Why a CFO needs to wear two hats

Hosted by Neil Amato

James Miln, ACMA, CGMA, a finance executive at Yelp, identified several key takeaways from the recent Future of Finance Summit in Nashville, Tenn., which featured a collection of executives and outside experts discussing the ongoing transformation of the finance function. One point that was clear to Miln as it relates to transformation: "We're all eyes wide open this is a journey, and it is hard."

His voice is one of several from the Future of Finance Summit and the Digital CPA Conference that you will hear in 2022 episodes of the podcast, which will continue to cover accounting news and trends and highlight Journal of Accountancy content, such as new FASB accounting concept statements and single audit clarity related to pandemic relief programs.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • The role of technology in underpinning the future of finance.
  • The reasons that the concept of trust matters for a company such as Yelp.
  • Why being known as an efficient cost-cutter may not always be good.
  • How previously "intangible" aspects of a business are growing in importance.
  • Summaries of recent JofA news articles.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: Welcome to 2022 and welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. On this show, we'll be covering the news and trends that matter to our finance audience, and we'll also aim to bring you insight from expert thinkers in and out of the accounting world. Continuing on that trend, the guest on this segment is James Miln. James is senior vice president of finance and investor relations at Yelp. James works in California, but his finance training came in the United Kingdom. He has the credentials ACMA and CGMA, and he joined me, the Journal of Accountancy's Neil Amato, for this interview in December.

You're at the Future of Finance Summit. We're speaking in Nashville, Tennessee, late 2021. I want to get your takeaways from the event so far but also touch on some things that you spoke on. First, how is technology, which is such a big deal these days in so many facets of the business world, but as it relates to finance, how is it underpinning what's next for finance and its value proposition?

Miln: Yeah, thanks, Neil. As you said, technology is everywhere, it's underpinning business transformation. As such, I think the finance of the future, it needs to underpin our evolution and transformation, too. When we think about our value proposition, it's so much more than where we traditionally focused our time on cost and revenue. When you look at ESG, the impact of technology on our consumers and our customers and our stakeholders today, the way that we create value is so much more broad.

Finance needs to have the tools at our disposal to better help make decisions around how we create value, and technology really underpins that, from everything about how we record what is going on in the business and record our financial results to decision-making about where the business is going, forecasting, scenario planning, insights, analytics. And there were so many tools out there for us to use today that I think we want to develop our teams and have talent on our teams that is able to use these tools to the most effect with our business partners and become value partners to the organizations.

Amato: Are there any specific examples of those tools that maybe your team is looking into or getting a handle on now?

Miln: Yeah. If I bring it to Yelp, we are a cloud-based company, we're an internet company. Our product and engineering leaders and teams live and breathe cognitive computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning. It's how they get insight into our consumers and our businesses and how they iterate the product.

At a fundamental level, I think to be a great finance business partner and value partner, we have to understand those technologies. But then there are also opportunities for us in our core finance operations and in our finance business practices where we can apply those: AI, ML models can help us project data on traffic, on business, on retention, on acquisition that can help inform our forecast models. And cloud, moving our ERPs to the cloud, connecting that with our other applications where we can get insight into our providers, our customers, our vendors and what's going on within the operations of our business. It's hugely practical to what we're doing, but also so much opportunity about where we're going.

Amato: Where we're going with all this data: There's an explosion of data that we have at our fingertips. Anyone does, but finance in particular. How can they best manage the amount of data, especially at a company like Yelp?

Miln: Yeah. We've been seeing it at Yelp and I've been at two different technology, internet companies: eBay, Yahoo. Being very familiar with some of these things the reality is for all business now the digitization of so many interactions through internet of things, through the cloud.

Even what you could call traditional businesses with supply chains and manufacturing, the quantities of data that they have to understand what's going on in their company and with their customers and their employees and their stakeholders is there.

That's a great question and a great challenge for us in finance. Because when we think about what's the finance in the future, what are the competencies and skills we need to see from our teams, from finance professionals?

When you think about data and this huge amount of data that's out there, data governance is key. From the CFO down, having a point of view on how we store, use, keep the quality high on the data that we have in the business and understanding of data engineering and data science. I think there are probably use cases where finance can own more of that. There are ones that we can partner really well with our colleagues under the CTO or the CIO within the organization. But those applications by how we drive insight from the data through machine learning, artificial intelligence, and different applications — it's critical.

