Podcast transcript: How finance leaders are building the future of finance today
32 min approx | 17 February 2022
We’ve talked to many peers from other companies who are identifying that similar need within their organizations to adopt a different culture, especially in finance. I think sometimes we just kind of do things because that’s the way they’ve always been done for many years. It takes this new mind-set to be able to challenge the status quo, to have the space from CFOs and other leaders to actually take risks and try to do things differently and introduce new technologies or new processes.
Hello and welcome to this special episode of the Better Finance podcast. I’m Myles Corson from EY, your host.
The podcast was launched with the goal to connect finance executives and professionals with thought leaders on emerging trends and topics in finance. The title of the podcast came from the belief that a better finance function was an enabler of better business performance – better finance means better business.
With the emerging focus on Sustainability, that increasingly means both financial and non-financial performance and better outcomes for all stakeholders.
Better as a measure of relative performance is important as no matter what the starting point, there are always opportunities to improve, whether as a result of disruptions, new technologies or changing consumer and employee behaviors. Building the future of finance is an ongoing journey, requiring clear vision while leveraging the tools and resources available and maintaining the agility to continually adapt and adjust.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to Pat Grismer and Cory Hrncirik, who will introduce themselves shortly, for a wide-ranging conversation on the future of finance. They shared great insights - including the importance of culture, focusing on the value your finance team provides, and the need for more data as your machine learning and AI develop. They provide a great summary on the key topics that really encapsulate what the Better Finance podcast is all about.
So with that, I will ask Pat to kick us off by introducing himself:
Absolutely. Thank you, Myles. So Pat Grismer, recently retired following a 36-year career in corporate finance including the last nine years as a public company CFO across three different companies, all global consumer-facing companies, Yum Brands, Hyatt Hotels, and most recently Starbucks. I’ve moved into a new phase of life that I’m calling semi-retirement, which is a combination of philanthropy, consulting with EY, and board service. And I’m happy to join you for today’s conversation.
Great to have you on board, Pat, so thank you. Cory, perhaps you could introduce yourself.
Yes, of course. It’s a pleasure to be here with Pat and we’re excited to hear his experience. I’m Cory Hrncirik. I’ve been at Microsoft now 13 years and currently lead our modern finance initiative.
Fantastic. Well, welcome, Cory. Appreciate you joining us as well. As we think about the future of finance and the challenges facing CFOs in transforming their organizations, one of the challenges is clearly the extent of disruption that CFOs currently face, and how do they build agility and resilience in their organizations to be prepared for what’s next? So perhaps, Pat, I could start asking you just to reflect on what you see as being the biggest disruptors and how CFOs can face those challenges.
Well, there’s no denying the fact that the last couple of years have seen significant disruption as a consequence of some radical changes in consumer habits and preferences, technological innovation, and, I would say, an elevated social conscience. And what all of those changes have required is for companies to adjust their business models. And in that context, I think it has been incumbent upon CFOs to determine how best to evolve their planning and forecasting and resource allocation processes so that they can respond with greater agility to these changes to ensure that the companies remain not only relevant but growing.
You mentioned sustainability and some of those social changes. Do you have a view on how CFOs should be thinking about their responsibility in that area particularly because it’s such a hot topic?
CFOs have always had to figure out how to balance competing priorities in the business. And I think with the higher level of social conscience and, in particular, much greater focus on driving higher levels of diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as more responsiveness to matters of environmental sustainability, CFOs need to figure out how to balance financial and non-financial objectives. And it all comes down to resource allocation and I would say the greatest challenge is how to support the very necessary investments in ESG without diluting the company’s economic engine. I think the more enlightened CFOs figure out that, in fact, by allocating more dollars toward those new areas of focus, they can actually enhance the economic engine of the company.
So, Cory, what are the disruptors that you’re seeing in your organization and with the customers you serve?
It’s interesting. I’d say we face the same external disruptors for sure. I think Pat has covered those well. I would talk about briefly some of the internal disruptions that we’ve been facing. I think they’re common to most CFOs in other organizations that we talk to. You know we face surging data and legacy systems and lots of static reporting.
We face an ever-increasing need to ensure that our people can actually keep up with the demands of growing business models and all these external factors that Pat alluded to. You know it feels sometimes like we’re very reactive. So if you think about something like forecasting or budgeting, it always feels like we’re throwing a lot of data at people, but it’s too much for humans to kind of wrap their arms around sometimes. There’s too many factors going on around them.
Another instance, is what we call kind of inefficient, error-prone manual processes that seem to be now kind of reaching breaking points because of some of those issues that we talked about before. We talked about growing risk and compliance issues, especially with everything from tax law changes to you know macroeconomic and political decisions being made around the world.
