Most of us have heard that famous Jack Welch saying about change. In fact, it was quoted at our most recent CFO of the Future Summit with Accenture and Harvard faculty. The former General Electric CEO presciently said that “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”
Welch’s words are apt after the events of the last eighteen months. They’re also relevant for finance leaders who have been immersed in sweeping change for more than a decade. Then the pandemic raised the stakes—and sped up the impact of change.
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Data. Skills. Leadership.
A great way to gauge the impact of change is to talk to finance leaders who navigate it every day. That’s why I was so pleased to connect with Kevin Gahan, the group financial controller at Allied Irish Banks. Several themes emerged from our discussion. I think of them as big changes that finance leaders must make—becoming more data-centric, evolving finance skills and embracing dynamic leadership approaches.
Let’s begin by talking about your role. What are you responsible for as the Group Financial Controller at Allied Irish Banks?
I oversee all the production components of the finance function—production of financial accounts, management accounts, regulatory reporting, credit reporting and the tax function. The way that we do our work has changed over the last year. We’ve moved from an 80 to 85% on-site model to 95% off site. That’s been a significant shift for us.
Is this shift a positive that you are embracing, a negative that you’ve mitigated, or something else?
For the most part, I’d call it an unexpected positive. As one of the Summit speakers noted, being fully out of the office or fully in the office is unlikely to be the right model moving forward. We'll have to determine what exactly the hybrid model should look like to accommodate the most productive environment, preserving those meaningful In-person connections where we can.
So what are the greatest disruptors for the organization right now?
Data is the biggest X factor that we can use to drive value. The last few sessions of the Summit focused on this concept in interesting ways. To me, driving value from data is a key area of focus—and it must be into the future.
There are two components to unlocking incremental value from data. One is the regulatory requirement—the insatiable nature of regulators to get more and more data to regulate us. Secondly, there is the business perspective to have the capability to do the analysis and to drive insight from data. I see it in terms of a simple model that goes from data to information to insights to decisions to actions—and finally—to real customer outcomes.
When you think about this value chain from data to outcomes, is your interaction with the business changing?
Yes, our ability to work with them and challenge them is increasing in proportion to our ability to drive value in these ways. In the past, there was a view that Finance didn’t understand the business well enough to challenge them, and that we were an order taker working with their inputs or outputs from a budgeting and planning perspective only. As we have more data, we can proactively work with the business units to drive opportunities. We can address the data to information to insights and begin the dialogue with decisions to make and actions to take.
A big part of evolving the relationship with the business and providing this kind of value is having different skills in Finance—people who can get conversant in the data and communicate well.
Within Finance, we’re moving towards a much better capability on the data side. We were predominantly an accounting function with qualified accountants as our key capability. While holding on to that, we’re attempting to drive up the capability on data and analytics. We’ve talked about a “citizen data analyst” who understands both the data and finance sides. It’s a rare breed of individual who can be brilliant at both. We’ve been working on ways develop people who have this aptitude.
How have you evolved your leadership approaches to respond to all of these changes—from hybrid work models to the push for non-traditional skills in Finance?
This is something I’m still working through. In the old world, I did what I call MBWA—management by walking around. Every Friday, I’d connect and interact with my team in person, which helped me get the unvarnished truth about what was happening. In our virtual world, phone calls aren’t as effective. This is why I continue to think about the best ways that I can connect and keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on. I think a lot of leaders are looking to evolve how they lead right now, which is a positive thing.
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Special thanks to Kevin for sharing his perspective on how his role has changed since the pandemic—and what lessons he’s learned about managing through change.
See more finance insights here.