So, there's an amount of learning that I think we can, over time for our profession, build up those skills in the same way that we know how to do journal entries and how to balance the books. Also have continuing professional development that continues to keep those [skills] sharp. I think it's a great opportunity for us to share across so many different businesses are different experiences. That's been great at the summit here, seeing and hearing from colleagues who are at different stages of this journey and learning from each other.

Amato: You co-presented with Claire Bramley of Teradata and one thing she said, I want you to respond to. She said, "Being a leader by example is great." I'm sure on many levels it is, but then she said, "Except showing that you can cut costs maybe doesn't help your department in the long run." What do you think about that?

Miln: Yeah. I think that registered strongly with a lot of participants, including myself. You know, we are so used on the CFO and the finance side of thinking about our role in that more traditional lense of costs and revenues. When it comes to the cost, we feel a need I think often to lead by example and being very careful about the budget and maybe even championing opportunities to save cost. But we have to flip that, just as we've been talking about here, to value. Let's move from cost to value.

When we think about value, there are certain investments that make sense that we should as a business, be supportive of. But within finance, we have to. So, when we look at technology, we look at digital skills and competencies. We are doing our teams a disservice if we're not thinking about where to invest smartly to help us have the impact we want in value creation in the business. I think that's what Claire was getting at, and I think she's absolutely right.

Amato: Do you have any key takeaways that stick with you in your time at this summit?

Miln: I have a few. We've had some great presenters here, looking at the future and thinking about that and understanding the trends that we're seeing from our colleagues. One that came through was, it's not necessarily complicated, it's just hard. I think the clarity of narrowing the destination, and that's what we're trying to do through the future of finance, it's going to be really helpful for all of us to plot out that journey.

But we're all eyes wide open this is a journey, and it is hard. There aren't any easy answers here. I think that's one. Then, just that value proposition beyond the costs and revenues. For Yelp, Yelp is a business where a huge part of our customer proposition is trust. As a finance leader and as a finance team at Yelp, we have to understand how to value trust. You think about that across other areas that have in the past been seen as intangible but around employee engagement, employee diversity, inclusion, our supply chain, environmental impact of our data centers.

These are all areas that, increasingly, we understand that traditionally they've been seen as intangible. Today, we know that people make decisions based on point of view of where the company is on those and how effective we are at managing them and driving value through those. I think finance needs to be a value partner on that journey.

Amato: One thing that stuck with me is that there's a difference between managing change that you know is coming, like a merger or something, versus managing the uncertainty that's imposed on you. Like suddenly having to convert to remote work. How do you feel like you do at that skill, and how can you get better at it? Because there's obviously going to be some other imposed change that you're not going to be ready for.

Miln: I think that gets a lot at, are we ourselves and our teams and our profession, are we training people to have that adaptability almost built in. You know it's agile work, lean, and we talked about these at the conference, too, and the ability to just be able to deal with uncertainty more and more effectively. I think we've all proven to ourselves through the pandemic that actually we have an amazing ability to do that. Sometimes when you have a crisis, sometimes you're able to drive change even more effectively and more significantly than you ever thought.

I think we should take good learning from that and think about how we drive that sort of thinking. It's the two hats we were talking about of the CFO. On the one hand, there's a lot of what we've done traditionally that is important and critical to the business and needs to continue around governance, compliance, sort of our stewardship. But what we're talking about here is that other hat, which is about creativity, it's about the future, it's about uncertainty, and it's about embracing that. Because if you were going to support the businesses to innovate at the edge versus being efficient at the core, we need to wear both of those hats.

If anything coming through the last couple of years, the flexibility we've all demonstrated should give us a lot of encouragement as we have the ability to do that. And, so, let's get at it, bring on more.

Amato: That's James Miln of Yelp. James, thanks very much.

Miln: Thank you, Neil.

Amato: We appreciate James' time and insight. Look for more insights from the Future of Finance Summit. We have interviews from several speakers from that event that will air as 2022 continues.

In other news, two concept statements address the financial statement elements and factors FASB should consider in developing accounting guidance. Jeff Drew has the story on the statements, which are presented as new chapters in FASB's Conceptual Framework.

Also, a January addendum to the Office of Management and Budget Compliance Supplement, which was issued in December, provides clarity on single audit requirements related to two federal pandemic relief programs. Ken Tysiac has that article, which along with the FASB article, will be linked in the show notes for this episode. You can find more news at journalofaccountancy.com. Thank you for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.