UK: Don’t Quote Me On This - Finance Transformation Leaders – On The Line And Off The Record

Last Updated: 22 March 2011
Article by Deloitte LLP

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

In The Eye Of The Storm

Not every finance transformation initiative feels like a storm coming our way, but plenty of them do. And for good reason. Major projects can challenge even the most experienced leaders, especially when the work is global or when there are other closely related initiatives underway at the same time. Transformation can open the door to unanticipated projects that can multiply complexity fast.

At the centre of most projects stands a single person who is responsible for making it all happen. Many have titles, a few call themselves "FT Leads." Many come out of the finance function that's being transformed, but there are plenty of new hires too.

Regardless of their industry, company, going-in roles, or career aspirations, FT Leads have a lot in common. We talked to leaders at major organisations in retail, banking, public sector, consumer products, distribution, manufacturing, and more. All but a few are global businesses.

This report reflects what we learned from those who have weathered the storm. In the interest of getting the most candid insights possible, any information that might allow the identification of individuals or their companies has been omitted.

Now, on to the good stuff.

Sponsorship: How It Really Works

If something's important, it needs sponsorship – no matter what the business issue. So it's no surprise that executive sponsorship was at the top of the list of must-haves for a successful FT initiative. But what does sponsorship really look like in these projects? It can take surprising forms. For example, one CFO served breakfast to the FT team in celebration of a major milestone. People still talk about that morning.

Yet finance transformation often seems to end up ruffling feathers somewhere, and that's where things get interesting. It's also where sponsorship matters most, usually by way of the CFO. Here are some things FT Leads told us about their experiences:

  • Sponsorship can get ugly. "Our CFO really took some shots," said one FT Lead. "You have to say it took courage – not just sponsorship." Another said, "Our CFO heard that some finance directors were trashing the whole concept. In short order, he spoke to each of them. He put his foot down. It was a little heavy handed, but it's what he needed to do."
  • You have to put it to the test. While the FT Leads we spoke with assumed they had strong sponsorship going into their assignments, that assumption was tested when the going got rough. Sponsors who waffled created chaos.
  • Showing up makes a difference. "In one of our routine meetings, our CFO showed up and nobody knew he was in the room," said one FT Lead. "We were all debating what to do about one particularly charged issue, and then he spoke up and said 'you need to get on board.' It was a shocker. He only had to do it once."

An inventive FT Lead who did not immediately get strong sponsorship took matters into her own hands. "Just expect your sponsor to be weak; shut down their escape routes so they can't get away."

The Case For The Business Case

When we asked one FT Lead whether he had a business case, his response was memorable: "If you go through a restatement and get a near de-listing, to me that was all the business case we needed." Point taken. The value of a business case depends on the environment.

That said, nearly everyone we talked with created a business case. Most said it was indispensable – a critical tool for sustaining the political support needed for a transformation project. When an FT Lead gets challenged, a good business case is a strong backstop.

But FT Leads caution against getting too specific. One person explained it this way: "We made up a business case with a huge contingency that ended up being wrong." These days she recommends "being realistic about a case that will end up becoming your bible. I prefer to go into a project with a range of numbers now."

"It's one of the most obvious mistakes made on change projects," said another of the leaders we spoke with. "People sell dreams early on, and then six months later they realise they promised things that are unachievable." Lesson: don't overpromise.

In the past, many FT initiatives focused on improving controls or information quality, and may not have been built on a hard business case. Today, the pendulum has swung in the other direction: transformation is usually motivated by a drive for cost savings, which puts the business case on centre stage. Yet even if your initiative is driven by financial goals, the business case should reflect broader benefits. "I've been deliberate about not setting up dreams when it comes to financial return," said one FT Lead we spoke with. "People need to understand all the benefits."

Do You Really Want To Know?

When we asked FT Leads whether the job was bigger than they thought it would be, the most common response was laughter. Finance transformation often seems to be a bigger challenge than expected. Here are a few reasons why – in their words.

"Running a project of this size across a large company like ours, you don't have the control you would like, so you have to influence others."

"At first I was always begging – always looking to get buy-in, borrow resources, and so on. That was uncomfortable. It got easier once the project gained traction."

"Often, people would say 'Just tell me what costs you want to deliver, and I'll do it. I don't care about your project.' And this was among the senior finance team."

"Everyone's trying to expand their own responsibilities. If things are going to change, they want to carve out as much as possible for themselves."

"It's harder to rewire people than machines."

"I underestimated the internal politics, even within upper and senior management."

"People just expect that management has all the answers. When we'd ask for input, they'd look at us like 'isn't that your job to tell me what to do?'"

To read this Report in full, please click here.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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