Often segregated in antiseptic offices on their own floor at headquarters, corporate finance departments have been traditionally as physically isolated from the rest of the organization as they were divorced from the day-to-day activities of the business. But finance has taken on more strategic responsibilities in many organizations, changing the very nature of the type of people who work there.
While strong math and analytical skills were once the principal qualities companies looked for in hiring corporate finance executives, today companies are looking for people with an entirely different skill set. According to newly published research from Wall Street Journal Custom Studios, today’s companies are actively competing for talent that can lead teams, manage change, communicate, persuade, and find creative solutions to stubborn problems.
“The role of a CFO has changed significantly in the last five or ten years,” says Alan Nicholl, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Canfor, a global leader in lumber and pulp. “CFOs are increasingly looked to as catalysts for change within their companies.” This entails an ability to be a true business partner, not just someone who keeps the books.
Employees who can straddle that divide between analytical, technical, and social skills are just the type of talent that today’s finance teams want. “We’re looking for highly proficient, smart individuals,” says Nicholl. “They’re typically very well-rounded and can engage well with multiple stakeholders, not just IT and accountants.”
New Business Opportunities
According to Nicholl, adding these new skills to the corporate finance team has resulted in better service internally and new business opportunities for Canfor’s sales leaders. “With a team of quality business analysts who truly understand the business, we look to build a partnership approach with the sales team when it comes to data analysis,” Nicholl notes. “Our analysts are able to dive deeper into data, using up-to-date technology, and then to work collaboratively with our sales people to identify and capture opportunities that improve the bottom line.”
This new focus on disparate skill sets also happens to coincide with the demands of a new generation of applicants. Today’s job-seekers are digitally adept, socially connected, and interested in learning more about the business than the strict definition of their job titles.
“They’re savvy about self-service and self-learning,” says Ivgen Guner, Oracle's ORCL +0.00% senior vice president of global business finance. “Knowledge today is ‘open concept,’ and our employees can expand on their knowledge base freely. People want to come in and understand the business, make a change for the better, contribute value.”
Standardizing Planning and Analysis
Contributing value is near the top of Guner’s overall list of priorities, and thus a key part of her recruiting strategy as well. Four years ago, she introduced the GPO (Global Process Owner) program within Oracle’s Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A) function, in order to standardize certain FP&A processes around the globe.
Once this program had established standardized technical processes horizontally across the organization, Guner introduced a complementary program called LEAP (Leadership, Excellence, Automation, and Partnership) to provide strategic guidance to Oracle’s various lines of business that only finance could provide.
So while GPOs defined horizontal standards, LEAP teams defined vertical financial business intelligence tactics specific to each line of business. The two programs are complex and mutually dependent, requiring focus and a strong governance model.
Their ongoing success is dependent on having people in corporate finance who can think abstractly, and who have developed project management skills to go along with their savvy in financial analysis. “So, we look for people who have strong analytical, technical, and social skills, people who can manage by influence—all those qualities in one, which is quite a tall order,” says Guner.
One of Guner’s team’s primary goals was to identify areas of need among its business partners and help them increase revenues. Her team found that, in an effort to gain business insight, line-of-business finance staff were spending hours running and creating analytical reports, and that the data feeding into those reports was often inconsistent.
“We looked at and defined the key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the company’s effectiveness and efficiency, and created dashboards around them.” The LEAP team then led an effort to globalize, standardize, and automate more than 2,000 reports across the company. “We freed up the line-of-business finance leads from all that reporting, therefore creating capacity for the team to understand and analyze their businesses better. We thus became much better business partners,” she says.
Big Benefits from Big Data
Technology plays a critical role when it comes to standardizing and automating. Like Oracle, Canfor is committed to ensuring that managers across the company receive consistent reports and accurate, granular data. “We can now delve into big data, mining for trends that might really open up further opportunities for us,” Nicholl explains. “Those could include price spreads between the different grades of lumber that we produce, different prices in different jurisdictions, and levels of housing activity in different regions. When you get all of that information together, opportunities emerge that we can explore with the business in terms of realizing new benefits.”
Using the latest technology also helps attract and retain the best talent—especially among millennials, who expect to work using social and mobile technologies. “The talent out there is very socially, digitally aware,” Guner says. For example, “potential candidates do a lot of online research about Oracle. The new digital technologies have given them a window into our organization, and it also allows us to comb through candidates very easily; they find us, and we find them.”
However, Guner felt that Oracle needed a more focused recruiting effort, regardless of “self-service technology.” So a year ago, she introduced a recruiting program specific to her organization, and established a project management office (PMO). Guner and her management team, along with Oracle’s internal recruiting team, meet every week and discuss the candidate pipeline and open jobs, and measure their recruiting success via KPIs. In addition, the PMO runs college recruiting and summer internship programs. “We use what the digital age has to offer while staying focused and maintaining rigor in attracting and recruiting the best and the brightest to Oracle” she says.
One of the most attractive attributes a candidate can demonstrate is a desire to learn, because that characteristic makes for the most valuable employees, and can make the finance team a kind of incubator for the company’s best talent, says Guner. As members of the finance team rotate, learn, get promoted, and become more well-rounded business people, they become a valuable resource among other corporate disciplines as well.
“People are hungrier to do different things in a faster-paced environment. Any finance person I hire today can go into business operations, product marketing, accounting, business market analysis, investment banking, and so on,” Guner says with just a hint of pride. “I love to see folks go from one discipline to another because it makes them more valuable to the company in the long run.”