And finally, I would add just that need that people have to collaborate and work together. Especially with the global pandemic, we’re just seeing that obviously very acutely. Companies have been solving that in different ways. So those five areas of disruption are what we’ve focused a lot of our transformation around internally.
There’s a lot of change and a lot of disruption happening to businesses and to CFOs and their organizations. Perhaps I can ask you to share your perspectives on what you think a high-performing finance function of the future needs to look like to respond to those changes? Again, Pat, welcome your views.
Well, we’ve already talked about a couple of areas, those being agility and resilience. I talked earlier about the importance of balance. When looking at both financial and non-financial objectives, there’s a much greater level of pressure on CFOs, to figure out how to strike the best balance between these competing priorities.
I would say that talent is becoming an area of increased focus. It has always been an important part of a CFO’s agenda. In an environment where labor is becoming even tighter and where employees often have the option to work from wherever they want to live, it becomes harder to attract and retain the right kind of talent in a finance organization. CFOs have to spend even more time focusing their organizations on talent attraction and retention.
The final piece would be around communication because, particularly in an environment of significant change, in order to keep the organization focused on the right priorities and to keep people motivated, it’s important to maintain a very open line of communication with the organization so that employees understand what’s happening in the business, what the implications are for the function and how the function is stepping up to support the business during these times of significant change.
This talent topic, is absolutely critical, Pat, to your point. We’re all experiencing the great attrition or great resignation as people are re-evaluating where they want to go with their careers. In your experience as a public company CFO, being able to articulate a vision for where the organization is going, where your team is going, feels to me like a really important mechanism for helping people understand their connection to the organization. Can you share how you tackle that and, in general, how you see CFOs communicating that vision and articulating it in a way that is compelling to their people?
Well, you actually highlight what I think is another important element of world-class finance, which is redefining what finance is all about in ways that resonate not only with finance professionals but, importantly, with peers across the organization who may have an outdated view of the function. in the current environment, there is an opportunity for finance as a function to have even greater impact and influence and that comes as a result of truly behaving like a business partner, not a function that exists solely to keep score or to report the numbers but to actually use the numbers and use data and tell stories in ways that support the business in achieving its objectives.
When finance professionals understand that the function has the capacity and the potential to have much greater impact and influence on the business, that is a narrative that is very attractive to people, but it is important to bring others along in the process, not just within the finance organization but outside of finance, who may have different perceptions of what finance is all about. In order to win a seat at the table and be invited to participate in those conversations and to have that kind of impact and influence on business decisions, finance and, the333 CFO needs to lead the communication and to set a vision and a mission for the function in ways that are relevant and that resonate with these key stakeholder groups.
Cory, what are your thoughts around what the future finance organization looks like?
Yes. It’s been great to sit here and listen to Pat. I think he’s nailed it. For us, we focus a lot on culture, that internal transformation, which I think covers some of the things Pat alluded to. That’s been something that we’ve benefited from as an entire company with a change of a CEO many years ago and a CFO about the same time and our focus to embrace a growth mind-set as a company, which has made all the difference. It really is the bedrock of the transformation we’re going through as a company.
We’ve talked to many peers from other companies who are identifying that similar need within their organizations to adopt a different culture, especially in finance. I think sometimes we just kind of do things because that’s the way they’ve always been done for many years. It takes this new mind-set to be able to challenge the status quo, to have the space from CFOs and other leaders to actually take risks and try to do things differently and introduce new technologies or new processes. So that has become the foundation of our overarching change.
Out of that grows things like even the way that we manage and maintain and encourage our employees. We’ve totally changed our management principles now to help support that. We focus on these leadership principles of creating clarity and generating energy and delivering success to permeate the company as well. Those kinds of things have helped us actually maintain and retain employees and help focus them on the highest-value work they can do.
So that, I’d say, together with the digital transformation that we’re undergoing is actually helping us focus our people’s time and attention on the highest-value work, which leads to what Pat said. That actually allows them to be those business partners. They’re no longer buried in the weeds of actually trying to reconcile data or run manual processes because they’re the glue holding it together.
We’ve automated and we’ve streamlined so many of those tasks so that they can go have that seat at the table and they can actually bring better insights to their business partners to help move the business forward. Amy herself has really been leading the charge as our CFO now for eight years to say, let’s actually go and help drive the business forward, and I want the entire finance org being at the table and driving those decisions. So it’s really been a pretty interesting journey over the past seven or eight years.
