7 Easy (and Cheap) Ways to Develop Employees

A leading CFO offers tips from his playbook, which has helped propel at least eight of his former staffers into their own CFO roles.
Alix StuartDecember 7, 2011

Michael Lehman, former CFO of Sun Microsystems, has always placed a high priority on supporting employee development. Bolstered by big-company resources and ambitious rotation programs at Sun, his philosophy has helped propel at least eight of his former employees into large-company CFO roles, and countless others into corporate controller roles at such high-profile companies as Apple and Coca-Cola.

Lehman, now CFO at venture-backed Palo Alto Networks, is currently working out how to maintain the focus on growing employees’ skills with a leaner staff, fewer resources, and a much smaller budget for such initiatives. As Palo Alto’s first CFO, Lehman says the topic is an important component to helping the company scale. “When I got there, two years ago, there was no concept of employee development; development was for products,” he said during his presentation at CFO’s Playbook for Private Companies conference in Miami earlier this week. Although he believes the details of such development should rest largely with the employees themselves, he pointed out multiple ways a finance executive can create the right environment for that to occur.

The following are a number of points from his conference presentation that can be useful in a company of any size. The cost? Largely the time it takes out of your schedule; Lehman said he has no specific budget for training and doesn’t find it very expensive.

1. Set up a feedback framework. Start with simple, one-page employee self-evaluations and then have conversations to discern where staffers want to go in their career and what they need to get there. Set some goals and hold quarterly check-ins to assess progress.

2. If you’re planning to hire, share with the team how the organization will likely evolve over the coming year and give them a sense of what opportunities might be available. While this can sometimes open up a can of worms, Lehman noted, it can also inspire an employee to work harder in a particular direction to be ready for a role.

3. To build communication skills, regularly ask people in your group to stand up at staff meetings and give a brief overview of what they’re currently working on, with the right context for the group.

4. Help staffers develop a two-minute “elevator pitch” on your company, and have them present it to you and to others in meetings for practice. As they get better, you can grill them with more questions outsiders might ask, such as “Who are your customers?” and “What can go wrong?” The practice is not only good for communication skills; it’s also good for protecting brand reputation when people wear their corporate-logo-laden T-shirts and hats out in public, Lehman added.

5. Let a finance staffer tag along when you make customer visits. Once he has sat through a number of meetings and is comfortable, let him answer some of the questions. (Customer visits to a company’s facilities can also be used for this purpose.)

6. Get everyone in finance to regularly help with certain tasks that might otherwise fall through the cracks. For example, “if it’s Tuesday, it must be collections,” Lehman suggested. This gives everyone a chance to learn new skills and may eliminate the need for additional hiring. He takes the same approach on ad hoc projects, such as IT issues or real estate. “Anyone can volunteer for those; it’s a form of cross-training,” he said.

7. Encourage employees to ask their managers, “What’s on your plate that you don’t want to do?” and to then find a way to get it done. The results can sometimes be explosive. “When I first did that,” quipped Lehman, “I got handed HR and IT to run.”

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