal operations in the accounting department.

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To do this effectively, VPs of finance need a diverse and evolving set of skills. It's one that's not always easy to pin down when so much of the finance leadership spotlight is ceded to their controller and CFO colleagues — ask any finance VP.

We've met many vice presidents of finance in the time that CFO Weekly has been on the air, at various stages of their career. Our frank conversations with our finance VP guests have yielded valuable insight as these guests lend a little visibility to the "secret skills" they've cultivated to be successful in the role.

Today, we're sharing them with you.

Strategic Vision: Big Picture Planning Doesn't Happen in a Spreadsheet

Where, in the past, success as a finance VP was a literal numbers game, today's VPs have to be more strategic to be effective in the role. For David Damond, SVP of Finance and CFO at SECU Maryland, that's meant being able to see past the story the spreadsheets had to tell about Red Cross. Even as an analyst, he saw an opportunity where others saw a lost cause, and ended up heading a division that generated over $2 billion in revenue:

“…Take risks. When I was in the Red Cross … people kept saying, 'Oh, they're not doing well. They're going to go out of business soon. Why would you want to be in that business?' We ended up propping it up, doing much better, and then selling it after about six years. It was a really great opportunity to help grow it, help turn it around. Then actually to be involved in something that was a merger and acquisition for another organization.”

David Damond, SVP & CFO March of Dimes — CFO Weekly Episode 89: Driving Financial Success in a Nonprofit World

Influential Communication: Get Out of the Silo to Get Things Done

You can be the world's best financial analyst, but without the right vocabulary and approach you won't be able to turn analyses into insights and insights into actions. Steve Arbough, SVP of Finance and CFO at SECU has found that the best way to ensure goals are met is to take them out of the black box and cultivate transparency on his team.

"We have ongoing all-employee meetings or WebExes right now to let everybody know what's going on around the organization. We're also very high on making sure that all of our employees understand the goals that we have, both the financial goals and the membership goals, and the member experience goals. Everybody in the organization is aware of all those goals, and everybody knows what their contribution is to maintaining the overall goals of the organization.”

Steve Arbaugh, SVP of Finance & CFO, SECU Maryland, — CFO Weekly Episode 112: Why Credit Unions Should Drive and Benefit Communities

Effective Networking: Build Relationships, Build the Secret Skills of a Finance VP

You don't need to know everything to be an effective finance VP, especially when you grow the roster of people you know. When Arbaugh needs a fresh perspective or to take his industry's pulse, he leverages the expertise of a community of his peers:

Bona Allen, SVP & CFO at Kajima, recommends building a network that expands beyond the finance industry, too:

"If you develop relationships with people outside of accounting or outside of your specific industry, then it opens your mind to think about new and different ways to do things. I think that's where we are. The world has changed and is constantly changing. It's up to us to say, 'How do we continue, and how do we be successful in this new world?' One is to treat everyone with respect, the people that provide you services or materials, including your employees because these days, people are coming and going at great rates.“

Bona Allen, SVP & CFO Kajima, CFO Weekly Episode 80: How to Manage Supply Chain Disruptions

Technological Acumen: Never Stop Learning to Leverage New Tools

The pace of technological progress can feel unrelenting, which can make it tough for finance VPs that must square the dizzying pace of the hype cycle with a directive to invest in technology that will optimize accounting systems. Joe Chevalier, VP of Finance & Operations at APS payroll, suggests that finance leaders have more tools at their disposal than they may initially give themselves credit for:

“A lot of these concepts are probably already familiar to finance people. If you use Excel, you're basically using a functional programming language built on top of a database. So, I think finance people are well positioned to understand these concepts. They just must be willing to make that leap and really dive into it. And then on the more skilled end, I think that finance professionals should be able to write basic scripts and things like Python, R, DAX, and SQL. And I think being able to do these things gives you kind of like a superpower to really automate the most boring parts of your job that don't add value.”

Joe Chevalier, VP of Finance & Operations at APS Payroll, CFO Weekly Episode 145: The Intersection of Finance and Technology: Staying Agile and Modernizing Your Finance Operations

Adaptability & Openness: Cultivate the Qualities of a Lifelong Learner

When things change as fast as finance does, it's crucial to be able to roll with the punches. Maintaining a sense of flexibility and cultivating an agile approach to implementing new changes and taking on new duties ensures that finance VPs can be effective — no matter what comes their way. Take it from Sarah Wells, the Senior VP of Finance and Accounting at Spruce Power, who says that adopting this approach made a huge positive impact on her own career development:

"There have been times when I've been tasked with something, asked to participate in a project or take on an additional role. Early in my career, if these extra projects or tasks were not more directly related to accounting, to the business of debits and credits and financial reporting, I would approach them somewhat a little annoyed. I was struggling to understand why this was important for me to be participating in this. Some of those opportunities were much more painful than others and hard. They were just hard projects and every single one of those, I have leveraged in some way since I left that project. Now when I'm asked to take on a project or dip my toe in a process that I don't fully understand, I find that I've shifted my attitude and embrace them, knowing that I now have statistical data in my own experience that says, "I don't know how, but some way, somehow this is going to benefit me in the future." It was a mind shift for me that really turned a point in my career.”

