In a recent Q&A with the CFO of software giant Epicor, David Mehok, I asked about the evolution of the finance profession in general and of the CFO role in particular. Saying that finance skills are now just the “ticket to entry” into the profession, Mehok went on to describe why the 21st century CFO needs to be a leader, communicator and strategist. His recent experiences with the COVID-19 crisis, recounted in this interview, explain why that’s the case while offering insight into how a finance leader manages through a crisis.
Jeff Thomson: As a finance leader with Dell for over 18 years, you served in a variety of roles, including leading Dell’s Investor Relations. In the course of your career, how have you seen the finance role evolve? How difficult is it for today’s finance professional to master technical skills while developing more soft skills like being able to communicate with investors?
David Mehok: The finance skills are now merely a ticket to entry, in my opinion. Finance is so embedded in all aspects of a business that the role of CFO and the finance department as a whole needs to be much more than a “number crunching” function. Of course, accounting and planning need to be done well, but those skills need to be coupled with more holistic business-focused skills such as nurturing business partnerships, negotiating, effective customer-facing communications and strategic planning. These are not all-inclusive, but just a few key areas that finance professionals need to not only know how to do, but know how to do well.
I spend a great deal of my time on activities that require good communication and relationship-building. Whether I’m talking to customers, partners, lenders or shareholders, I need to be able to effectively understand and communicate our business holistically – not just reference metrics and quote financials. Anyone can read numbers off a scorecard or financial statement, but in today’s business environment, finance professionals need to be able to effectively tell the story behind these numbers and have that story resonate with others.
It is also critically important to learn to listen. There are many constituents across an organization that need help or guidance from finance, and we need to be able to carefully listen and understand what these needs are to be able to provide the optimal answer and solution. Data and numbers equate to power in today’s business world, but only if you know how to understand them and effectively communicate them in a clear and concise manner.
Thomson: The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted every industry, with many anticipating radically transformed ways of doing business. How can CFOs guide their organizations through changes of this magnitude? What crisis management plans did you have in place prior to COVID? What new plans did you put in place after the crisis hit?
Mehok: For the last twenty years I’ve led global finance organizations, and I’ve experienced firsthand how the role of CFO has been elevated to one of the key leaders of the organization, both strategically and tactically. We are responsible to help lead and guide organizations through change by serving as an important voice of optimism and opportunity. We must also ensure our voice is balanced with the existing reality and backed by data.
Undoubtedly, every organization has been impacted by COVID-19. Some have experienced a slow-down in new business opportunities, pressured financials and the need to quickly adjust an entire workforce to working from home. Through this process there have also been numerous opportunities and positive outcomes that will make many organizations stronger and more resilient in the long-term.
I have found there are some key aspects to leading with a balanced but optimistic voice on a day-to-day basis. Communications in a work-from-home environment are a prime example. If leaders are absent or uncommunicative in times of perceived crisis, organizations tend to gravitate towards the worst-case outcomes. Starting in March I have had a standing weekly All-Hands meetings with my entire organization, which is a great opportunity to maintain that line of communication, listen to their questions and concerns, provide real-time updates on the business, and help them to think through the art of the possible and optimistic business outcomes we are working towards.
Virtual collaboration tools have also been a valuable asset that should be utilized. At Epicor, we enhanced how we use these tools and quickly adapted our working style to maximize productivity and ultimately accomplish things remotely that may have previously only been achieved through face-to-face communications.
The business planning process during this time has had to be fluid and accelerated. We needed to quickly but accurately re-plan our business for the remainder of the year and understand how to optimize the financial results while balancing the needs of our customers and employees. This is not easy and requires some tough decisions. Once the plan is finalized there needs to be sensitivity analysis and actions around these scenarios. Finally, it’s important to continue to focus on what can be done to achieve the best results possible and not get mired in why something can’t be achieved.
Prioritizing customers is always important, but it becomes increasingly important during times of tremendous change and uncertainty. Get to know your customers even better. Epicor has always been a customer-centric company, but understanding our customers’ financial challenges, resiliency of their business models and business flexibility are critical. For example, it has been inspiring to see some of our manufacturing customers adapt from airplane parts or vacuum cleaners to PPE production, and we continue to look into how we can help support them in their efforts to maximize their results and gain more visibility into their data and supply chain with our software solutions.
As for crisis management plans, the ones we had in place were certainly put to the test. Overall, I believe we worked through the transition very well, but there were certainly learnings around system readiness and some aspects of change management that came from the sudden pivot to remote working. Challenges we had to address to clear our path to success included connectivity in certain regions of the world where employees live, and how to effectively work in home environments where some of our employees were in close living conditions with extended families and potential distractions. From a customer perspective, our data centers that support our customers have performed very well during this time and validated our belief that we shine in periods of crisis.
Thomson: How do you stay current on technology? How important is it for finance professionals to understand technology and to be comfortable leading enterprise-wide technology transformation initiatives?
Mehok: Technology is no longer a stand–alone function, but one that is embedded in all aspects of business. This is one of the reasons why I believe it’s vital that CFOs stay current on technology so that they can more effectively understand and use it to help the business adapt during times of change.
One practical way I stay current on technology is by working very closely with our CIO, Rich Murr, so that I understand all aspects of the way technology intersects with the larger Epicor business. This is a process of continuous learning and discovery.
For example, our understanding of our personal computing systems by office helped us to modify our work from home solutions depending on the office. Our largest office is in Monterrey, Mexico, where we have over 800 employees. Most of these employees have desktops, with no access to laptops. When we needed our teams to work from home, we needed to come up with a swift, creative solution. We determined the best course of action would be to have them disconnect their office desktops and take them home to set up home offices – not the most elegant solution, but it proved effective as we took the time to do it in a well-orchestrated and coordinated fashion.
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