How can CFOs and finance leaders leverage new technology and top talent to grow their teams and keep a competitive edge?
That's the question that guided our most recent discussion in Dallas this week during this quarter's CFO Leadership Live event. Our panelists — Amy Alost, CFO of Integris Solutions and Joe Santos, VP of Finance at Thomson Reuters — dove right in with an insightful panel discussion on bringing the finance function in the future while building teams of top-notch talent to keep it running smoothly. If you couldn't join us for our quarterly finance leadership lunch and learn, here's what you missed:
'Technology' is a Not a Monolith
In finance, especially in how future teams will use technology is concerned, there's a tendency to place everything from automation and AI to data dashboards and cybersecurity into one big bucket — "tech". It's not inaccurate, but it can flatten several potential opportunities to be forward-looking into one big, seemingly insurmountable concept.
The rapid pace of development and CFO job creep tend to exacerbate the feeling of constant catch-up and getting bogged down by the sheer scope of it all.
When leaders talk tech, they tend to start with automation, and this one was no different. Alost and Santos' respective answers to how they decide what to automate served as another reminder there's no monolith when it comes to individual approaches to technology, either.
Alost says that it's a practical process that often involves having a conversation with her team. "If I see a lot of what I call 'stop, drop and roll' — where I see people stopping to do a lot of manual, repetitive work where they're pulling data out of multiple systems, massaging it until they can analyze the data and just losing a lot of time and productivity. There's going to be a lot of rework all day long, every single day. And they're not going to get to the valuable pieces, which is where we would rather see them spend their time."
For Santos, the process is much more systematic, thanks in large part to an organizational culture that codifies efficiency KPIs by embedding them operationally. "From a process perspective, there's three key questions that we ask when we evaluate our processes every year and the sequencing is very important. One: 'Does it have to be done?' Two: 'Does it have to be done by a human?' Three: 'Is there anyone out there doing it better?'"
Disparate Systems Don't Have to Derail Data Collection & Analysis
When it comes to data, there's never been more accessibility. There are countless tools for collecting, cleaning, analyzing it — but it doesn't always feel that way, says Santos. "We have two instances of SAP. We have Oracle. We have a host of point solutions and we have bespoke systems for our data and yet our managers' biggest complaint is, 'I can't get data fast enough'."
Managing multiple — even disparate systems isn't ideal, but they're a fact of life in finance, especially if, like Santos, you manage a business with underlying complexities. But, advises Santos, they don't need to derail strategy, "Understanding how the moving target is what the business needs and not necessarily within the technology stack can provide is part of acknowledging and getting in front of the data needs moving forward from a finance an accounting perspective."
Alost pointed out that finance teams and leaders are working with more kinds of data than ever before, too. "You're not just being asked about your finance and accounting data," she explained. "You're being asked about your operations data, your social media data even your cells data — all of it needs to come together seamlessly in informative reports."
For both leaders, having the right dashboarding tools to bridge the gaps disparate systems create is the key to success. "When it's on a platform, whether it's a piece of software or an excel spreadsheet, you can actually get a global view," Alost said, emphasizing that finding a team with the right skillset to both build the dashboard and maintain data security — especially when working on an external network — can be challenging but well worth it for leaders who need to drill down on data cut both financially and operationally.
Finance is Evolving Beyond ERPs — And That's a Good Thing for Future Teams
Both Alost and Santos acknowledged that, while ERPs were a gamechanger for finance when they were first introduced — and continue to be a great resource today — the dream of using one as an all-in-one, end-to-end solution isn't a realistic one anymore.
"People are always making things better," explained Alost. "We have these fabulous accounting systems and ERPs today, and yet there are still companies out there that are coming up with an AP add-on that's going to be able to give you so much more AI than a clunky ERP will be able to. So you're either going to have to cobble it together or bolt on another piece of software to a piece of ERP accounting software that you've already bought."
"It's such a good point," Santos agreed, adding that, "you don't want to be relying on one company to do everything. It's constantly changing and getting better, and you need to make sure you're staying on top of that."
"Whether it's robotic processes, blockchain technology or AI learning, there are a lot of changes coming at us as far as the technology we're using," Alost added. "It's always getting better. ERPs are just not keeping pace. They're not what they were. We've evolved, and we've moved on."
Accounting software isn't all that's evolved. Santos remembered a time that he saw technology very differently. "I used to think of it as a finite race with a beginning, middle and end. I thought Excel was on one side and ERP nirvana at the other," he confessed, drawing chuckles, "It's antiquated."
"A better framing is to think of it as an infinite race," he explained, "where you're managing a team of cyclists going around a track. If you're having every one of those cyclists run at full capacity to get to the front, that's just not tenable. So stressing out over getting all of your functions to run at the forefront doesn't make much sense, either. You need to have a view of which of your technologies needs to be at the forefront and which can run behind the curve."
At the Intersection of New Talent and Legacy Tech, Leaders Must Manage Expectations
A conversation about tech and talent in accounting wouldn't be complete without Gen Z, so Weis wondered what Alost and Santos were seeing as they welcomed the next generation of accounting professionals to their team — what did they make of "clunky" legacy tech?
"They're design natives," said Santos of Gen Z accounting professionals. "For them, a great deploy experience is normal, and they expect everything to operate as an Apple product would. So that's very challenging when the initial experience they're having are with these antiquated systems."
