Like many finance leaders, Aidana Zhakupbekova, VP Finance at HousingAnywhere, the largest European mid to long-term rental accommodation platform, has worked across accounting, credit control and FB&A spheres.
But besides her financial career path, she also has passion for music, showcased by her previous studies: Aidana studied piano classics alongside her standard school curriculum in her teens.
“It may sound like two very different fields, but they actually share a lot,” she explains. “They both involve coordinating different fortes with an aim to create harmony.” Mozart is her go-to music for relaxation and stress relief.
When Aidana first started her role at HousingAnywhere in 2018 after working for IBM, Converse (now Nike) and other American corporates, finance at HousingAnywhere was rather at an ‘infant stage’, especially with regard to processes and/or structures.
“Start-ups typically don’t start with strategic finance and focus more on operational finance,” she explains. “This was initially the case with HousingAnywhere. When I joined, we had an external accountant and several admin staff, but there was no decent reporting. In fact, there was not much in place that could enable strategic decision making. It was literally me and one other person processing invoices and making bank pay-outs manually, so it was a bit of a mess.”
So how did Aidana go about transforming a finance function from its relative infancy to the highly optimised, high-performing function it is today?
“I was glued to my computer for the first few months,” Aidana admits. “I needed to get my head around the existing accounting system and perform major clean-up operations. I don’t think many people even knew who I was in the early days! But it was important to go back to basics of financial reporting to ensure stakeholders had the right information to make faster and better decisions.”
After the navigation exercise and initial revamp, Aidana hired a specialist team of finance professionals and simultaneously began having conversations across the business.
This stage, Aidana insists, is arguably the most critical: getting the team onboard with new processes and strategy is crucial for future success. But she explains, it’s a two-way street: if anyone has ideas on how to improve things, she’s keen to hear them, too.
Inevitably, when changes are taking place, there will always be a degree of resistance or discomfort.
“It took a significant onboarding exercise to get people to realise I wasn’t there to control or dictate but rather, to improve systems and processes for everyone.”
“In a way, the people side of the transformation project was the biggest challenge.”
“It was about winning people’s heads and hearts towards a different way of operating by supporting them to understand the reason why, which requires a deep dive into the real purpose of the finance department within an organisation.”
Revamping the budgeting process was initially a sticking point, especially for middle management.
Prior to Aidana’s appointment, people were asking the CEO directly for approval to procure items or services to address immediate needs.
Through conversations and implementing a collaborative approach throughout the whole business, Aidana was able to instil a forward-thinking approach to budgeting, accounts and cash flow.
“It wasn’t about me saying no to everything, but encouraging our people to think about the bigger picture, which may mean postponing and/or cancelling certain spending. My aim was to create an environment that’s healthy for the company, but which also allows for creativity without burning too much cash.”
Aidana’s conversations focused on how each employee and department could contribute to future strategy, achieve a certain goal or certain KPI simply by the choices they made.
“It was about making every single person in every department understand their value,” she adds. “Not everyone understands how intertwined the roles are which can lead to overlooking the impact one choice can make to others and the bigger picture.”
Aidana is an advocate of automation and optimisation and it was these areas which transformed HousingAnywhere’s finance function into something that was efficient, effective and collaborative.
“What I always try to do is optimise the process by rethinking workflow and operations in a way that doesn’t cause admin pains,” she explains.
“You might have a new idea you want to test but you don’t want to overload the current team or hire more people just to click buttons. Instead, you encourage the team to proactively rethink the current way of working to improve processes.”
It’s also about educating and training people to see the benefits of automation and optimisation for themselves. This allows for seamless data transfers, higher accuracy rates and live updates such as real time information (RTI).
Aidana doesn’t see herself as a finance hero, though. She attributes her success to her team, without whom, she believes, none of this would have worked to the degree that it did – and continues to improve day by day.
Aidana notes that:
“Finance leaders do not and cannot succeed alone. It is all about the team and teamwork.”
“You do this by getting to know each and every person on your team, understanding that every person is different and celebrating each other’s fortes – just like beautifully orchestrated music. So if you want to ensure your organisation reaches its goals, always start with and focus on your people.”
"Mozart – it’s my go-to relaxation."
"I tend to draw my inspiration from different people depending on the situation, but outside of work, my parents are my life-long heroes."
Chris is the founder and MD of GenerationCFO.com and creator of the Digital Finance Function Model and a contributor to many articles on our platform. Chris focuses on the shift toward digital transformation in accounting and finance, shows you what good looks like, then helps to get you there!
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