My family and I spent Christmas Eve at the dentist. Not really what we all wanted, especially as our dentist involves a 90 minute trip there and back!
It wasn't how I'd planned things to be, but like many people, our appointments kept being rescheduled during lockdown and this very 'important' task had now become 'urgent' for the girls. I'll spare you the details, but in their cases I was worried that waiting until February would have dire consequences.
I called the dentist and was told that they might be able to fit us in on Christmas Eve if they were indeed 'emergent' cases, and that they'd call me back later with confirmation. I spoke to my husband, Cody, and he said 'Al, don't be ridiculous. That's not how we want to spend Christmas Eve!' so I hung up from him planning to tell the dentist not to worry. When the receptionist called back she told me that Dr Dave was happy to take the whole family on Christmas Eve morning because he knew how far we were coming. I couldn't refuse his generosity.
In fact, that's exactly why Controllership sits 'below the line' - why we call it 'hygiene'. Just like your dental hygiene, it's something you must do every 6 months to avoid significant negative consequences.
Imagine the situation whereby you decide to play in the high performance quadrants (Strategic Leadership and Change Leadership) and focus all your time and energy on leading with impact and creating value. Yes - that's the goal. But imagine your company is on such a phenomenal growth trajectory that you spend all your time supporting the business through that commercial growth?
I worked with a CFO last year who did took that approach without having the hygiene covered. The consequence was that every half-year and year-end, and in fact to an extent every month end, was like someone shackled cement balls to him and his team's feet. They would be dragged below the line trying to close the books and produce the reports. His team would turn up to sessions in tears because they were burnt out and the Audit Committee Chair expressed concerns in the foundation of the finance processes and the impact to the long term success of the business. Despite the fact he wanted to stay above the line, he knew the status quo wasn't sustainable and it had to change.
So - how do we get the hygiene 'good enough' so that we can play where we want in the high performance space?
I think the activities in the Controllership quadrant for CFOs provide the perfect excuse for CFOs and their finance teams to:
1. Understand the business, and
2. Be strategic.
They are your proverbial Trojan horse to get into parts of the business that were previously impenetrable to you.
The mindset mistake CFOs make
Where CFOs often go wrong is they don't see the opportunity to get strategic with these 'must do' activities of internal control and risk, reporting and governance, data and systems.
For example, thinking of a robust internal control environment as nothing more than a regulatory requirement usually results in CFOs delegating the work to someone in their team, who dutifully goes around documenting the processes and identifying the risks and their mitigating controls. While this sounds like an easy exercise, this 'bottom-up' process is actually excruciatingly painful, requires a significant amount of stakeholder input, and usually ends up unfinished.
No process is boring if the outcome is sufficiently attractive.
When you stop thinking of internal controls as merely a requirement, and instead recognise the direct link between your internal control framework and the value drivers of the business, then you can start to shift your mindset. When we reframe our finance activities, we can see that each one touches on a key element of the organisation, helping protect the business while also providing the opportunity to grow the business.
Not only is this a far more strategic and interesting way to view 'back-office' finance activities, it also offers a raft of benefits to the business.
Making an impact at every opportunity
We incorporated a nice little walk and a pub lunch into our trip, so they weren't fussed at all about having their mouths poked and prodded at the dentist on a day they'd rather spend buzzing around at home in anticipation of the arrival of the man in the big red suit!
Our task as CFOs is to consider how to make the most of every opportunity, even with the tasks that seem mundane and BAU. Leading your team well through this kind of area requires exceptional Change Leadership capabilities so that your team can back you fully and bring their best energy to getting through Controllership tasks in an inspired, meaningful and impactful way that brings measurable value to your business.
How can you shift the energy, impact and effectiveness of the activities in the Controllership quadrant?
Are you taking a strategic approach to every opportunity your team have to understand the business?
What can you do to have greater positive impact on your team and the business?