I believe in the power of creativity, in innovative thinking, and of play as a conduit to bring forth new ideas. And yes, and I’m a CFO who leads a team of finance professionals who focus on compliance, adherence to regulations, and perfecting the process of predicting and ensuring an outcome based on historic performance and data. Despite how at odds these two confessions may seem, they work together in a way that supports my belief that finance is a department designed to lead the culture in an organization.
"Our organization has found multiple benefits including longer tenure of finance staff, and more integrated financial planning into new projects"
When I began my tenure at Jumpstart for Young Children, Inc., a national non-profit organization, bringing trained adult volunteers to under-resourced preschool classrooms to deliver an early literacy curriculum, I realized quickly that while the finance team was well qualified and did their assigned work competently, they were vastly underutilized. The organization was ready to create a new strategic plan, and wanted to innovate in order to more fully realize it’s vision that every child enter kindergarten prepared to succeed, yet finance had no place at the table for these discussions. They were asked only to create the random budget or potential analysis. It was very much like having a highly rated chef and asking them to make nothing but sandwiches. It’s not that the sandwiches wouldn’t be delicious, but keeping them so restricted in their scope of work meant losing the potential benefit of all the skills they could offer to create a whole variety of dishes.
To more fully integrate the team into the organization, we began by embracing a role I feel is unique to finance: culture leader. To substantiate this argument, I offer the questions: Who does the organization reach out to when there is uncertainty about staff, or employee changes? Who communicates the annual plan to the organization? When there is gossip about the future, who does the staff seek out at the water cooler and in the hall? In most organizations, it is assumed finance staffs are the ones with these answers because they control the budget, and understand when forecasts begin to change the likelihood of the annual plan. If the organization trusts them to provide clarity in uncertain times, why would that natural alliance not work in times of expansion, innovation and exploration as well?
Finding a solution that allowed the whole organization to have on demand access to the facts and figures they had previously been required to request directly from the department was the first step in reframing the purpose of the finance team. Once real-time budget to actuals and basic analysis could be accessed anywhere in the organization through a web-based solution, then the finance team was sought out less to provide numbers, and more to provide context. Being invited into a conversation opened the door for finance to be seen as a partner in planning, however, this did not mean the team was necessarily ready to assume this kind of role.
To change the way an organization defines one’s role involves more than an announcement on the intranet. It requires multiple examples of how a team can add value to a conversation even if it is not blatantly about finances. The key to this shift at Jumpstart was showing how the finance team could collaborate in innovation, perhaps not as an active member of an R&D team, but as a critical thinking partner that could make connections between outcomes, efficiency, and modeling.
To practice this skill, I have found a very valuable tool to be the power of play. There has been much research published on the effects of play for increasing creativity, job focus and critical thinking. By applying this to a group not typically known for fun, it has created a more collaborative team dynamic, and has lessened the resistance of partnering with finance on various projects. Examples of successful play include everything from puzzles and structured games, to experiments such as seeing who can spin a coin the longest by changing a single variable for each attempt.
Corporations invest in professional development, off-site conferences and seminars designed to help our staff increase their knowledge, skills and job understanding. However, we cannot ignore the internal investment needed to support our teams to live into the full scope of what they can provide to the organization. Finance as a leader in culture and innovation may seem like a stretch to some, but by embracing and pushing for that reality, our organization has found multiple benefits including longer tenure of finance staff, and more integrated financial planning into new projects.
In the spirit of full disclosure, it is important to note that as we introduced play as tool for innovation there were some unintended effects. For example, while the team was trying to figure out how to build a structure out of candy and toothpicks, the initial prototypes which failed did produce laughter. This unexpected noise coming from a team known for silent concentration attracted staff walking by to venture into the finance area to observe and then attempt to participate. This intrusion by other departments caused cross-team communication and connection points that were later cited as justification when their team sought out finance support when they were planning to pilot a new project and wanted a thought partner in the early planning.
I regularly read about tools for increasing team effectiveness, and new programs that will revolutionize finance’s ability to analyze and report. My job requires that each potential tool be considered for how it can improve the bottom line or the effectiveness of the organization against our mission. However, the most important investment I have made of late has not been in a new process, but in finding ways to unlock the potential of the finance team itself.