We’ve talked for a long time about the elevation of finance in business—the profound shift from focusing solely on core finance activities to being a true strategic partner and people leader. Peel back the layers, and every finance leader I know will tell you that this is easier said than done.
And yet more important than ever.
That’s why leadership transformation has been a central theme of our CFO of the Future Summit with Harvard faculty. I had the opportunity to talk with Sean Leary, senior vice president, financial planning and analysis at Ally Financial. Not only did he attend our recent virtual series, he’s helping lead Ally's finance transformation program.
We connected over video on Sean’s second week back in the office after more than a year of working remotely. Still adjusting to working without his hoodie and sweatpants, Sean shared some interesting takeaways. I see them as non-negotiables as finance leaders look to become the leaders that their businesses need them to be.
This was your first virtual summit series. What are your top takeaways from the sessions you attended?
What struck me was the consistency of the messages. In other words, there are these consistent principles that applied so broadly despite the diversity of industries and roles that were represented among the attendees. For all of us, we have not just the option, but the responsibility, to question the status quo. For lack of a better term, we owe it to ourselves to explore the art of the possible.
We need to do more than think about what we could do. We need to focus on what we should be doing on a day-to-day basis. There is a strong need to continue to embrace change and fundamentally new ways of thinking.
I absolutely agree with that. Change represents opportunity—both for the enterprise and the finance function. One of my top takeaways was the importance of innovation as we move into an uncertain post-pandemic environment. What’s your view on this?
The CFO and the finance team can’t just be supporters of innovation. They have to be champions of innovation in their own right. We’re lucky to have that in our CFO, Jenn LaClair. In addition to enabling business teams to innovate, the finance function has to be innovating in their own spaces. This is a concept that simply wouldn’t have been talked about five years ago.
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I thought it was fascinating that several of the speakers were able to prove the case that innovation is more than a nice-to-have in finance. They quantified the connection between financial results and driving innovation in the finance function.
What other core themes resonated with you?
The speed of decision making and the decisiveness that’s needed has been magnified 10x in the last 15 months. All of us in finance need to be agile and forward thinking.
One of the things I enjoy the most about the Summit are those moments when a speaker pushes you to see something in a different light. Did you have any of those moments?
The first speaker, Francesca Gino, who is a Harvard faculty member, talked about rebel talent. She highlighted how important it is to get the buy-in of the teams we work with, not just at the beginning but on an on-going basis. Trust matters, and it’s what enables teams to accomplish heroic feats. It served as a reminder of the importance of not only earning but maintaining the trust of our team and our business partners.
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That session also reinforced something that all of us have learned during this time—something that the professor connects to rebels and questioning the status quo. In so many cases, the ways that we have done things in the past are just not relevant to the conversation right now as we push toward new and digitally-enabled ways of working in finance.
These ideas of challenging the status quo, driving innovation and working at speed are all fundamental for finance leaders to be true business partners. How would you describe the dynamic between finance and the business at Ally Financial?
The most critical transition we can make as we transform the finance function is to innovate and deliver results for our business partners in addition to enabling financial results and controls. We want to influence results, not just keep score of the game.
I’m proud to say that everyone at the company views finance as a strategic asset. We’ve been at the center of key strategic initiatives, with a strong voice on the execution side. Our business leaders have had finance by their side during the last 15 months, and I definitely see that continuing moving forward.
It’s always very informative to hear directly from finance leaders like Sean about how they are leading through such an extraordinary time. I plan to continue to connect with them on top-of-mind issues, so be sure to watch this space for more perspectives from the frontlines of finance.
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