As COVID shut down the world’s economies and forced people home, Judy Romano saw an opportunity – upskill herself and her team.
As the saying goes, never let a good crisis go to waste. That was certainly Judy Romano’s philosophy, two weeks into her new role as VP, CFO Commercial and Technology for Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), as COVID-19 put the world into lockdown.
“As horrific as this situation has been, I personally have had the best seven or eight months than I’ve had in a long time. It has been so productive.”
With her technology remit, Judy was invited to attend a three-day seminar on Robotic Process Automation (RPA). With everyone working at home, it was easier to block out the time, so she jumped at the chance. While RPA had been used at Equifax, her previous employer, she hadn’t had much to do with it. The seminar, however, was an epiphanic moment.
“It was fantastic, eye-opening,” she says. “It was extremely relevant to the function, and it was really focused on the benefits. I thought: this is something that we should explore.”
When Judy returned to IHG, she started looking into the technology options within the company. She discovered that the Group had a Centre of Excellence and started talking to the CoE team about how they could work together. There was funding for RPA. It seemed like the stars were aligning.
Judy threw herself into learning as much as she could about digital finance, taking online courses, attending events, and picking the brains of knowledgeable people in her network. In particular, she started speaking regularly with her friend Tracy Levine, a data scientist, executive coach and Forbes Coaches Council member.
“I started talking to her more and more. She and her husband were on an AI journey, so I went and took a class at the University of Helsinki on AI. It was 40 hours, it was a very comprehensive course. That built on my natural curiosity.”
Judy’s technology remit provided ample opportunity to learn more about different technologies and how they could be used in the finance function. “I started looking into data science, cloud software. I’m not aspiring to be a specialist but to be dangerous enough to ask those questions and find out what impact that it can have on our .
It as all well and good learning these skills as CFO, but the rest of the team had to come on the journey too. Taking a leaf out of her past as VP and CFO for international finance at Pharmaceutical software company McKesson, Judy put the team onto three, 90-day sprints to supercharge their learning.
The first sprint was all about the internal teams and functions within IHG, with only internal speakers brought in to inform the team about various activities. The second is where the digital learning really kicked in – Judy had organised a crash course in all aspects of digital finance, from RPA to AI, business intelligence and agile ways of working.
This coincided with several staff going on furlough for a short period. “The people who remained with me thought I was completely bonkers,” Judy explains. “We had just lost half of the staff, and here I was making them do this thing.”
Judy convinced them that the timing was right – the team was learning more about the rest of the function. What better time to assess what could be improved when they had new eyes on certain processes? She also explained that she was only a few months ahead of them on her digital journey. “They realised that it wouldn’t take them years to build their knowledge, which gave them confidence.”
Again, Judy tapped into her network to bring great speakers in for the team to learn from. She persuaded three members of Microsoft’s transformation team to talk through their progress, and everything they’ve learned, over the past decade. Slowly, it started to feel more relevant, the benefits became apparent, and people started to get on board. “At first, they didn’t know what RPA stood for. Once we’d finished the 90 days, we had 18 projects in the pipeline.”
All learning was confined to working hours – Judy led by example on this. Various sessions were voluntary, but team members were strongly encouraged to attend. Only one course was mandated: IBM’s Enterprise Design Principles. “I wanted everyone to be using the same vocabulary and approach.”
As the sprint went on, Judy started looking for potential champions within her team, identifying people who could really take the lead on different specialisms. For example, she selected two team members to lead and pilot an agile working scheme with a senior vice president who was open to trying it out. “Once you have the use case, you can broaden your scope. We call it using small bullets over cannonballs. A ‘bullet’ might be success within a business unit or one initiative. You can build the credit to move it to the next level, rather than blasting it out at everything.”
When furloughed staff returned to work, Judy put them on two weeks of non-stop learning, using the recorded sessions from the sprint and other short courses. In a smart move that ensured the ideas really bedded in among the team, she had the non-furloughed staff teach the rest of the team.
“One of the ladies on our team prepared a presentation on RPA, she worked really hard on it, it was phenomenal. She’s usually very quiet and never speaks unless spoken to, but she taught a class on RPA. It was awesome.”
This crash course necessary as thanks to the sprint, no one what quite coming back to the jobs they’d left. Judy’s approach had already affected real change within her finance function, and it was her team that was driving it as much as she was.
The team is now on their third sprint – finance business partnering. The aim with this sprint is to bring lower level team members out of their shells a little, Judy explains. The sprint has so far involved sessions on how to influence, collaborate and create value. “You can’t just sit in a meeting and be a sponge anymore. Eventually, you have to start speaking up, starting conversations and creating value. That’s what we’re doing now.”
As for the senior leadership team, Judy has also won them round – they are starting to reap the benefits of better, more relevant, actionable information. “We got rid of the old, traditional reports and replaced them with one-to-two pager with relevant, actionable information. It’s about breaking down the silos, collaborating with everybody and changing that way of thinking.”
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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