Employee Retention

CFO Leadership: The Rise of Human-Centric Management

How three CFOs are putting the people-first approach to employee management into action.
CFO Leadership: The Rise of Human-Centric Management
Photo: jacoblund

Variations in management styles have been around for as long as business has been done. The relationship between managers and their employees can have direct impacts on production, productivity, morale, and revenue. Experience, upbringing, education, or culture can determine the management styles of a person when they are put in a position of power.

As the labor market remains tight and people express the widespread desire to no longer work, a human-centric approach or a “people first” attitude is necessary. It’s a culture change executives can implement overnight to improve executive and employee morale.

A Most Important Asset  

Outside of things like capital, infrastructure, and raw materials, people are among the most important assets to any finance executive. The idea that people are a company’s strongest asset, a notion spoken about frequently at the MIT Sloan CFO Summit last month, is beginning to embed itself within the fabric of companies in many industries. 

Eric Emans, CFO of Nintex, approaches his position from a unique perspective. Besides being a seasoned CFO, Emans comes from a sociology background, approaching his position with a well-rounded understanding of how people interact. He believes CFOs should become less about the numbers and more about the people they manage on their teams. 

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  Eric Emans

“I try to always remember that I am managing people and not functions,” said Emans. “It is always possible to connect and relate as human beings, no matter other work-based differences. I believe that people do best when they have a clear vision of how their work fits into the big picture.”

As a leader, Emans feels it is his job to connect the company’s people to important goals and create opportunities for them. “I schedule a regular cadence of skip-level meetings to build direct relationships with more of the organization,” he said. “I set expectations and give independence so everyone can do their best work.”

Emans spoke on how new executives can shift the dynamics with a human-centric management style, especially if their newly-inherited teams previously had a manager less focused on people. When asked about how executives can introduce a new management style, the CFO shared thoughts on fear-based leadership tactics.

“I don’t believe in fear-based management. It doesn’t make sense to me, it never has,” said Emans. “If you inherit a team with fear-based management, you can immediately reset expectations about how you will lead.” 

He continued: “Let them know that when the team wins, you win. If the team loses, leadership owns the loss. Employees deserve to know that they are respected and get the benefit of the doubt as people and fellow professionals.”

Skepticism and Open Communication

A human-centric approach to company decisions by executives can be a great foundation for decision-making. Christina Ross, CEO of FP&A software provider Cube after a career as a CFO, shared thoughts on the value of skepticism and open communication within a company. While these strategies can help a company avoid groupthink, they can also be a tremendous building block for company culture. 

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  Christina Ross

“Skepticism has always been a trait of a great CFO because CFOs are responsible for assessing risks and impacts to the bottom line,” said Ross. “The best companies have a healthy tension between the optimists and the skeptics. There is a delicate dance between them, [and] now we’re seeing next-gen CFOs combine healthy skepticism with healthy optimism. They are co-creating the art of the possible with their organizations.”

Honest communication within an organization, according to Ross, is paramount. In the wake of recent tech layoffs, Ross recently took time with Cube’s employees to discuss the changes in the labor market.

“We acknowledged people’s concerns while laying out our strategy for how Cube would fare and succeed in this environment by helping companies navigate their way through these challenging times,” said Ross.“One of our company values is ‘human’ which says we are a collection of humans building products and services for other humans.”

“Our ability to have empathy for one another, for our customers, and for our company is critical to our success,” she said. 

Emphasis on Learning

Some companies are strategizing around learning and development and are seeing the approach pay major dividends. Aglika Dotcheva, CFO of e-commerce risk management platform Riskified, shared thoughts on how employee development is helping her company secure a sound culture and workforce concurrently.

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 Aglika Dotcheva

“’Always learning’ is one of our core operating principles,” said Dotcheva. “As e-commerce evolves, so do fraud and abuse, and so continuous learning and growth is something we value and emphasize to our employees day-to-day.”

Through the implementation of an in-house learning and development team, Dotcheva allocates resources directly toward an employee’s progression. Through webinars, workshops, and other events, all company-provided, Riskified encourages employees to develop their skills. 

“We encourage our employees to work with teams and on projects outside their traditional skillset,” Dotcheva said. “To that end, we also ensure that as a company we’re always learning from our customers. Through those learnings, we continue to update and enhance our knowledge base on the threats e-commerce faces.”

Dotcheva highlighted how this approach to employee development has allowed her to build the company from within. According to the CFO, 27% of Riskified employees have climbed the internal ladder in 2022. “We always want to make sure that employees are continuously learning and finding new ways to challenge themselves,” she said.