Good digital transformation comes hand-in-hand with cultural change, explains the Microsoft CFO.
Jane Hesmondhalgh’s considerable corner of Microsoft finance is global sales, marketing and operations. As CFO and CVP, she has overseen a lot of change in the way the finance function gets things done. Being a CFO at Microsoft, she has a unique view of the latest tools at her disposal and how to get the most out of them – when you make some of the most popular software in the world, you get a little bit of a headstart.
That doesn’t mean that the evolution of the finance function has been any less of a journey. The tools are a benefit, but real change comes from the people and culture of the team. “It’s ensuring that we have this learning environment and adopt a growth mindset,” Hesmondhalgh says. “Alongside an ability to complete impactful work with a high degree of efficiency.”
Real, meaningful change starts with a clarity of purpose, she explains. What is the organisation really about? What is it trying to achieve? That needs to be clear before you start with any kind of transformation. “There has to be a cultural transformation in conjunction with digital.”
As an organisation, Microsoft has been gradually building its open, learning culture over the past few years, becoming a paperless organisation, embracing remote working and ensuring people have access to the right training.
Hesmondhalgh explains that when sourcing the right talent for her team, mindset – being willing to learn – is one of the critical traits she looks for in a candidate. A foundational baseline of finance knowledge is expected, but traditional qualifications aren’t necessarily essential. “As long as they’re able and willing to learn and have that growth mindset, we can complement with a variety of internal trainings It’s much more about the thought leadership candidates can bring.”
In addition to the expected training on the products and solutions that the function uses (Microsoft, of course), staff brush up on industry knowledge, compliance, and soft skills, which are particularly vital. “I have a distributed organisation. Teams are spread across the world in many different countries and offices. So how do you connect? How do you collaborate with each other?"
“We have a variety of training on diversity and inclusion because that goes hand-in-hand with collaboration. Being inclusive and ensuring all voices are heard, translating those ideas, with the ability to communicate and present is key. Let’s say you use Power BI; you can create really nice graphs, but if you’re not able to communicate and convey the key points, the core message gets lost. We spend time on building those soft skills, including influencing.”
When it comes to digital transformation itself, Hesmondhalgh explains that each project starts with the re-engineering of business processes, identifying what could be streamlined and simplified.
The team moved towards an outsourced shared services model, which allowed her to redeploy her people onto more valuable roles, driving insight and analysis (nobody lost their jobs as a result of outsourcing). One of the biggest challenges for transformation was standardising the data into a single source of truth. “We have a lot of financial information coming from multiple sources, so it’s crucial to first clean up the data, then create consistent taxonomies, move it to the cloud and most vital, to create a single source of truth. Standardization reduced reconcilliation and enabled better business intelligence.”
Once these elements are in place, the team identified where processes could be automated. “Reducing manual processes enabled more time spent on driving growth in the business through resource allocation, and identifying growth opportunities.”
With all of the work that Microsoft had done to embrace technology, it was well placed to weather the storm of COVID-19, but like all organisations, the pandemic was not without its challenges. The dispersed nature of the teams and restrictions on travel meant that face time with customers was impossible. Ensuring that everyone across the company was as connected as they would be, were they in the office, took effort,
“For our field teams, it was probably a little bit easier in the sense that they were used to remote work and working in distributed teams, but had to find new ways to engage with customers,” says Hesmondhalgh. “For those who were office based , it was quite an adjustment because they’re very used to seeing each other in the halls, easier to collaborate and socialise. We were conscious of it however, and have looked for ways to adapt from that perspective.”
This process reflects some of the challenges of transformation; it’s hard for people to let go of the way they usually do things. That’s true of finance professionals and their stakeholders. You need to make people feel comfortable with the idea of change if you want to avoid meeting with resistance.
“Don’t underestimate the cultural shift piece, because it is about the culture and the process as much as it is about digital tools. Re-emphasise a growth mindset, really foster that culture: we may make mistakes, we may fail sometimes, but learn and course-correct quickly. As the leader, you have to have conviction. Because if you’re not all in, driving and convicted, I don’t know how you help bring others along.”
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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