Train for Gain

Think there is a finance talent shortage? True, there are only so many people milling around who can provide exactly what you need. But there are a...
David McCannJuly 23, 2013

When you consider how bummed out finance leaders are over what they see as a shortage of talent with the skills they most covet, it’s a wonder they can function at all. Here’s what I’m wondering: Might they not, to some degree, be properly held accountable for the shortage? If there actually is one, that is.

A pretty bright guy, Wharton professor Peter Cappelli, has been preaching for years that what people think of as a “talent shortage” (referring to talent in general, not just the finance variety) is a myth. There’s plenty of talent available, his thinking goes, if by “talent” you mean intelligent, capable people. Companies expend way too much energy, and don’t ultimately get what they want, by insisting on looking for exactly the kind of person with exactly the right skills for a particular role. It’s smarter to find people with the potential to fill specific roles, then train them.

I don’t see why that shouldn’t apply to finance just as it does to the factory floor.

Some companies recognize this. In a new survey of 1,250 senior finance executives by Accenture, 44 percent said that investing in upgrading finance-staff skills is “a priority” over the next two to three years. It was the most frequently cited priority among 12 options the survey respondents could choose from. That’s great!

But, I am compelled to muse, what are the other 56 percent going to be doing? This was, Accenture tells me, a “select-all-that-apply” type of question. The participants didn’t have to leave skills training on the bench in favor of lowering the cost of finance or investing in systems to support budgeting and forecasting or reducing the time finance staff spends on low-value activities.

It puzzles me greatly how ongoing training could not even be simply “a priority” – never mind a “key” or a “major” priority – for just about any finance department.

Here is some advice (mine, not Accenture’s): Don’t worry that training costs will become a waste when people leave the company. That is negative, unproductive, head-in-the-sand thinking.

CFOs also might consider exercising a little creativity to enrich their talent pool. For example, another piece of new research, a Deloitte survey in which 39 percent of 312 finance executives stated that today they are either “barely able” or “unable” to find the talent required to run their organizations, notes that many prospective recruits may not realize that the identity of a finance professional has expanded in recent years from scorekeeper to strategist. In fact, participants said the issue of talent being lured to non-finance positions is their top challenge in attracting talent in 2013. So, says Deloitte, CFOs should consider pursuing a targeted, organized brand-building strategy designed to get out the word about finance’s shift to strategy.

I also found in Deloitte’s report data hinting that CFOs could be more open-minded as to sources of not only future finance leaders, but current ones as well. Only 16 percent of respondents said their companies had found highly skilled finance leaders (CFOs and their direct reports) at companies outside their sector, and just half that many had found them at small businesses and start-ups. (All of the participants were from companies with at least $800 million in revenue, almost a quarter of them larger than $20 billion.)

But getting back to the main theme, my advice to finance leaders (and, as a matter of fact, to those who evaluate their performance) is this: Stop expecting that colleges and even public accounting firms will drop all the talent you need down your chimney and that all you’ll have to do is untie the bow, open the neatly wrapped box and start playing with your new, ready-to-use toy. You may, at the least, need to wind it up.

Photo credit: Creative Commons Attribution – CC BY-ND Michigan Municipal League

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