Finance Training for Mere Mortals

What your company can learn from academy companies like GE and Ford.
Alix StuartOctober 18, 2011

Not every finance department has the size and scale to, say, promise staffers a new job with more responsibilities in varied geographic locations every one to two years, as the famous finance rotation programs at General Electric, Ford Motor, PepsiCo, and other so-called academy companies do. But even firms with leaner staffs can learn some lessons from those companies about how to develop and retain the people they value.

“No matter what your size, you have to get the right people in the right jobs, and it’s your responsibility to make sure they succeed,” Neil Schloss, treasurer of Ford, told an audience of finance executives on Monday at the CFO Rising West conference in San Diego. Schloss, along with Peter Mondani, GE’s vice president of financial leadership development and HR, and Eileen Kamerick, former CFO of executive-search firm Heidrick & Struggles, shared some of their secrets for creating and maintaining a world-class finance organization. Among those secrets:

1. Teach finance staff how to make complex topics simple. At GE new hires are routinely and repeatedly asked to create “pitch sheets” that distill technical subjects into a format that can be easily shared with operating employees. “We need to see that finance people can take complex data and clearly synthesize it with very few words,” said Mondani, “since the operating people are not going to have time to wade through all the complexities.”

The same process is at work at Ford. “We ‘hooverize’ the presentation — cut the words in half, and then cut them in half again,” said Schloss. “It’s got to be crisp.”

Another way to help teach the concept: volunteer a promising employee to make a presentation to the board of directors. “Usually, they are more than capable of doing this,” said Kamerick, who is now CFO of investment bank Houlihan Lokey, “and taking a chance on them when they’re not quite ready for it can mean the world to them and create a lot of loyalty.”

2. Overpay key team members, even if it means fewer hires overall. “You’ve got to identify your experts and overpay them to make sure they stay with you,” said Mondani. Such was Kamerick’s strategy at Heidrick & Struggles, and “it worked out really well,” she said. “It’s worth having fewer people and paying them more rather than having more people at a level below and paying everyone average.” That’s especially important when it comes to staff in emerging markets, she added, because otherwise, “after three years, just when an employee is becoming most valuable to you, a local firm will hire them away.”

3. Balance out formal programs with meals. GE CFO Keith Sherin guarantees the 700 or so participants in GE’s competitive finance rotation program that they’ll share a meal with him sometime in their two years in the program, said Mondani. He also makes it a point to hold both annual business meetings and dinners with every finance team associated with a unit generating $4 billion or more in revenues. And every six weeks, Sherin invites batches of 15 executives at a time to dinner at the company’s Fairfield, Connecticut, headquarters. “We do it in a very small room, and it’s very tight, on purpose, so there’s one conversation,” said Mondani.

4. Consider training in small groups rather than through all-hands meetings when it comes to sensitive topics. At Ford finance has been tasked with getting the message out to nonfinance employees about key metrics. “As you might expect, we’ve done a lot of work over the last couple of years about the importance of cash,” said Schloss. His approach has been to talk to people one-on-one or one-on-two. “Even though it takes more time, it’s more effective, because people feel comfortable asking questions, and you can more quickly get to why it’s important to them, and how conserving cash relates to other things they care about, like inventories.”

5. To the extent you have staff in other countries, make it a priority to keep training consistent across geographies. “If you really believe in your culture — and we do — you have to transplant it,” said Schloss, who has spent 29 years with Ford in more than 10 roles. “The only way you can transplant it is through training and development.” What that looks like can vary. Ford offers its global training program in local languages, while GE, which hires more than half of its new finance recruits from outside the United States every year, keeps all training in English. The most important thing, both say, is that processes, systems, and controls are the same everywhere.

Developing a finance team is no easy task, and life doesn’t necessarily get easier even when you’re very good at it. The hallmark of a world-class finance organization, Mondani quipped, “is when search firms won’t work with you because they want to be able to steal your talent.” Then again, that’s one problem CFOs might be glad to have.