I know some great stories within your organization of how, as you’ve automated and brought automation to the fore, that has actually freed up finance people to be more customer-facing and created some of those new roles and opportunities. Perhaps you could just share a little bit about that.
You know aligned with those five challenges that I outlined at the beginning, we focus on five transformation areas, financial analysis and reporting, strategy and forecasting, business process automation, risk management and compliance, and workforce productivity. And you could really say we’re streamlining in each of those. It can be as simple as just fixing our data and reporting challenges, which sounds easy but is obviously a huge challenge for most finance organizations. For us that looks like putting all the data in one place and then creating standard and consistent ways that we report that data and creating one source of all that truth, not only for finance and not only for the financial metrics but, as Pat said, for the non-financial metrics as well.
Finance today owns the data platform and reporting platforms which are used by about 30,000 monthly active users across finance, sales, operations, marketing, and obviously all of our senior leadership team now have that one source of truth. So that has cut out hundreds of thousands of hours just in finance alone so that people aren’t pulling data in from multiple sources and reconciling it and trying to make sense of it. That has allowed them to focus on other things. So that’s on the data side.
And just to throw out some automation-type examples, once you have the data in a good place, then you can automate your forecast approach by introducing machine learning. And we’ve cut that down significantly as well from weeks to get to our revenue forecast to hours in some cases because the data is there and we’ve got machine learning crunching those numbers or automating our invoice approval again using machine learning. And we found that 70% of invoices are pretty standard and can just be automated once we actually wrap our heads around them and train some machine learning algorithms to identify them, then we automate the 70%. The remaining 30% we streamline using other technologies so that we can give insights to people who making those approvals, for example.
Those are just a couple of examples of ways that we’re focused on automating these tasks. We’ve seen that many companies are going through a very similar journey. We’ve talked to countless companies. They’re solving their data and adding some of this cool automation or machine learning or artificial intelligence to help them streamline processes.
I would just love to emphasize a couple of points that are very evident to me from what Cory has shared. It’s the great work that has been ongoing at Microsoft for a number of years, which is the importance of the finance organization itself to deliver the level of efficiency and effectiveness improvement that finance often asks of other functions.
You think about the responsibility that the finance organization has and specifically the CFO in relation to defining the economic growth engine of the company, which forms the basis for guidance that is provided to investors, for example. And as part of that internal dialogue, the CFO or the finance organization generally will ask other functions to step up, to find productivity savings, to deliver efficiencies in ways that not only support the earnings growth of the company but also are instrumental to freeing up capital that is necessary to invest behind the growth engines that drive the top line.
And as you think about how challenging that can be, for the finance organization to be in that position to make significant asks of others across the organization, think how much it builds the credibility of the finance organization when the finance team itself is looking in the mirror and finding those opportunities to realize cost savings and at the same time improve the effectiveness of the finance organization in supporting the rest of the business. That actually brings credibility that makes the ask of other functions easier in a way. So there’s a dual purpose there not only to improve finance but to also enhance the standing of the finance organization within the company and specifically to improve the credibility of the CFO and the finance team in making those asks of others across the company.
I think financial executives have to set that bar high to avoid potential risk of hypocrisy in what they’re asking others to do. So that credibility is key. I think that’s a fantastic point. We’ve talked about where we can go, the opportunities here. The big question is, what are the challenges that CFOs face in actually making this a reality and realizing that vision that they have?
Pat, pulling on your experience, what were the challenges that you experienced first-hand? You mentioned some of the interaction with other parts of the business and how you operate with other C-suite executives particularly. So any thoughts in that area and other areas of potential opportunity and challenge?
I would say the more significant challenges we’ve mentioned in different ways, whether the weight of legacy technology platforms where it can be quite challenging to transform over time, given the extent to which these platforms are integrated across the entire business, you can be looking at many years and very significant investment oftentimes without near-term payback, but difficult work, very necessary work, that can act as a barrier to the pace of change.
We talked about access to skills, access to talent, particularly in the current environment where the labor market has become a lot tighter and employees can make more significant demands because they have choices. We also talked about the challenge associated with prioritizing non-financial business objectives with financial objectives. I think again the pressure has intensified in recent years, so the challenge is much greater.
But I’ll come back to the one that, for me in my experience, maybe has been one that has been less obvious. In my conversations with other CFOs, it isn’t necessarily the first place they go, but I think it is nonetheless fundamental to how they are able to drive change and have the kind of impact and influence they are seeking, which is about reframing finance as a function. That has to be done in very deliberate and intentional ways. It doesn’t happen by accident and it needs to be reinforced through strong communication within the function as well as to other functions in the business to change their perceptions of the finance function to reframe how the finance function can serve as a very strong business partner in helping to unlock growth and deliver shareholder value.
