By Chris Cook
In my over 25 years in finance and public accounting, I have personally led a multitude of talented teams across industry sectors and at startups to enterprise-level companies.
In my experience, I find that there are at least five essential ingredients for finance leaders to keep in mind when identifying, nurturing, and supporting the best finance teams:
- Targeted recruiting and rigorous screening of candidates
- Deeply understanding individual employee motivations
- Maximizing communication: up, down, and sideways
- Leveraging every employee interaction as an opportunity for development
- Encouraging exposure and “risk” taking with appropriate support
Targeted Recruiting and Rigorous Screening of Finance Candidates
During one of my FLG assignments, I found myself consulting to a high-growth client who was in the midst of raising capital. Unfortunately, the client had an understaffed finance team consisting of two people in the accounting function. I had to quickly launch a very targeted recruiting and screening effort to identify potential finance team members who would be able to handle the requirements of the company as it moved closer to becoming a public company (financial reporting, increased internal controls, external audits, SEC filings, etc.).
After ensuring candidates have sufficient depth of experience (admittedly, I am partial to CPAs with public accounting experience), I use interviews to fine-tune my understanding of candidates’ personalities and their cultural “fit” within the specific team I am managing. Are they naturally curious and proactive? Do they have an ingrained sense of urgency? Are they critical thinkers and problem solvers? Are they able to dig down to detail as well as grasp how their work fits into the bigger picture goals of the company? These attributes are critically important at all levels of hiring, even among administrative candidates in my opinion. I like to use open-ended questions as well as ask for lots of specific examples from their work histories and then probe further into their specific personalities and motivations. Finally, I always hire with an idea about where a team member will fit in terms of succession planning. Could this employee ultimately manage others? Be my number two or even be me?
Uncovering Individual Motivations
It’s very important to understand every team member at their individual level. This begins during the recruiting process. I’ve found directly asking candidates about their hot buttons and asking them to describe themselves the way a boss or peer might are particularly useful in getting to know how a team member might react in certain situations in which they might find themselves at a company. Are they uncomfortable hearing constructive criticism? Do they need a significant degree of structure or lack of ambiguity? How do they manage stress?
After hiring and after a team member’s onboarding, I often spend considerable time one-on-one with them to both get to know them at a personal level and identify specific job-related objectives for their first 60, 90, and 120 days. Knowing what motivates each person both personally and professionally is necessary in creating a path to success for them as a team member and an individual. I’ve found each person’s view of professional success is actually quite different, and without this perspective you might easily make the mistake of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Rewards for achievements fall into the same vein here. Reward accordingly and you will see this pay off in spades in terms of both greater loyalty and future job performance.
Communication: Up, Down and Sideways
Another trait of successful leaders I’ve known in my career is communicating up, down and sideways. Great leaders know that ensuring everyone is on the same page about the current state of affairs, what needs to be accomplished, and the ultimate definition of success is paramount. Since many companies now use matrixed responsibilities, remote workforces, automated processes and outsourced functions to get things done, this has greatly increased the need for communication both within and across teams in all organizations, from the smallest to the largest. The finance function in particular must often interact with multiple departments outside of finance to accurately understand the state of the business, risk exposures, and how to reforecast and revise action plans accordingly. Strategies which I believe work well here include regular intra-team meetings but even more importantly, regular inter-team meetings where team members can present specific work to showcase how their department or mini-team is adding value at the company. This reminds employees how they contribute to the greater good, gives them pride of accomplishment, and deepens feelings of respect and value, which are key to emotionally rewarding them for their actions.
Leveraging Every Employee Interaction
In Finance we always operate within sets of rules, such as GAAP accounting, the Sarbanes Oxley and Dodd Frank Acts, and SEC regulations. I always want my team members to understand both the what and the why of these regulations from a finance perspective. In my capacity as a role model, I want them to experience some of the same career-enhancing situations which got me to the C-suite.
One of my personal mantras as a manager, which I learned from one of my mentors, is to always look at every interaction with your team members as an opportunity for their development. Knowing a team member’s objectives and motivations, I try to always put them in the driver’s seat when they are faced with a new situation where they might have questions. Rather than tell them what to do, I ask them what they think they should do.
This also works at a more macro level if for some reason the finance team misses a beat and needs to do a post-mortem about what led to the error or oversight. In these situations, asking the team to come up with constructive strategies for avoiding the same problem in the future helps the team to coalesce around improved downstream accountability, both individually and collectively.
Encouraging “Risk Taking” and Exposure
A final tip for all senior level finance managers is to always encourage appropriate risk taking and exposure to other members of top management among your employees. Earlier on in my own career, when I was a staff accountant at Bank of America, we acquired Security Pacific Bank. My boss’s boss and my own boss were buried with multiple priorities, they delegated responsibility for the finance team’s acquisition integration to me. I learned a lot from their leap of faith in me. I succeeded and even got promoted, but more importantly, I learned the value of encouraging others to take risks (with appropriate support, which my bosses ensured that I had had).
Today, as a manager, I see myself as much more of a coach and mentor and less in the “boss” role. I tend to hire self-motivated, independent team players who can manage up when they need to. So, instead of trying to avoid situations which might cause a team member to stretch outside their comfort zone, I actually like to use these moments to help provide additional exposure and learning for them. I know if I don’t provide these types of challenges, some of them might actually even leave, especially in today’s job market. I find cross-training to be especially helpful to both allow employees to learn new skills and awareness, as well as give the company enhanced job flexibility in case of turnover or attrition.
This is a challenging time to be a manager in any company coming out of the pandemic, but using these five strategies for individual and team management will help build a strong foundation for your team’s success.