Alost, too, pointed out that because the finance function is notoriously slow to adopt new technologies, and that can frustrate young workers and future teams. "We're not so nimble. We're not always agile. Affecting a change as simple as switching from cutting paper checks to sending an ACH can take years because it's not as simple as picking up a new technology. There are established processes. There are teams of people. There's a lot of impact, and that means you have to be realistic in your time frame."
Managing Gen Z means that leaders will have to set expectations, Santos said. "You have to make sure that they understand that they'll be responsible for ushering in the changes they want to see. I'm the reason SAP looks the way it does, right? They need to be the reason why SAP won't even be around in 20 years."
"We could never have that experience," Alost agreed. "They're bringing that with them — it's their lived experience. They've interfaced with technology from the beginning. They've used it in school. They're expecting that." Expanding on Santos' advice to manage expectations, Alost suggests leaders be prepared to "slow them down a little bit."
"Get them to hit the pause button and think a little more. Encourage them to ask questions and then give them the answers so they can actually connect — not just to the technology but to the people that are using it alongside them."
Ultimately, Santos told Weis, "I think we over index on Gen Z as individuals being different from the generations that came before them." He went on to explain that getting a read on young workers is complicated by the vastly different circumstances of entering the workforce today when compared to decades ago. But, he acknowledged, "It feels very different."
For example, he joked, "When I was an intern at an iBank, I felt like I was barely qualified to be a human being. That was part of the discipline. Now, I'm sitting with folks that are the same age I was then and I'm meeting with them to ask them what they need and what I can do to make coming back to the office more attractive."
"They want to know why," Santos observed, noting that this focus on understanding the underlying purpose of their work differentiates them from employees who came into the workforce with a focus on jumping right in when directed to do so. Santos urges finance leaders to be open to fielding such questions because, "There's a return to be had on that investment."
To Find and Keep Talent, Leaders Are Rethinking Talent Altogether - Future Finance Teams
Finance's talent challenges go beyond managing digital natives in the future, as any finance leader of small or large teams can attest. When Weis asked how Alost and Santos were handling recruitment and retention in a post-covid talent crunch, Santos jumped right in.
"The Great Resignation pushed us to really rethink the difference between our talent engine and our talent pool," he said, going on to explain that, "When folks are being poached from your team, that's terrible for your talent pool, but it really validates your talent engine. I'd rather be in a position where I can't keep my talent because it's so top-notch, as opposed to a position where no one is poaching my talent, but I can't get the work done."
"That's very valid," Alost agreed. "You need to know what skill sets you need for whenever your people do get poached — because it's going to happen — you need to be able to know what skills you will need when you lose them. When were they hired? How many years ago? Maybe you have an opportunity to upskill."
"Just because people get poached," Alost reminded the audience, "doomsday is not imminent. Never waste a crisis. Maybe there's an opportunity in that for you to make some changes inside of the company that you may not have otherwise made."
Paying attention to what your employees need will go a long, long way in keeping your hard-won talent, Alost insists. "What are you doing in a day, in a month, in a year to retain your employees? How well do you know them? How well do you know what's going on in their lives outside of work?"
Once you've put the work in to understand your employees' needs, Alost says, it's time to get to work on supplying them with the benefits that actually, well, benefit them, whether it's employer-matched 529 plans or simple flexibility that enables a life outside of work.
"The better your company does in taking care of its people, the more loyalty you can expect from your team. That kind of care is appreciated, and it will pay dividends."
The Choice to Hire or Automate Accounting Work is Not a Binary One
Despite robust benefits packages and an infusion of young workers, there's no denying that finance leaders are still contending with gaps between organizational need and individual output. For some CFOs and finance leaders, that's meant automating work that they've hired people to do in the past. To round out the conversation, Weis asked both leaders how they decided which approach to take with what tasks.
"I'm not convinced that it's a trade-off," Santos answered. "I think it comes down to efficiency versus effectiveness. When it comes to efficiency, there's no question. At that end of the spectrum, where you have rote, high-volume activities, the questions you're asking are the same: 'Did we get paid? Did all of our transactions post?' In that case, technology wins the day. But at the other end of the spectrum, where the questions are always changing, or you're not even sure yet what the questions even are, that's the work that's always going to be talent focused."
When it comes to automation, Alost says, "The real questions are 'What problem will this solve? Why do we want this new piece of tech?' You have to go back to brass tacks and define the problem you want to solve and work from there. Maybe the new software doesn't reduce headcount, but it will mean you won't have to double up on it going forward, and implementing it means you'll make life more livable for your team by removing those stressors."
"It's about helping your most talented, most effective employees do their job better," Santos agreed. "It's all about enabling them."
Finding and striking the right balance between talent and technology when both are evolving at such a rapid pace is no easy feat. Leveraging the benefits of both is an even taller order, but creating and executing on a strategy that makes it possible is well worth the sweat equity — and ultimately, how you'll lead your finance team into the future.
Interested in attending our next event? Check our calendar to see where we're headed next quarter. In the meantime, browse our helpful resources for finance professionals looking to prepare themselves and their teams for the future, including even more thought leadership from finance experts with our award-winning CFO Weekly Podcast, also hosted by the moderator of CFO Leadership Live panel discussions, Megan Weis — VP & General Manager of FAO Services at Personiv.