So that’s something I would encourage all CFOs to spend more time on because it does require a fair bit of time and it does require a high level of intentionality, but that kind of communication can go a long way to changing perceptions and to focusing people on the opportunity that the finance function has, and that can again be very attractive to finance professionals and be an important reason why they choose to associate with a particular company.
This communication point is so important, there’s a perception that finance tends to come at things in a very rational, logical, analytical-type way that may not resonate. So have you seen the ability to use things like visualization or different ways of telling stories to engage with different stakeholders that may have a different frame of how they come at problems? Is that something you’ve seen finance organizations do better?
Absolutely. I think Cory even said that at Microsoft, the team has made great strides to get out of the weeds. Someone has to be in the weeds, details do matter, but when you are engaging with leaders across the business, you do need to figure out a way to cast the data in ways that are more resonant and to be able to tell stories that are very compelling. Because you can have the most brilliant analysis that highlights the most exciting business insight, but it will have absolutely no impact if it’s not conveyed in a way that captures someone’s attention and motivates them to take action.
Communication is an important part of how the finance organization can be reframed and be more credible or have greater credibility as a business partner, as someone who is going to have the kind of impact and influence that people find very attractive.
Cory, how do you view the challenges that organizations face?
Pat summarized it well again. I think the inertia really is what came to mind for me, right, on many different axes. I think you have the systems and you have the technical inertia that you’re trying to overcome with systems and reports and things. You have obviously great cultural and even political inertia to overcome within a company. I think you have even just process, the way that we’ve always done it, inertia that you’re trying to overcome.
The way that we’ve overcome really all of those, I would say, comes back to culture. It comes back to setting expectations at senior levels. We’re seeing that now as we talk to peers from other companies, too. You just have CFOs who, to Pat’s point, are challenging their teams to become those business partners, to elevate that role of finance, and realizing that something has got to change. So for us, some of the best ways to overcome some of those obstacles have just been to give space, to help finance especially recognize that it’s okay in some areas to experiment, it’s okay to be agile, to respond to business challenges, to actually adopt a mentality of iterating and changing some of the processes and tools and systems that underlie the work that we do.
In some areas we can move faster than others, so some of our transformation has been a little bit uneven, I guess you could say, across our organization. We see that in many other finance teams. Obviously you don’t want to maybe totally disrupt your external reporting engine and totally overhaul your ERP system as the first kind of step, your first dipping the toe into change. There’s a lot of inertia in those areas and a lot of controls and a lot of opportunities for disruption that you don’t want in those areas.
You have to do those very thoughtfully and over maybe longer periods of time, but when you talk about things like solving point-in-time reporting challenges, especially on what we call the management reporting, things that are internal only, those are areas where we’ve started learning, we need to move faster. One of the challenges that we face is, we’ve got this inertia, but our business is growing so quickly and changing so quickly.
The old Microsoft would have really struggled to maintain pace with the pace of our business transformation and finance has had to learn to be very agile. As we change our business, we need to introduce new KPIs. We need to ingest new non-financial metrics, as Pat said. We need to come up with different ways of analyzing the business and getting different insights as we change from traditional software sales to a services provider. We’ve got these subscription sales. It’s a very different way of looking at the business and most companies seem to be going through similar transformations.
Find those areas where you can make change rapidly and iterate there. We’ve built a lot of credibility in our finance group as we focus on those areas and now we’re starting to come back and tackle some of those other, bigger areas that perhaps have the greatest inertia and slowly help to address those challenges.
A couple of points that Cory made. You know he made an important reference to risk and controls. As you think about the challenge that many finance organizations face to get a large portion of the finance team focused on how what they do links to the growth and strategic direction of the company, frequently you’ll encounter people who say, well, I work in an environment of risks and controls, it’s more transactional, so how should I think about that? The opportunity that I’ve seen work over time is to reframe those roles as being fundamental to the disciplined growth of the business. Importantly, to Cory’s point, how you move at speed with confidence is by having confidence in the underlying controls, operating controls of the business that help to manage the risk.
So for the legions of finance professionals who work more in a transaction capacity or are working with risk management and controls, by helping them and their clients think differently about how important risk management protocols are and how important operating controls are to having the level of discipline necessary in a growth company to grow with confidence, that helps to unlock the thinking. It is very much in line with what Cory articulated earlier, this growth mind-set. It’s just a neat way to help finance professionals think very differently about the roles that they do and where they fit within the organization and the important role that they play in driving the growth and health of the business.
