Beyond the Numbers: The CFO as a Cultural Change Agent

September 19, 2017

By Jeffrey Melnick

The idea of the traditional role of a CFO as purely a number-cruncher is as antiquated as pay phones and carbon paper. In fact, there should be little that is outside the lane of today’s CFO. A large part of this expansive view entails the ability of CFOs to drive changes to organizational culture in order to increase operational effectiveness across the entire firm. How can this transformation be achieved? It is through leadership and implementing leading-edge technology, of course.

A key goal at a professional services firm is to develop a virtuous cycle of success where the adoption of technology decreases staff friction points, which improves the employee experience, leaving their focus on helping to make our clients more successful. The CFO can be instrumental by helping overcome technology bias at an organization that may have developed over many years. But what supernatural power does the CFO have to cause this sea change? He or she can use both quantitative and qualitative metrics to show leadership–as well as stakeholders in IT, HR, marketing and practice leaders–that technology can be a powerful collaborative tool creating this virtuous cycle of success.

A Journey Begins with the First Step

I followed four basics tenets as we implemented technology across the firm–mobile, easy to use, secure and transformational. My first step toward reshaping the corporate culture at EisnerAmper regarding technology began by creating a partner reporting system and dashboard to visualize the client data for which the partners are responsible. Next came mobile time recording, followed by better utilization of existing tools.

As the journey progressed, I tried a simple, but effective exercise. I charged the 37 professionals on my finance team to each provide one idea with respect to transforming, eliminating or investing in a technology. Perhaps by giving them some skin in the game, we actually came up with three times as many, 119 ideas, which we are currently prioritizing for impact and cost.

Coming to Fruition

One seed of an idea that grew out of an earlier finance brainstorming exercise pertained to expense reporting–a pain point on which we can probably all agree. Working with HR and IT, we launched a fully digital, fully mobile expense report system in December 2016 for all 1,500 EisnerAmper employees. Hearing the relief in the voices of colleagues who did their expense reports on a flight or during the train commute home because it made their lives incrementally easier was a wonderful validation of our efforts.

We also tackled accounts payable. Our previous system was paper-based, labor-intensive and consisted of a dozen steps of transferring paper among our various offices. Our new electronic system is a digital 3-step process that offers better control and reduced staffing and storage costs.

We re-tooled and globalized our billing system with expanded capabilities. This seismic change allows our firm to “follow the sun” and utilize our infrastructure from San Francisco to Mumbai to expand client invoicing from only eight hours a day to nearly around the clock.

Other firm-wide technology initiatives include video conferencing, a more robust customer relationship management system, and a single HR system that replaced 14 separate ones. Each of these systems features apps for convenient use on a mobile phone or tablet.

As the CFO, I feel a responsibility to look at the bottom line and consider initial resistance, but then to always look at how the aforementioned cultural shifts in technology would improve employee capabilities and experiences, and the firm’s position over the long-term, which ultimately make our clients more successful.

Goin’ Mobile

A common refrain that I emphasize is mobile capability. As most people already live on their smartphones, this was more of a soft sell than a hard sell, but it did necessitate a slight change in cultural mindset. When client-facing practitioners are untethered from operations, the firm can move at a much faster pace. As such, we hired an app development team to bridge data flows. This went far beyond convenience; mobility frees staff to give more thought to their clients, which contributes to the development of our firm of the future.

The Verdict’s In

While the tenor of this article is a CFO beyond the numbers, there’s certainly no escaping them. Thankfully, all of the technology we invested in paid for itself via other cost take-outs, namely eliminating maintenance cost on legacy systems, reducing payroll, improved expense control and decreased location expenses. Perhaps, more importantly, we transitioned technologies that were formerly siloed and successfully integrated them across the entire firm–again, vesting people in the collaborative process. Other benefits included winning the “2017 When Work Works Award,” an increased Glass Door score, and a decreased attrition rate.

What’s Next?

While we’ve made great technological strides over the past two years, we are certainly not resting on our laurels. My team will be working on a new, cloud-based, financial ERP system that will also be fully integrated across the firm. We’ll continue to invest in data streamlining in order to make it seamless companywide. Also, analytics will continue to play a big role. Firms today have mountains of data at their disposal–most of which is vastly underutilized. We need to gain a better understanding of our data to, for example, benchmark performance for clients.

Time for You to Make Some Changes

CFOs are uniquely positioned to leverage technological solutions that cut across the entire firm. Often that means being a champion for cultural change. (Lest I forget to mention that EisnerAmper has given me the tools and support to forge this change.) But the CFO’s investment in time and effort to bring about that change can result in a virtuous cycle that perpetuates success. 

About Jeffrey Melnick

Jeffrey Melnick CPA is a Partner and Chief Financial Officer at EisnerAmper. He has more than 25 years of business experience, including finance, operations, and mergers and acquisitions.