The finance and accounting function is changing rapidly. Starting yesterday.
As technology automates day-to-day accounting and reporting tasks, the finance team is becoming a strategic force in the organization—unlocking the mysteries in the data, guiding the business through predictive analysis, and working collaboratively with stakeholders across the organization on a wide variety of initiatives.
While large companies began this evolution during The Great Recession, small and medium-sized organizations are in the midst of the change today. Roles are in flux. Skills needs are changing. Throw in the pandemic and The Great Resignation and it’s safe to say managing talent is a challenge for finance leaders in these vital businesses.
Luckily, all of this commotion brings opportunity and innovation. As finance and accounting teams metamorphize, they’re becoming more valuable to small-and-midsize organizations than ever.
We interviewed two successful CFOs, long-time colleagues, and Salo clients to learn more about managing finance talent in today’s environment. Kate Shibilski is CFO of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings franchise, and Brian Kohlbeck is CFO of Phillips Distilling, one of America’s oldest family-owned spirits companies. Both organizations have several hundred employees.
EVP, Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at Minnesota Vikings Football, LLC
Chief Financial Officer at Phillips Distilling Company
How has the finance function changed since you started your career?
Kate: Finance and accounting have become much more like a true business partner—being involved in strategic conversations, providing an additional point of view beyond the numbers. We’re able to listen to what’s happening in the organization and help put the business case parameters together. In small businesses, you often don’t have a project manager, and we take on a little bit of those skills. We help people consolidate thoughts, identify financial implications, and provide thought starters for the broader team.
Brian: It moved from being solely transactional to being focused on driving business value creation. It’s not a new trend—a lot of larger finance teams have been doing that for a while. For example, we used to publish accounting reports and “throw them over the wall” to the sales team. Check. Transaction complete. Now we have finance people sitting down with our salespeople, going through the financial reports, explaining the results, pointing out things they should be looking at, and providing ideas to increase profitability. It’s a dialogue now, a teaching moment. We built a whole performance management system around having those conversations about the data and driving action. We’re using more analytical tools and using data to provide deeper insights.
How does that impact your team?
Kate: In general, the expectations are higher. People need a broadness of skills. These days, you can’t just come in and say, “I’m good at processing AP” or “I’m good at doing account reconciliations.” That’s the cost of admission. The expectation is you can hold a business conversation—especially in a small-to-midsize company when there are not that many people and everyone wears a lot of hats.
So, part of my job is continuing to identify opportunities that help people grow, whether that’s moving laterally, up, or anything in between. I try to provide diverse experiences and add to their toolboxes. Maybe it’s finding ways for employees to work on a cross-functional project that’s not part of their normal job or participating in strategy sessions that they wouldn’t normally attend as a senior accounting analyst. One nice thing about the virtual world is that you can give people experiences that might not be possible in person. For example, I might say “Do you want to just join this call as a listener so you can see a different aspect of the business?”
Giving people new opportunities benefits the business and it’s how we’re going to keep the talent. In a small company, we can’t promote people every year—there just aren’t that many roles. So, we need to be more intentional and creative about providing experiences.
Brian: At our organization, we’ve also been trying to stretch people and make roles broader, which employees embrace because they get to learn new skills. They get energized. It gives them a feeling of “I’m getting stretched in a different direction. The company cares about my career path, and they’re investing in my development and trusting me with new responsibilities.”
Also, we’re trying to move people from just processing transactions to addressing business problems with a more holistic mindset. I call it a “general manager mindset”—learning to understand how your work affects the larger business. For example, I encourage employees, “While you’re working through your daily tasks, use the visibility you have into all the transactions to support the organization. If something stands out in the information you’re processing, say something!” It gives our team members the freedom to challenge when they see something that doesn’t look right—ultimately improving company value.
Lastly, when I started, I saw an opportunity to get the company focused on revenue management or pricing. I tapped someone who was highly analytical and had a ton of intellectual curiosity—stretching him into the role of leading and building this team. He added an outside resource who had experience in pricing but in a different industry. Thanks to their financial acumen, their attention to detail, their ability to think analytically; we built a brand-new team that focuses on revenue management in an industry where pricing is extremely complex. It’s a role that works more with the commercial team. They’re doing great and delivering significant value for the company.
What other skills do finance and accounting professionals need to cultivate to be successful in the future?
Brian: I always tell people—ever since I was leading MBA recruiting at BestBuy—you need to have strong intellectual curiosity to be successful. Question everything. Try to learn from everybody around you. Ask the questions on your mind and don’t overlook the details. Dive into the details and understand them. It’s easy to fly at a really high level and think you understand the business—and even sound like you understand it. But when you’re curious you’ll find things in the details that other people will never find.
Curiosity is also the top skill I look for
Kate: Healthy curiosity is also the top skill I look for. The desire to know the why, the how, the who, and the what. By wanting to understand things, you show interest in what others do. It’s how you build relationships and build trust. It’s especially important if a finance person is working with another team. If the other team feels like you actually care and understand what they’re doing, they’re going to be much more willing to open up to you and let you help them—instead of thinking you’re just trying to come in and cut their costs.
Other skills I value are:
- Change management: Another key skill I look for is just being comfortable with change (which is often uncomfortable). And the change can be about anything—a new system, a new process, a new accounting rule, a new business case, new people, new world events. No matter what, it’s about adapting to new facts.
- Competence: Having confidence in your skills, even when you’re doing something new. Being confident enough to ask questions, try new things, and use your talents to get things done.