That setting the guardrails within which the business operates is so important. One of my CFO clients always used to say, the reason you put the brakes on the car is so you can drive faster. It’s about being able to unlock that speed. Cory, you mentioned obviously data and some of the challenges with legacy systems and the proliferation of data also with the non-financial metrics we’re seeing now. Maybe you can just share a few other observations on the importance of data in unlocking again some of these opportunities for finance.
Data is key. When you think about digital transformation, digitization, whatever you want to call it, it all comes down to data. So for us, in every instance, in each of those five transformation areas that I outlined before, data is key. And it’s important, we found, to just first of all get our hands around the data, understand where it’s coming from, who governs it, who’s responsible for putting controls around it. We’ve spent a lot of time on data governance now, as you can imagine.
And we find that we need more data actually than ever before, which is interesting, right, because we were drowning in data before and it was like our nemesis a little bit because we couldn’t make heads or tails of it seven or eight years ago. And now we want more data, especially as we start to train machine learning algorithms, as we move even deeper into artificial intelligence. Those are very data-hungry initiatives where you need as much data as you can throw at them so that you can get the best results, the best insights possible.
And so now a lot of our focus is on identifying different sources of data, different influences into our metrics, into some of the forward-looking projections that we’re trying to make, and looking for, more than ever before, external metrics that help influence our business. And I think in the past, we were very internal focused, looking at our own historical trends. Now new approaches have allowed finance companies, CFOs, to look at more data than ever before and use technology to help reconcile these vast amounts of data and see insights that we’d never have been able to find before.
What we’ve talked about as being the future actually can be achieved now. The tools, the technologies exist to help realize some of these things that we’ve been talking about. In wrapping up, I’d just ask the two of you to comment on what you think the biggest immediate opportunities are that CFOs should be focused on.
As you think about the traditional role of the CFO, an area of significant impact is in resource allocation because to a great extent the CFO has ultimate accountability for capital allocation across the business and for prioritizing initiatives across the business that require funding. I think in that context, where the modern CFO can have even greater impact is by owning the strategic narrative.
Now, I was fortunate enough in my three public company CFO roles to have responsibility for corporate strategy in addition to traditional finance disciplines. And so that enhanced my ability to own that strategic narrative, but I think that even for CFOs who don’t have direct accountability for enterprise strategy, there is a role that they play in developing the narrative for the investment community. They can co-own that strategic narrative in ways that can help to shape resource allocation, which ultimately determines which initiatives drive the growth of the business.
That’s where the CFO can have the greatest impact because if you have full ownership or co-ownership of that strategic narrative which guides ultimately the resource allocation which ultimately drives the business, that’s, I think, the cleanest and clearest path to having that kind of impact in that position.
CFOs have a huge opportunity right now to actually transform the function of finance. The tools are there. I think the biggest opportunity that CFOs have is to set the right tone at the top, to provide space for their people, to empower their people to make those changes to adopt a growth mind-set, and to encourage their people to actually learn and grow.
We found that most finance teams probably have all the right people that they need to go through this transformation. Sometimes CFOs feel like they need to go hire all these new roles. I think identifying that you probably have the right people who know the business, who have the relationships that you need with business partners, who know your systems and processes and tools. The only thing missing in this equation often is just to introduce this growth mind-set, to inspire your people to learn and go solve some of these challenges using technology, which, by the way, we haven’t touched on much but is more approachable than ever before.
I think, Myles, part of your question was about that technology and I think having CFOs who challenge their people to go learn and adopt new technologies is key because technology has changed so much in just the past five or seven years. Things that we couldn’t do even five years ago are easy and commonplace today. We’ve talked a little bit about some of the data opportunities that exist. We’ve talked a little bit about automation, some of the opportunities to actually streamline using machine learning and AI.
Those are all well and good and actually probably core to our transformation, but we haven’t talked at all about the low-code or no-code tools that are available for our people, your normal accountants or tax professionals or finance controllers. And these tools that now exist for them to solve some of the last-mile challenges that they face and transform their realm of the business is enormous and it never existed really before other than Excel, which was always the tool of choice for the person on the front line driving digital transformation. Now you can augment Excel with all these other great tools.
CFOs who give their people space and give them that vision of where they want to go and allow them the opportunity to go and actually use technology to change the way that they work are often surprised and just elated by the results that they drive across the entire business, across the entire organization, for their stakeholders, in terms of cost savings, efficiency, better compliance, better morale, better efficiency, all through.
Pat and Cory, it’s been a very uplifting and insightful conversation. I appreciate you both taking the time to share this with us and thank you.
Pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.
It’s been an honor. Thank you.
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