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Maximise opportunities through resilience

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As key players in the finance department are increasingly pulled in different directions, Wassia Kamon discusses with Neil Cutting the need for resilience to help the team sail through the uncertain conditions ahead. 

25th Oct 2023
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 The word ‘resilience’ had been bandied about a lot since the Covid pandemic. While the overuse of the term may have drifted into cliche at times, the true meaning of resilience has never been more important for busy finance departments. 

Whether it’s from facing pressure from the ongoing talent squeeze to dealing with the sense of isolation from remote working or losing far too much of the working week to internal meetings, finance teams increasingly need to navigate challenges without the key players in the organisation or a slimmed-down team. 

Wassia Kamon

Wassia Kamon (pictured left), a US-based certified public accountant (CPA) who was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal, likens the importance of instilling resilience in a finance department to being on a boat, and empowering the team to sail through the uncertain conditions ahead, whether the captain is onboard or not. 

Catalyst for change

Kamon said the pressure on finance teams has intensified due to talent acquisition difficulties. This has placed pressure on the remaining members of the team, who end up taking on more responsibilities that they’re not used to. 

A scourge of this extra work is meetings. In the aftermath of the pandemic, meetings have multiplied, and time-strapped finance team members have become ever more sucked into them.

Kamon pointed to research recently published in the Harvard Business Review, which highlighted that only 11% of meetings are truly productive, yet CEOs tend to spend 74% of their time in them. 

“Imagine the pressure this puts on the finance team,” said Kamon. “We already have finance teams under talent pressures but there is an expectation that finance has to be present in these meetings – but when do we do the work?”

This also creates a dependency on certain people. The good people are the ones who are willing to put their hand up to things and, while they increase their knowledge, things then spiral and they get asked to do the next thing and the next thing. 

There is an expectation that finance have to be present in these meetings – but when do we do the work?

But then other people in the department are impacted because they’re not getting extra experience and they’re not developing. This all affects employee retention. So before focusing on any digital transformation projects, Kamon advocated that organisations think about their people first. “We have all these great visions of digital transformation and moving forward. But we need people for that.” 

Assess the gaps

To transform the impact of this on the finance department, the first step is to create a vision.

Kamon described the desired state as one where we have developed the entire team with core skills that have been identified as being key to the finance organisation. 

“This means we are no longer relying on one person to know the best way of performing strategic analysis for the business leadership,” she said. Instead, we have developed a team that’s able to step in whenever and wherever there is a need to because they’re flexible enough. 

The result of developing skill sets is a high-functioning team and an increase in productivity. “We have better business partners for the business and we are able to serve our internal customers because we are able to deliver better insights,” added Kamon. 

Meeting the desired state

So what can finance leaders do tomorrow, the next 90 days and even in nine months time to create a more resilient team culture? The first step in building a more resilient team is to assess the skills they want to have, focusing equally on technical and human skills. 

“People get promoted to leadership frequently due to their great technical skills, but there is no new leader onboarding training,” said Kamon. This means finance teams miss out on upskilling the team on Excel, storytelling (as discussed in a previous article with Soufyan Hamid) and how to connect with people across different functions and geographies.

For Kamon, a solution is to implement an onboarding system that helps grow the leaders of tomorrow and sets in motion a progression plan. The next stage is to then move to having a great onboarding system. 

“When somebody comes on and joins the finance team, what is the pathway for them moving forward?” said Kamon. “During the first 30 days, I want them to know my chart of accounts. That’s basic, but I also want them to meet with different stakeholders, like having an actual structure to the onboarding system – both at the staff level and at the leadership level.” 

Once the teams have the onboarding in place, the third step is to think about how they’re going to keep that learning environment going and making sure there is “a rhythm for people to keep learning”. 

However, the trouble comes when people are stretched and they’re operating at 110% of their capacity, and they say they don’t have time to learn. In response, Kamon encouraged leaders to implement “buffers” on the team to either help with capacity or offer an incentive. She provided the example of the head of finance leading a budget exercise, but needing help from a project manager, who is not an accountant, to take the pressure off from the day-to-day tasks such as managing meetings and agendas.

Applying this approach to keeping the learning culture going, and making sure teams continue the rhythm in meetings, should incentivise people to want to learn.

That could be offering to pay half of the exam costs up front and then the other half if they pass, for example. “You have to create the space for it to work,” said Kamon. “When people know they’re being developed, and that there is a pathway for them, they stay [in the company]. Because most people leave because they don’t feel developed. They don’t feel seen. They don’t see any progression for them.”

Continuous improvement

Kamon spoke about the need to recognise the shift in mindset as team members progress within the company, and it’s important that companies help those people make the transition. 

“When we say onboarding, it is not just for when you join the organisation it is for when you move up as well,” she said. “If I promote you to leadership, whether you’re a manager or an executive, there is a specific training that needs to happen.”

She used the example of someone getting their first management job, and from that moment they could become a bad boss because they were not given the right leadership training. Then they become an executive and that involves a big shift in their mindset from manager to an executive. 

“They now have to shift their gear to just managing people to understand that their actions now impact the whole organisation, so there’s different levels of onboarding or new leader training that have to happen at each step to make sure there is a smooth transition and that they enjoy learning in that environment.” 

When you’re intentional about resilience, you find a way.

Now, CFOs of different-sized organisations will approach the need to train employees in different ways; the CFO in an organisation with only 10 people in the finance team is going to devise a training programme differently to the CFO in a multinational like Oracle. 

For smaller companies, Kamon said that it doesn’t have to be a full-blown leadership programme, it could be as simple as identifying three LinkedIn courses for new leaders that discuss productivity, time management or it could be more rigorous if you want to bring in a consulting company. 

“I think it’s more about being intentional about the appropriate approach and not assuming that it’s not important.” Kamon added. “When you’re intentional about resilience, you find a way. That’s what resilience is about: being able to adapt and be flexible.” 

Measure and manage

So how do they measure those actions that they’ve been making? On the metric side, Kamon suggested that businesses conduct a survey of their team members, and as a way of guiding new leaders through small interventions, she suggested rolling out a buddy system.  

As a way of evaluating and improving, she also recommended businesses think about diversity during their talent section process. “Usually when we think about diversity, we only stop at what’s outside and how the person looks, but it goes deeper when you are able to hire from different industries and different backgrounds. 

“Having different perspectives means your brainstorming sessions are better because you’re getting more perspectives because you don’t hire from the same type of people with the same mentality, who went to the same school and went to perform the same work for the same companies.”

Another way of instilling a continuous improvement mindset is to implement a rotational experience. For business partners, Kamon proposed a rotation system where the person dedicated to the marketing department switches every now and then to work with the manufacturing team or the HR team in order to help them work with different departments. 

Resilience is often only talked about as risk mitigation, but as Kamon set out, it could also act as an opportunity maximisation. Circling back to Kamon’s boat analogy at the beginning of the conversation, it struck me that if there’s a hole in the boat or the captain’s not there, resilience is having another expert on hand who could plug the holes. 

There are always going to be external factors that create uncertainty and unplanned consequences for the finance department – whether that’s the war in Ukraine, Covid or Brexit – but having those resilience skills means you can maximise the opportunities.

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