AFP sat down with Carmen Turner, FPAC, who has held finance positions at SwipeSense, McGraw Hill and the CME Group, to get her opinion about daily life in FP&A.
Sort out urgent versus important tasks
Steven Covey developed the four-quadrant system of time management, essentially dividing your to-do list into urgent versus important tasks. Often the urgent crowds out the important, so we asked Turner how she manages to balance the two.
“Urgent is if the deadline is really soon; important is that we need to do it to keep the business running or it's needed to make a decision,” she said. The example she gave was of a salesperson out in the field, trying to close a deal, and they need to know if they can offer X price. “That’s urgent because it could be revenue coming into the business,” she said. On the other side, she might have someone asking her what they spent on travel for the last six months. While that may be important to them because they’re trying to decide whether or not they’re going to travel in the next month or two, it’s not as important as the salesperson trying to close a deal. “You don't want to delay in getting back to a customer on what pricing can be offered,” she said.
Prioritizing work matters because there isn't a lot of structure when it comes to your day as a FP&A professional because there are always changes in the market and issues arising. You can’t wait for the news to come to you, you need to be aware of what is happening in the markets. “In this day and time, we’re spending a lot of time watching the market news to see how it impacts the company and what you have to do or change as a result,” said Turner. Updating your financial model to help leadership make decisions by presenting them with different scenarios for different stakeholders is one piece of this. This can help you prepare for the important things, before they become urgent!
Take care of your tools so they take care of you
“Tools are a key part to how efficient your day can be,” said Turner, and models can have a huge impact on your productivity. “That's exactly it,” said Turner. “Ideally you want to build a model that is so efficient that you're not starting from scratch.” She designs the models she builds in such a way that any new information can be plugged in and result in an immediate conclusion to be used by decision-makers — or at least she tries. Sometimes it’s not that simple.
Some models become engrained in the company’s DNA over years. Your ability to change it, to make it better, really comes down to the level of support you have. Do you have a team that can help you work through it? Do you have enough team members, or are your processes efficient enough that one person can do it? Or two?
A second component of productivity tools is reporting. In one of her jobs, she created a self-service tool for the sales team. With it, they could punch in the numbers and see what price they could offer, which took a huge amount of work off her plate—often urgent to her customers but not important to her relative to other tasks.
Org structure for team success
What is the best way to think about building an FP&A team? Should everyone be good at everything, or should you have one person who is the designated model creator because they’re really good at building efficient models, and have another person be the relationship person because that’s their strength?
“That's how I tried to do it when I was at McGraw Hill,” said Turner. “Ideally you have people who are specialists in certain areas, but who are also able to fill in in other areas as well.”
It’s a message we keep hearing over and over again: The maturation of FP&A is leading to specialization. It used to be that one person was the Swiss Army knife and would do everything, and now we're pulling that apart by function. For example, in larger companies you have whole Centers of Excellence that seem to be an analysis function.
That said, when building a cohesive team, people need to be rotated through the different specialties to ensure everyone gets some experience. Not just for their growth and development, but in case someone leaves, becomes sick, or goes on parental leave."
Of course, you have to be adequately staffed. “If you have a team, it's delegating some of the things so that you're not doing it all,” she said. At one of her jobs, it was just her, no staff. “I was doing everything; that is not efficient at all because you can never focus on streamlining processes. It's like you're always working on this or that to get things done.”
Being a finance business partner demands that you meet with people, that you talk with your partners. But what happens is a multitude of meetings prevents you from getting work done. “If you're just starting your real job at five o'clock [because you have been in meetings all day], you're not focused,” she said. “You're exhausted mentally from having gone through all those meetings, and now you have to start on something as serious as looking at the numbers and making sure things are right.”
Step one is to create discipline around a weekly or biweekly standing meeting, and that an agenda and any background materials be sent out prior to the meeting. “That way everyone is prepared, and you won’t spend the whole time trying to decide what you want to discuss,” she said.
Step two is to limit the number of ad hoc meetings. “Some of the most unproductive meetings are when someone just throws a meeting on your calendar and doesn't say what they want to meet about,” said Turner. “I’ve had somebody put a three-hour meeting on my calendar and just say they’d like to touch base. That’s not touching base, that’s moving onto the base.”
As questions arise during the week, ask people whether they need to be answered right away or if it can wait for the meeting. You don’t need to share every thought when you have it. Just because you have an idea, doesn’t mean you have to tell the relevant people right away. Turner’s favorite question is, “Do you need a decision on this today?”
Step three is to ask, do you really need to be there? “Just because you get invited to a meeting doesn't mean you need to be there,” said Turner. Understanding the purpose of the meeting is essential. “People feel obligated to go to every single meeting they're invited to.”
Step four is to be focused during the meeting. Turner. “It’s really about us managing our time. We don't do well with staying in boundaries ourselves, or with keeping people within the boundaries so they're not disrupting our flow of managing the things that we need to do.” Turner considers any day where she has minimal meetings and is able to focus on her to-do list a win.
Learn more about the role of Certified FP&A Professionals and get a glimpse into their insights into the financial decision making process through some of their stories on our website. You can also get started on your journey to earning the FPAC here.