Having led transformation at the John Lewis Partnership for years, Generation CFO LIVE speaker Woody Ruane explains how to cultivate a growth mindset in the finance function.

Early on in Woody Ruane’s time at the John Lewis Partnership, when he managed the accounting and control team at Waitrose, he decided to take his team on an away day to one of the company’s stores. It was a way to get to know his team and the business itself, but also to get everyone to loosen up and work outside of their designated roles.

At the time, the finance function at Waitrose was very traditional. Team members stuck to fairly rigid, predominantly transactional roles. Woody was part of a cohort of new managers brought in to transform the function.  An off-site session at a branch seemed like a logical first step, but it was cooly received by his team initially. 

The team went to Waitrose Canary Wharf. They did some team development exercises, looked around the store and saw how everything worked. The team finished the day with drinks in the wine bar within the branch. Woody asked them if they’d enjoyed it, and the response was unanimously enthusiastic. 

“After a glass of wine they admitted that before the day, they hadn’t known what to expect and were really nervous. They were also worried about what the other teams would think. And there was some resistance to the idea from other managers in the department.” 

The growth mindset

It showed just how much of a cultural mindset change was needed to get the finance function operating in the way that it should. It was the kind of challenge that Woody has sought out since the beginning of his career. It’s a passion he believes he inherited from his father. 

“He was an entrepreneur with an engineering background. Although I’m no engineer, there’s a drive to improve, fix and build things I’ve certainly had throughout my career. The understanding and ability to reflect on perhaps where I’ve had a fixed mindset about things is something that I’ve developed as I’ve learned, read more and used my experiences.”

As Woody indicates, a growth mindset is something that you can learn. Through his style of leadership, he helped his ever expanding team develop a growth mindset as he rose through the ranks at the John Lewis Partnership.

“Our role in finance is much wider and more important than mere transactions,” he explains. “Yes, we’re there to keep the score, do the controls and manage financial performance. But it’s important that we also support the business to be able to make the right business decisions. Challenge the business, challenge the thinking; to use the data that we have at our disposal to really help drive the business forward.”

Building shared services

After winning over his team at Waitrose, Woody helped to implement a new Oracle finance ERP across the Partnership.  He then led the implementation of shared services across the John Lewis Partnership. 

“It was very siloed and very independent between Waitrose and John Lewis. Shared services brought things together, really leveraging Oracle and new processes to improve efficiency and effectiveness right across the business. Shared services can be a difficult, challenging environment but we successfully built a separate multifunctional Shared Services Division in the Partnership, and I’m really proud about what we developed.”

The culture and mindset that Woody helped to cultivate in Shared Services and the finance function focused on two shared goals that built on the overall ethos of the Partnership. The first is to strive for excellence to support the business. The second is to ensure that people were at the heart of the overall success of the function, with plenty of opportunity for development. “We had a non-hierarchical culture where everyone felt truly aligned with the partnership strategy,” he says. “We were Partners, and we all had an opportunity and a part to play.”

Transforming HR

Woody’s final role at the John Lewis Partnership was as the programme director for finance and HR transformation, leading a Pensions transformation and lending his expertise to a Workday HR implementation.  He moved on from the company last year and is looking for a role in which he can use his experience and continue to learn, but takes away several lessons from his time there. 

“Finance’s role is changing within a business and needs to evolve as the world evolves. Your ability to be open minded, to learn and develop, and be able to change your role within an organisation is very important. Because organisations and finance departments are changing and transforming, they know that it is incredibly important that people are open minded about change, and understand that they are personally going to be challenged.”

Empowering people

Leading people through change will always be a passion of Woody’s. People give their best in a culture where they can grow and develop. When you empower people to try things out, you will get better results. Leaders need to set the tone and give people the space to experiment and make mistakes.

“In finance. that’s quite a difficult line to tread sometimes, because some of the things we do can be absolutely business critical. But in my experience, the best bosses I’ve had have been of this mindset, that have given me opportunities to grow, experiment and develop.”

By taking this approach, you can create a core group of champions on your team that will help you push that change agenda, he says. You aren’t going to win over everyone, and that’s fine; you need to have courage in your convictions. 

“Sometimes you have to put yourself out there a bit. I had to be resilient and lead in difficult situations. But all these experiences build up into to increase your courage and resilience. Part of the mindset is to remember that work can be fun. You can bring some fun into finance. We should bring it on, because it’s surely going to improve everyone’s life in all sorts of ways.”

Visit the Generation CFO LIVE website for more information about Woody’s session and how to get tickets