In today’s competitive employment environment, learning and development programs can make a major impact on both employee retention and recruiting appeal.
“The number one issue we see with finance candidates is people are looking to leave because they feel underutilized and believe there's no room to grow,” said Tom Chinonis, director of Townsend Search Group. “Training not only affords these candidates the ability to learn to become a CFO themselves but almost as importantly, it gives them a purpose.”
Research bears this out. According to Gallup, 59% of millennials say that when applying for a job opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important to them. PwC reports learning and development is millennials’ first benefit choice, with 35% also saying that excellent training and development programs make an employer attractive.
It's about more than employee expectations, though, report CFOs. Prioritizing training and development is imperative with high-growth organizations in particular. “We've had a significant amount of change, and that's created opportunities for our employees to learn new tools, systems, processes, and thinking styles. That's rewarding for them. It's also business critical for us,” said Justin Judd, who leads a finance team of 22 as CFO of human resources software provider BambooHR.
Part of promoting an environment of employee learning and development is hiring curious people. It's the trait most valued by Michelle Tanner, CFO of MasterControl, a life sciences product quality and compliance software provider. “Having that curious nature not only sets your team up to always look for solutions to problems and add value to the organization, it also introduces a whole culture of continuous learning and development,” she said.
CFOs we spoke to said providing ways for staff to learn, develop, and grow was often part of their corporate and finance team cultures. BambooHR, for example, hosts an annual full-day, company-wide meeting devoted to employee development. “We bring in outside speakers for meetings focused on the personal growth areas we think are most critical for our employees to learn about and have as a focus area,” Judd said.
The number one issue we see with finance candidates is people are looking to leave because they feel underutilized and believe there’s no room to grow. — Tom Chinonis, director, Townsend Search Group
That doesn’t mean that support for training has to be infused company-wide for it to be part of the finance department’s culture, though, noted Tanner. “Managers can set the tone, priorities, and level of engagement, and they can create their own culture of learning and development and really help people thrive in their careers,” she said.
Chinonis witnesses this playing out within his firm’s clients. “What we see is that exceptional CFOs go above and beyond. It's not just following corporate directives, organization-wide, especially for larger companies. It’s about the CFO focusing on their team" and helping their career progress, he said.
Team Training Needs
Providing the training and development that staff needs and that job candidates find desirable starts with understanding what team members need. “Really understanding your team, their perspective, and what's important to them is the first step. Have candid conversations about where they are, where they think they are, and where they'd like to go,” said Tanner.
Finance leaders also need to know what they’ll require from staff not only now, but in the future, added Judd. “What's also important is making sure that as a leadership team we're trying to understand what we're going to need,” he said.
Judd develops the expertise needed internally as much as possible. “Our mindset has been around helping people grow rather than looking for who might be out there in the market with the skills we need. We have great people who love our company and culture, and who understand what we're trying to achieve. And, in many ways, it's more productive to help them learn new skills than to try and hire those skillsets,” Judd said.
Personalize Professional Development
With a finance department of four people at Emtrain, a purveyor of employee benchmarking and training software, CFO Jennifer Thresher’s team is small enough for her to offer individualized training plans. It makes sense for large organizations, too, though. “Every single employee is in a different place in their career so you want to meet them where they're at" and put them on a development path that makes the most sense for them, she said.
That’s the approach Sara Nichols, CFO of Appspace, is using with her team of 12 at the workplace collaboration software provider. “The best practice that stands the test of time is one where you look at each individual, then develop a plan for their technical skills as well as their soft skills and personal growth skills,” she said.
Tanner uses a combination of ongoing dialogue and in-depth career conversations twice a year. One thing discussed is whether the employee has the right skillset for the projects they’re working on at the moment. “Then you can tailor-make those specific learning opportunities for them,” she said.
People also learn in different ways, so training and development opportunities can’t be one-size-fits-all. A best practice for making them more versatile and flexible is to offer a combination of virtual and in-person learning, Nichols said. Appspace uses a virtual format for technical training and in-person sessions for softer skills.
Nichols also employs an experiential approach that exposes FP&A staff to functions outside the finance department by requiring them to attend team meetings for key business functions.
“Everyone in the business should have a development component that encourages them to either shadow or partner with other parts of the business and understand what's happening outside of finance and accounting,” Nichols said. It helps build her team members’ confidence while it gives the company “business-minded finance and accounting folks who can do a better job with financial analysis and forecasting,” she added.
Everyone in the business should have a development component that encourages them to either shadow or partner with other parts of the business and understand what’s happening outside of the finance and accounting team. — Sara Nichols, CFO, Appspace
As part of her department’s leadership training, MasterControl's Tanner leverages the company’s extensive educational resources supporting the five philosophies that drive its culture. But sometimes she adds a next-level twist. “One year, I assigned each of them a topic from our leadership culture and instructed them to read a book or report, then come back to the leadership team and train us on what they learned. I think that's sometimes the best way to learn, especially because it helps them learn how to teach others,” Tanner said.
After observing that some companies focus development efforts on employees in customer-facing roles, Nichols became an advocate for offering learning opportunities to all of the company's employees. “Implementing a broad-based learning and development program that prioritizes every employee ensures they feel connected and valued,” she said.
Thresher agreed, adding, “Folks who are engaged aren't doing the quiet quitting.”
For Tanner, inclusivity means supporting team members who aren’t interested in new roles. For example, they can be given more responsibility in their existing positions. “There are always opportunities to help them be introspective and learn and develop on a personal level,” she said.
Judd stressed that it’s important to communicate all of this when recruiting talent. “In many ways, the most compelling thing to a candidate is communicating that this is what the business is likely going to need. This is how the work is likely going to evolve. And [the candidate] will have a chance to learn how to do that because the business requirement will be there,” he said.