Take Your New Team to the Top

BY PATTI J. GILLENWATER

  

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Vision. Start with a clear vision of a finance team that is involved in the business and engaged in key management decisions.

Stakeholders. Identify and engage key stakeholders right away. Conduct structured interviews to identify what is most important to your internal clients.

Current Organization. Immediately evaluate the existing organization by asking team members to describe their current roles and to explain their work history in the current organization.

Right Hand. During the initial assessment period, also look for someone who can be your “right hand.” This is someone who shares your vision for the finance team.

Assimilation. Hold a team meeting facilitated by HR. Reward team members who clearly fit the new vision. Strategically recruit new employees who will mix well with the team and encourage them to move in the new direction.

Lessons. Timing is critical; don’t delay tough decisions. Create the right blend of new team members with established staff to maximize results. Respond quickly and effectively tothe small things first to achieve “early wins” and build confidence.

Don’t take on too much at once. Don’t settle for less than what you want to achieve. Communicate important issues up the organization. Have the tough conversations.

Patti J. Gillenwater is the CEO of Raleigh, N.C.-based Elinvar, an executive search firm that specializes in recruiting and retaining top talent for finance organizations.Her e-mail address is patti@elinvar.com. Mike Kaelin is a former candidate and current client of Elinvar.

The challenge for any leader moving into a new organization is to hit the ground running, quickly bringing value to the business he or she is supporting. In no field is this more true than corporate finance, where pressure to reduce costs is high and management tenure increasingly short.

Mike Kaelin, vice president of finance for a business unit of RTI International, has a track record of building high-performing finance teams who are recognized for bringing value to the businesses they support. He has refined a process for evaluating, motivating and building teams over the course of his last three financial leadership positions and shares the system and lessons learned along the way.

THE VISION
Start with a clear vision of a finance team that is involved in the business and engaged in key management decisions. This vision is communicated to both the team and the key stakeholders outside of the finance team. Your vision will be used to develop, implement and measure the success of specific objectives and tactics during the execution of the rest of this process.

This step is vital. Everyone wants to know where they are going and why.

THE STAKEHOLDERS
Identify and engage key stakeholders right away. This step includes both your boss and peers outside the walls of finance. These internal clients or customers should be treated the same way you would treat clients if you were running a private practice. Your mission is to serve and complement their needs.

Conduct structured interviews to identify what is most important to your internal customers. If your predecessor did not share your value-added approach, then initially your peers may not understand the reason for your questions, says Kaelin.

At this point you are building your relationship in the organization and looking for opportunities to demonstrate how your team can bring value to internal customers. In effect, you are teaching your team how to serve while teaching the business how to be served by your team.

Meeting with internal customers is not a one-time event; it is an ongoing process. Kaelin schedules one-on-one meetings with each customer every two weeks. While this requires a significant amount of time, it helps tremendously when it comes to implementation. Transitions are much smoother as the customers discover that their input results in specific actions.

THE CURRENT ORGANIZATION
A quick evaluation of the existing organization is critical to a new leader’s success. In addition to ending the suspense for team members, it is essential to know the strengths of existing team members and to determine that everyone is in the right role to leverage their strengths and interests.

In individual interviews with your group, give each team member an opportunity to start learning about you while you learn about them. Start by asking team members to describe their current roles and to explain their work history in the organization. Also ask about their past positions and probe to discover what their biggest challenges are. Make a point to learn what does and does not motivate them and how you can help them be more successful.

THE RIGHT HAND
During the initial assessment period, look for someone who can be your “right hand.” This is someone who shares your vision for the finance team. Kaelin sometimes finds this person on an existing team and at other times goes outside of the organization to find this critical person. In this individual you are looking for someone whose skills complement yours.

Another factor is making certain that this person is right for your current organization. At times it is tempting to hire someone who has worked for you in a previous company. Sometimes this can be a great move, but just because an individual was well-suited for a prior situation does not mean that they are the right fit for the next one.

A final consideration is cultural fit. If changing the culture of the existing team is a goal, then it is essential for this “right hand” to be an effective cheerleader for the changes that are slated to take place in the organization.

ASSIMILATION
The heavy lifting comes next. Now that you have input from the internal clients your department supports and have developed some initial impressions of the members of the team you inherited, the next step is to learn more about your team and help them learn more about you. This is a critical step as it builds the next level of trust required to work toward changing the organization.

Kaelin calls on the human resource department for assistance with the first step in the assimilation process—a team meeting facilitated by HR. This meeting is held off-site in an informal setting. The team is given 13 questions to answer about Kaelin. He does not attend this part of the meeting. After they have answered these questions, Kaelin comes into the meeting and reviews their answers and addresses the additional questions raised during the session. This process provides a very “safe” environment for the team members to learn what they want to know about their new leader.

More information about the team is also revealed during this session. You have an opportunity to observe the team dynamics and note the level of engagement of the team members. During this process, the team develops a list of what needs to be done. Having the “to-do list” come from the team creates a dynamic that fosters the support of the team members from the beginning of the change initiative.

The final and probably most important benefit of this exercise is that it opens the door for communication between you and the individuals on your team. This environment gives you a chance to let the team see your human side. By being open and willing to share about yourself, you encourage a level of trust that facilitates the relationship building needed to effect change.

Your goal is to create an environment where your staff will bring the issues to you. Early in the process, find ways to reward team members who clearly fit the new vision. As you determine who will not contribute well to the new organization, strategically recruit new employees who will mix well with the team, and encourage them to move in the new direction that you have set.

LESSONS LEARNED
Kaelin is the first to admit that he has made mistakes along the way. Here are some tips based on these experiences:

The timing of when you make changes is critical. Be careful not to delay making the tough decisions.

Create the right blend of new team members with the established staff and refocus to get maximum results.

Respond quickly and effectively to the small things first. This creates early wins, which build confidence within the team and within the organization you are serving.

Take on the big challenges after building your credibility within the organization.

Do not take on too much at once.

Be resolute in your goals—do not settle for less than what you want to achieve.

Communicate important issues up the organization.

Have the tough conversations.

To be successful in today’s climate, financial leaders are required to have more than technical accounting skills. The ability to attract and retain top financial talent and meld and motivate these talented individuals into a high-performing team is essential.

This process is a great example of how a strong technician can expand his or her abilities and achieve more through effective deployment of a talented group of finance professionals. Making this effort a priority is certain to enhance the success of your career and the success of the business you are supporting.

AICPA RESOURCES

JofA articles
A Strategic Player,” July 06, page 51
Jump-Start Success,” Feb. 05, page 34

CPE
Lean Accounting and Management: Improving Profitability by Streamlining Operations , a CPE self-study course (#731274)
The Controller Today: Innovative Management Tips and Techniques , a CPE self-study course (#731983)
Bottom Line Management Accounting Practical Solutions to Real World Problems , a CPE self-study course (#733340)

For more information or to register, go to www.cpa2biz.com , or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.

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