Custom Fit

In finance training, one size may not suit all.
Kate PlourdMarch 1, 2008

When it comes to doling out development dollars for finance training, CFOs have a range of choices, from in-house classes and personal coaching to outside seminars and continuing education. They must also decide how to balance training with formal job-rotation programs and more ad hoc efforts to provide on-the-job experience.

Bill Augat says it’s a task CFOs should take seriously. “I sit with each individual and talk about careers and what training needs they require,” says Augat, CFO of Fort Worth–based defense contractor Elbit Systems of America LLC. “They may want to take their CPE credits in specific areas that interest them.”

Like Augat, many finance chiefs and companies prefer a more personal approach to finance training, crafting programs to fit individual career needs and goals. A number of experts recommend this approach. “Having individual skills-based development plans is the best practice,” says Jonathan Schiff, an accounting professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “If you try to fit everyone into the same model, it doesn’t work.”

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Besides, CFOs “do not always know what the best training is” for their employees, says Schiff. Often, they find out only by getting to know the specific needs and interests of staffers. “We have global companies and smaller companies that use this model,” says Schiff. “They find that they retain the best employees, recruit more effectively, and have more-transparent succession planning.”

The Personal Touch

One global company, Minneapolis-based food giant General Mills, adopted a personalized approach to finance training about six years ago. Its program includes in-house classroom training, a job-rotation plan, and mentoring by senior management, says CFO Donal Mulligan. The company’s finance staffers sit down twice a year with their managers to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, define career goals, and draw up individual development plans.

Those plans are based on whether a staffer is a new hire or in mid-career. All new hires first go through a structured job-rotation program, which is overseen by a team of finance managers; subsequently, they can rotate to available positions via an online job-posting board. “At the higher level, if someone has aspirations to be a divisional CFO and they don’t have the experience, we’ll make sure they get it,” says Mulligan. Thanks to the training program, he adds, staffers move up the finance-team ladder at a pace driven by their talents and ambitions.

Agilent Technologies Inc., a Santa Clara, California-based measurement-products company, identifies high-potential staffers and invests more of its development dollars in them, says CFO Adrian Dillon. But 90 percent of Agilent’s employee development comes through on-the-job training, he notes. That could involve working in overseas assignments. “As a global company, the biggest challenge we have is to develop truly superior leadership in various countries,” says Dillon.

How does Agilent identify the high performers? Each year, managers use scorecards to rank employees on job performance and career potential. When a job-rotation opportunity comes up, Dillon and other managers pull out the scorecards and discuss who should be chosen.

Instead of a formal development and training plan, Judy Bruner, CFO of San-Disk Corp., a Milpitas, California-based flash storage card manufacturer, concentrates on providing high-potential employees with a breadth of job experience, rotating them through a variety of finance and accounting functions. That approach is “more valuable than having them attend any class or conference,” she says, although staffers also partake in classes.

Bruner relies on her controller, vice president of operations-finance, and treasurer to help assess staffers’ strengths as well. “Some employees seek it or request a rotation that interests them,” she says. “Sometimes we go to the employee.”

Passing the Retention Test

Given the resources that companies devote to finance development — and given that these programs are overseen by CFOs — you might assume they would try to quantify a return on investment. And, in fact, some do. Many finance chiefs, however, take a more relaxed attitude to assessing the ROI of training.

At Elbit Systems, when one of Augat’s four employees completes a training program or a class, the CFO simply asks him to evaluate the experience: Did the program adequately address the gap in his skills? If a staffer isn’t satisfied, Augat says he won’t recommend the program or class again. He may also give the staffer some hands-on training. For example, “if they want more experience in M&A, I’ll get them involved in a due-diligence team,” he says.

Jack Phillips, chairman of ROI Institute, a consultancy, endorses this kind of feedback analysis. In fact, he advises CFOs to use ROI evaluations only for expensive, high-profile, or strategically focused development programs. “You don’t need [to calculate the] ROI on every program, because it takes too much time and too many resources and it’s not needed,” says Phillips. “But you’re always evaluating a program at some level.” Finance chiefs who take a hands-on approach to training programs will spur staffers to be more involved and enthusiastic about their jobs, he adds.

Augat measures the bang for the training buck in an employee’s subsequent performance. “How they approach their jobs and whether we retain them — that’s what gives me a measure of whether I’ve invested our money well.”

Kate Plourd is a reporter at CFO.

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