- Being a go-to resource: Figure out the unique thing you’re good at. Excel modeling. PowerPoint. Whatever it may be. Then become the go-to for that skill. It helps you make different connections and shows your competence.
What is the biggest challenge for managing finance teams today?
Brian: Learning to lead a team in a hybrid work environment. When the pandemic hit, our organization wasn’t as far along with flexible work arrangements as other companies due to the size of our company and the number of employees. We went through a phase initially—as everybody did—of just getting people home and making it work. We just wanted to keep employees safe and healthy and keep the business running. But we’re realizing that this is the long-term way we’re going to do work. And employees are expecting it.
Of course, the flexibility of hybrid work is great. It brought some level of balance back into our lives versus spending 60 hours a week in the office or spending an hour driving to work. So, there will be some kind of flexible work environment going forward.
Now we’re in the next phase: figuring out how to have a meaningful and productive work environment while employees aren’t working next to each other every day. There are benefits of having a [in-person] work community—working as a team, discovering things through casual interactions, and learning about peoples’ families. A lot gets done during happy hours. We haven’t had a national sales meeting for two years. We have a number of new employees who haven’t met each other. They haven’t had a drink with each other to learn about things such as their families, their hobbies, etc. Some of that natural in-person connection is missing and to get it back, we’ll have to look at new solutions.
When we were fully remote, we kept the business going, but we didn’t grow. We didn’t discover new things. So, we’re leaning towards having a couple of days a week where everybody’s together in-person, but still having flexibility if you want to go to your child’s school event or work remotely somewhere for a four-day weekend.
We’re in the next phase: figuring out how to have a meaningful and productive work environment while employees aren’t working next to each other every day.
Kate: There were some good things learned in the forced remote environment that many small companies, including ours, hadn’t prioritized and will stay with us in a hybrid format going forward. Recognizing the value of flexibility and the ability to adapt (and still get work done), increased our empathy for different situations.
Remote and hybrid work has been really challenging from a collaborative and brainstorming point of view. We lost the personal connection points, like coffee chats and “drive-bys” at the office. For our organization, it’s brought back the meeting culture, which we had worked really hard to reduce. Every meeting has an intent and a purpose so you don’t waste people’s time, but we’ve lost the time to be curious. I think, especially for smaller companies, some things work better when we collaborate in person.
What keeps me up at four in the morning is: How do you give people opportunities for networking, growth, and development in a remote or hybrid environment? I just think about when I was growing in my career—those organic networking opportunities were the best. If you want to grow professionally or you want to get more tools in your toolbox, you have to network and meet with people. That takes work, and that takes time. I just worry that we’ll lose some of that, but this generation will adapt and find those opportunities in different ways.
How can finance leaders help employees thrive as organizations figure out their flexible work options?
Brian: Even though people might be working remotely, you still have an obligation to keep employees engaged. Now, more than ever, communicating with employees is important. Setting clear goals and expectations is critical because there are fewer interactions.
I’ve talked to some people in other organizations who say, “I haven’t talked to my boss for a couple of months. We don’t have development discussions anymore.” So, I try to make it a point to interact with people. I hop on a call for 15 minutes to just check-in and stay connected. I ask questions and not just about the work at hand. I want them to know: my boss still cares about me. He understands what I’m going through even though I don’t see him anymore in the office hallways.
We had listening sessions a couple of months ago, where we asked employees: what do you want going forward? As leaders, we can’t just assume, we need to talk with our teams. Of course, there’s a balance. It doesn’t mean the organization is going to give employees 100% of what they want, because the employer has needs, too. Can we meet in the middle to keep both parties happy? Yes. We have to be purposeful about engaging with employees and truly listening.
Kate: Agreed. Remote work makes those quarterly check-ins or performance review conversations that much more important.
Additionally, I think companies need to remember to stay true to who they are. If people aren’t happy in the moment, let’s figure out what the underlying issue is and how we can solve it. Some companies have taken a hard stand and said this is what we’re doing regarding back-to-office plans. And, actually, that’s good. Employees know where the company stands. If you give people a decision, at least people feel like they’re in control. They can choose whether it works for them or not.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming finance or accounting professionals?
Brian: Work hard. Ask questions so you learn as much as you can. Understand the inputs and outputs to your work, because that will make your work more valuable. Find a mentor. Find someone you trust who can coach and develop you (it can be a formal or informal mentorship). Network to expand your view of the world—internally and externally. Read, read, read. We have access to so much information today, use it to your advantage.
Don’t be afraid to work hard at work and at life.
Kate: A few things …
First, you’re in charge of your career, don’t expect someone else to be in charge of it. Don’t expect someone to come to you and say, “Oh, we’re going to promote you today.” Don’t chase titles, chase experiences. Know what you want and you know what you need to do to get it. You’ll need to ask for help along the way but take ownership.
Second, don’t be afraid to work hard at work and at life. There’s not going to be a perfect work-life balance every day. It’s impossible. It’s about choices and not every day has to be the same choice. Maybe one day you need a mental health day, maybe one day you want to have lunch with your dad, or maybe one day you want to help a co-worker work through something they are struggling with. And, maybe if you’re trying to learn something new or working on a big project, you’ll work a 12-hour day. All of those options are ok. So only compare yourself to you. Everyone has their own reality.
Finally, if students are looking to go into a field, finance is going to be super interesting in the next 15 years. It’s a fascinating industry, and you’re not going to be bored. You have so much influence and exposure to the business. It requires work, but especially if you’re at a company you’re passionate about, the impact you can have is significant.
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