Let’s Talk Talent: How is Finance Practiced Differently Now?

  • By AFP Staff
  • Published: 3/24/2022
How_is_Finance_Practiced Differently_Now _Header

How has finance talent changed today? What changes have you noticed or consciously made in what you look for, or how have you trained your people differently? AFP’s Asia Pacific FP&A Advisory Council considered this question at their February meeting, and what emerged was an understanding of a finance function in flux. Maturation is leading to specialization. When FP&A was a smaller function, one person performed all the different jobs, and one tool was the Swiss Army knife. But what's happening now is that the department has grown into its own with increasing levels of sophistication.

FP&A maturation is leading to specialization 

The dominant change driven by specialization is the supply chain of data to insight. First comes the data work, which requires a combination of finance skills and technical skills to assemble data from disparate systems and convert it to information.

Sai Giridhar, a Finance Director at one of the Country Business Units at SHELL, said, “Within the finance function we have what we call ‘purple’ people, individuals that have a combination of base finance core skills, but more importantly, an increasing proportion of technical skills to perform data gathering, data correlation, and converting that data to information.”

Similarly, at Marsh McLellan’s Data and Process Automation Center of Excellence, Johan Van Zyl, senior vice president, said, “We've tried to remove all the technical skills to build these reports and everything and move them away from the regions and the FP&A colleagues, and build out all those tools for them. I've got teams that are building automations for the business, so that they don't spend their time learning a lot of VB and Python on the floor with the business partnering. We build the BI reports for them, and combine a lot of different sources of data that inevitably would be a ton of time for each one of them to get to.”

Second comes the interpretation piece, converting this information (such as variances) to insights — causes and impacts. These are financial analysts who can see and understand what the data is saying, have the curiosity to research beyond the numbers, and the business acumen to understand materiality.

The third layer is closest to the business, almost in the role of account executives managing relationships. They need to help the business think through actions and reactions to determine what comes next. To contextualize the insights, it helps for them to have strong communication and storytelling skills. For Shell, they are the “data interpreters who influence by translating the data insights to actions. How do you tell the story? And how do you influence the business to believe that this is what the numbers are telling us? The skill is different,” said Sai Giridhar.

For MMC, the prior work allows the regional FP&A to focus on the business and handle ad hoc, precise research needs.  

Where are the skills? Outsource versus insource 

The discussion of talent had an undercurrent of what amount of work is conducted inside the company or through external contractors. Martha Sierra from The British Council gave voice to the underlying question: “In the last few years, we have had an ambition to reskill, to get our finance teams to be up to the latest technologies, the latest tools. And now, we are stopping and thinking, is that the right approach to take? Or should we be getting that from companies outside, who are really good at that and can do that at a level of excellence that we will hardly achieve internally?” This becomes a decision about where to build the capability, the cost of skilling, and the ability to integrate the data to information to delivery chain.

This discussion ranged back and forth. If you do choose to outsource, what do you outsource? It makes sense to include tasks that are very process focused and where input and knowledge of the company and the business is not necessary. One place to start is with anything to do with external statutory reporting or tax-related reporting, because it is one of the areas where you might feel it best to transfer the risk to people who know about the matter and can make decisions and own that. Most council members looked at the value chain from the end (closest to the customer) as internal work due to the business acumen and relationships. Moving upstream to data sources and aggregation, it was felt that could be outsourced, but that risked losing key internal capabilities: the value connectivity to other data and potential for insights that comes with understanding your data.

The example of this is Microsoft’s journey, as presented at AFP’s 2021 FinNext Asia virtual conference. Microsoft had gone through a journey that included a period of outsourcing. They had thousands of outsource vendors in finance, and slowly they ratcheted up the digital requirements so that everything from the vendors had to be digitally submitted and fit a certain format that Microsoft finance demanded. Some vendors were able to do it, and some couldn't.

As they raised the external digital capability of their vendors, they also raised their internal ability to receive it. Once they got digital, they were able to bring the work inhouse and manage it through automation.

Skilling your team to get there 

Weng Hong Yong, executive director, City Mental Health Alliance, noted a challenge with the paradigm laid out above. He said, “I think it's true with the development, that maturity will lead to specialization, but then if you take a step back, the question becomes, what is the best way to develop this talent? Because when it leads to specialization, it may lead to the creation of new silos and miss the opportunity [for individuals] to move up and do other things.” He emphasized the need to prevent these silos from forming.

Perhaps finance needs to cast a wider net to find the skills required for the various links in the chain. Peggy Ang, regional FP&A manager, APAC, National Instruments, pointed out the need to match roles and career paths to individuals. “These days I find that in the accounting or finance pool of people, the storytellers and influencers are fewer. But, in terms of being an influencer, a salesperson might have stronger skill sets there. Others may be a natural as a data architect that enjoys working with data and crunching, and it's very hard to get them to influence or want to do storytelling. If you would play on people's strengths, that actually works better. Of course, if somebody's willing and keen to grow their varied skill sets, then, to Weng Hong's point, they should do that.”

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Kevin Wong, director of Finance, APAC, Blue Bottle, sees that in finance teams. “What I see is more accounting and controlling professionals moving towards being all-rounded finance professionals. Also stepping into the financial planning world and reporting world, and kind of taking care of some of the tasks on both ends. I see it going both ways, and I see finance business partners learning more accounting as well to understand where the data is, data sources and where the truth is.”

Xin Gan, China finance controller, Valea Service China, provided a direct example of that: “I have a person who is our information system manager, and he's quite curious. He used to work in supply chains and switched to information systems, and I found him with the potential to develop in management controlling. So he prepared for a new certification, and he's now switching to management controlling. It's really about how to make new assignments and encourage them to try new areas, to make the switch to new areas. It's about how they find growth in their career while aligning with the company and the finance department. This is key for the future of finance.”

Sai Giridhar at Shell, highlighted the role of the leader when guiding and embedding new team members into Shell’s Finance family: “There's a piece around what you could call mentoring or coaching, which is missing for all round finance professional development. If you have to do talent development, it's not just about assigning a project and telling them to go ahead, right? You want to ensure you're getting timely feedback and also able to help the individual respectively. So maybe we need to build in along this.”

Connagh Hopkins, head of Business Planning, Western Power summarized skills-training in terms of what FP&A is working to accomplish: “We solve problems and we take action. We don't just get the information communicated. It's about acting on it as well. It's not just about pulling the information out and analyzing and planning. Where we really add value, and what we should be developing skills around, is working with the business to make changes. How do we get out there and influence? How do we get the buy-in once we have that information? How do we get the business on board to actually make that change? Because that is the real skill challenge.”

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