What it takes to build the perfect finance team

As the finance function undergoes a drastic makeover, driven by new technology and an ever-expanding remit, CFOs need to build and scale a team that can keep up

As pressure mounts on finance chiefs to provide increased insights and support their organisations in more effective ways, having a resilient and adaptive team behind them has never been more important. And, as it turns out, more challenging.

With the finance function undergoing a drastic transformation, driven by new technology and an ever-expanding remit, chief financial officers are struggling to source the relevant competencies. Just a third of finance leaders (35%) say they have sufficient skills when it comes to strategic thinking, according to a 2023 survey by software firm Blackline. Even fewer are confident in their teams’ technological skills (29%) and ability to analyse data (34%).

To further complicate matters, expectations from young finance professionals in terms of what they want from their career are changing and finance chiefs must adapt accordingly if they are to keep attracting and retaining top talent. In this rapidly shifting landscape, how are CFOs building and scaling their finance teams? 

Diversity of skills 

“We are moving away from the traditional finance structure and having a diverse range of experience and skills is more critical than ever,” says Karen Williams, CFO at travel management platform American Express Global Business Travel (AmexGBT). “While experts in financial disciplines such as accountancy and tax will always be important, a growing proportion of our function comprises data scientists, business analysts and engineers.”

I need to make sure I’m putting the right players on the field in the correct positions

A focus on digital proficiency has become particularly important for CFOs, Williams explains, as the finance function leans into data-driven scenario planning and seeks to take advantage of AI and automation. “At AmexGBT, having that breadth of experience means we’ve adopted tech tools faster, become more comfortable bringing data together and are able to provide more interesting insights.”

Demand has surged for finance professionals with skills in data analysis and forecasting – and knowledge of the tech that powers them. But talent with the necessary strategy and technical skills is getting harder to come by. In response, finance leaders are turning their attention to strategic hiring, whereby they look for candidates with experience that is more closely aligned with wider business goals, such as digital transformation or overseas expansion. More than half (57%) of CFOs say in the next 12 to 18 months they plan to hire in specific areas to drive growth, according to a 2024 PwC Pulse Survey

Anders Christoffersen, CFO at fintech platform YouLend, says it has become an important strategy for modelling the potential impacts of key decisions or market events. “I’ve started recruiting people with different areas of knowledge – a particular market or a tech product. It means I have expert feedback immediately on-hand and I don’t need to waste time going down a rabbit hole.”

The softer side of finance 

Softer skills, such as the ability to collaborate, listen and communicate, are also becoming increasingly essential in finance teams, perhaps even more so than technical expertise. As Christoffersen explains: “I don’t expect the people I hire to be native coders, but I absolutely need them to be able to explain their work in a clear and concise manner, to all levels.”

This comes as finance teams are expected to take an increasingly important role as partners within the business, liaising with other departments and providing strategic insight in a way that the rest of the business can understand and act upon. Hot desking and regular cross-departmental meetings are some of the ways Christoffersen is encouraging this further in his team. 

The environment in which finance professionals are operating is in a “constant state of flux,” Christoffersen notes, driven by new business demands, ongoing regulatory changes and rapid advancements in AI. “The capabilities that might have been fantastic for the last five years are no longer as relevant.”

This is having a greater impact on how Christoffersen is choosing to build his team. “Above all else, I’m looking for people who are willing to adapt, learn new skills and test out different approaches.”

Team dynamics can’t be overlooked

The shift towards agility and constant delivery means finance leaders are having to focus their attention on adroitly navigating team dynamics. They need to influence not only how people work but also how they work together.

Individual strengths are critical but it is the shape and composition of a team that drives its function, explains Ebony Morczinek, CFO at Blacklane, the Berlin-based chauffeur service. Personality types are just as important as roles or experience, she notes. “Like a coach preparing for a big sports match, I need to make sure I’m putting the right players on the field in the correct positions.” This becomes much harder as the team expands, she admits.

“It’s very much about developing the team into what you want them to be,” Morczinek adds. “I don’t believe in throwing people away if someone makes a mistake because it doesn’t necessarily mean that that person is a bad employee.” In her view, there is more value to be had in retraining or upskilling someone who knows the company well, is passionate about what they do and who may succeed in a different team or area.

Having a diverse range of experience and skills is more critical than ever

A strong team dynamic is key to accountability, cooperation and efficiency. But introducing a natural camaraderie within a group takes a conscious effort on the part of the CFO. They must create space for those relationships to grow and flourish and step in when necessary to reduce tensions.

“The ability to think and act like a team is difficult to achieve when everyone is always so busy in their own little world,” says Christoffersen. “I deliberately block time off every week to catch up as a team and slow down a little bit. It’s also an opportunity for me to give direct feedback, as opposed to firing off quick emails.”

He adds: “It sounds simple but spending time with the team and understanding how we all work together makes all the difference.” 

Remote and hybrid working policies mean some teams are losing out on valuable time together, Morczinek has found. “It’s not always a popular opinion but I think it’s really important that my staff come into the office. People tend to learn faster, see mistakes more quickly and find better solutions to problems.” 

Attracting and retaining young talent

Expectations from young finance professionals in terms of what they want from their career are changing. At a time when 61% of CFOs are struggling to recruit and retain candidates, according to data published by recruitment firm Robert Walters, understanding what the next generation of analysts and accountants want from their careers is key. 

Morczinek has found that today’s 20-somethings are incredibly “hungry” and career-oriented. “It is tough to get junior talent in the door and when you do, they’re very impatient to get to the next stage in their career. They want to do cool stuff from the very beginning, which can be quite difficult to provide.” 

Regular training opportunities and mentorships signal to potential and existing employees that the business is willing to invest in their future development. “There is much more of an emphasis on enriching the learning experience for younger staff,” Morczinek explains. Her leadership style had become a lot more “hands-on” as a result, she adds. “As a leader I always make sure to provide them with clear, timely and fair feedback and never leaving them wondering what they need to do to reach the next level.”

The volatility of the last five years has created tremendous instability for businesses and for people. That uncertainty has had a direct impact on Morczinek’s leadership style. “Younger members of my team are increasingly looking to me to provide stability. That is not always possible in today’s world, but I try to create that as much as possible through transparency and clarity in terms of what is happening in the business.” 

Morczinek is acutely aware of her position as a leader in a world that has experienced a global pandemic and two wars. “I’ve had to be more thoughtful and careful about how I manage people who look at the world in vastly diverse ways.” 

Being attuned to the needs of different people and understanding what motivates them is as much an integral part of creating an efficient finance team today as getting the right skills or expertise in place. Finance chiefs would do well to remember that.

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