Digital technologies have not only altered the way in which financial services and operations are delivered, but also caused a culture shift in finance, writes Cedric Miller, Group Chief Financial Officer at Altron Group.

The role of finance executives and professionals has changed from bean counter, to information broker and more, causing people to relate in new ways according to their expanded roles.

Culture is defined as “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society”. In organisations, culture is driven by company values that guide the behavioural patterns of employees. CFOs have a critically important task of leading from the front by living the values, encouraging, promoting and rewarding the right behaviours among finance teams and any other employees they would normally collaborate with daily whilst running the function.

Is culture difficult to change?

Yes. The culture of any organisation is developed and reinforced over many years and staff learn how best to succeed within it. Culture change programmes are therefore often met with resistance because they are usually a top-down approach launched by the board of directors via the C-suite, and by the time the change initiatives reach the inner layers of the organisation, they are not supported.

Middle and lower management, and operations remain strongly attached to certain values that senior management wishes to change.

Furthermore, industry norms may slow down progress by creating a notion that things should remain the same because that is how they have always been done, and in mergers and acquisitions – which force together two businesses (or parts of a business) with separate cultural identities – this can frustrate or stall progress on cultural reform within a group.

The best culture change initiatives are long term programmes, incorporating realistic expectations and supported by regular assessment and committed senior management. Leaders know that it is important to secure a long term shift in the behaviour and mindset of their staff to make “doing the right thing” integral to decision taking.

Along with remuneration, lessons from behavioural insights and economics are now seen as useful levers to influence behaviours and improve culture. The tone is set from the top by setting, communicating and challenging the firm’s practices. This includes remuneration and incentives that promote good outcomes for the organisation, customers and the market; a clear sense of purpose and alignment between strategy, culture and values; enhanced individual accountability for specific roles and responsibilities; behaviour and attitude of staff; and formal guidelines like policies and procedures.

Advancing from how we do things around here

Leaders get stuck in “the way we do things around here” but this has been seen to cause more harm. If they do not encourage staff to challenge cultural norms in the function, even the clearest articulation of an organisation’s culture and values will fail to prevent excessive risk-taking and misconduct which can cost the company millions.

There are benefits of an approach to culture that builds on the lessons from behavioural science. Examples include frequent “nudges” to encourage staff to raise key issues and develop better cultural outcomes instead of traditional mandatory training regimes or forging a culture that builds on individuals’ desires to see themselves as “good people” or relying solely on financial incentives or the punishment of transgressions.

The culture that CFOs require starts right at the top and every employee engagement should be used to reinforce the culture. It will become the oxygen for the entire finance function as it navigates the impact of a fast-changing external environment. Here are some critical questions that CFOs need to be crystal clear on:

1. Is the consequence of external changes something to fear or to embrace?
2. Do we strive for 110% perfection at all cost or is the concept of “done and delivered on time” more beneficial than perfection?
3. Is finance a back-office function or is it a critical enabler to the CEO and the rest of the business?
4. Is finance relevant to clients or are clients and client experience someone else’s problem?
5. Is finance an exclusive club for CAs and other finance professionals or do we truly embrace and celebrate people who contribute complementary skills such as systems design, data scientists, publication experts, and others?
6. Are mistakes learning experiences or career limiting disasters?

The questions above allude to the fact that, in addition to a healthy culture, the skills required in finance are changing fast. Finance is no longer the domain of Chartered Accountants (CAs) only. This becomes evident when we note that more and more Financial Directors of JSE listed organisations are, in fact, not CAs.

The typical finance function has a need for data scientists, engineers, system architects, data base managers, report writers, and the like.

Needless to say, any finance transformation has to be finance-led with the requisite skills. Having the right culture and skills is of paramount importance, beyond any strategic intervention, and the influence of culture is seen to have compound effects on the success of a company’s strategy implementation.

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