Sarah Wells, SVP of Finance & Accounting, Spruce Power, CFO Weekly Episode 88: Financing Renewable Energy

Finance VPs Need New Skills to Tackle Challenges Such as the CPA Shortage & Tech Transformation

executives looking at some New finance vp Skills on a presentation

Like other roles within the finance function, the VP of finance job is an evolving one. Where once a bachelor's degree in finance or accounting and a decent work ethic may have been enough to get the job done, a modern finance VP needs a diverse set soft skills, hard skills and technical skills to manage the day-to-day work of overseeing a company's finances.

Read More: The Difference Between Bookkeeping and Accounting (And Why it Matters)

Regulatory changes, new business dynamics and a spate of technological advancements have turned finance VPs into strategist as often as they are analysts, with roles and responsibilities that run the gamut from tax preparation to stakeholder engagement. The vice president of finance is as likely to work closely with top executives as corporate finance interns, making an universal job description for the role hard to nail down.

Instead, modern VPs, like modern chief financial officers and controllers need to cultivate a set of skills that positions them to tackle everything from accurate and timely financial statements to attracting qualified accounting talent to the teams they lead:

  • Financial Planning & Analysis: Assessing an organization's financial performance, developing budgets, forecasts, and strategic plans, and providing insights to support decision-making.

  • Budgeting: Creating a detailed plan for an organization's financial activities over a specific period, typically a fiscal year by estimating revenue, setting spending limits, and allocating resources to various departments or projects to achieve specific financial goals.

  • Forecasting: Using historical data, trends, and other relevant information to predict future financial outcomes to help organizations anticipate potential challenges, opportunities, and market trends, aiding in decision-making and strategic planning.

  • Reporting: The compilation and presentation of financial data, performance metrics, and other relevant information to stakeholders such as executives, investors, regulatory bodies, and internal teams.

  • Analytical Thinking: The ability to break down complex problems into smaller components, analyze data, identify patterns, draw conclusions, and make informed decisions based on evidence and logical reasoning.

  • Problem Solving: Identifying challenges, evaluating potential solutions, and implementing effective strategies to overcome obstacles and achieve desired outcomes. It requires critical thinking, creativity, and a systematic approach to finding solutions.

  • Communication: Clearly conveying financial data, analyses, and insights to both financial and non-financial stakeholders.

  • Leadership: Setting a vision, providing guidance, fostering collaboration, and driving results while embodying integrity and ethical behavior.

  • Strategic Planning: Defining an organization's long-term goals and objectives and determining the best approaches to achieve them by analyzing internal and external factors, making informed decisions, and allocating resources to align with the organization's vision and mission.

With so many new areas of expertise to cultivate, it should come as no surprise that many VPs wish there were more hours in the day. Ninety-two percent of the finance VPs that answered our Accounting Market Outlook survey said they wished they had more time for strategy. That's partly thanks, no doubt, to the hiring headaches they reported.

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Finance VPs were more likely than any other leadership cohort to say there was a present and worsening talent shortage in the field — 78 percent — and the most likely to report an urgent hiring need specifically for a staff accountant — 58 percent.

An Effective Finance VP: A Partner in Your Company's Growth

finance vp starting day by looking at partner dashboard

When it comes to the average standard workload of a modern VP of finance, skills and expertise once considered top-tier are now simply table stakes. That can make it tough to keep up, to say nothing of standing out. In today's finance and business landscape it's not enough to do more with less. The new directive is to do more with less and do it more efficiently, more effectively and more innovatively than ever before, while maintaining the highest standards of quality and customer satisfaction.

Having the right strategic partner can make all the difference. In finance leadership, that means finding an effective finance VP. And for the VPs themselves? Working with an outsourcing provider that specializes in accounting and finance can free up valuable time for into strategic initiatives and business-critical tasks.

Personiv is a global partner with a proven track record of helping finance leaders operate effectively within their ever-expanding roles. With teams that start as small as one and solutions built around your goals for growth, we can help you reinvest your time, skills and expertise into what matters most.

Whether your goals include transitioning toward a data-driven decision-making model in the accounting department, expanding your focus on ESG initiatives or talent development this year, Personiv can help you move the needle. Get in touch today to get started.

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