There are many attributes and skills that define a good leader. One skill that has become essential for management accountants in the age of Big Data is the ability to bring together relevant information and individuals trained in data analytics to generate timely insights. A good leader creates the right conditions under which management can make better-informed decisions. This means ensuring not only that the right operating and governance structures of information generation, communication, and decision making are in place and functioning as intended but also that individuals work in a culture that supports collaboration and the exchange of information and ideas.
The CFO and senior accounting managers have a particularly important role in managing the flow of internal information. The ability to rapidly turn data into financial insights can help inform a range of decisions, including with respect to budgeting and strategic planning. Good leaders recognize the opportunities and risk management advantages of well-functioning information systems and data analytics, including the ability to recognize red flags and inefficiencies.
Effective finance leaders also need to be good internal networkers who can highlight the financial implications of operational and strategic decisions. Moreover, they take the initiative by detecting patterns in data, anticipating emerging issues, and performing scenario planning to keep tabs on stale assumptions and potential blind spots.
Good leaders recognize that these activities work well when they’re supported by a culture of collecting, analyzing, and sharing relevant information. Instilling a strong information culture starts with the tone and behavior of senior finance leaders. How leaders communicate data to stakeholders and use analytics to make decisions sends a clear message throughout the business about the importance of data in operational and strategic matters.
Taking interest in the work and ideas of employees at different levels, not just direct reports, also helps finance leaders build trust and provides an opportunity to reinforce the organization’s core values and ethical standards.
FINANCE LEADS THE WAY
Management accountants have no shortage of opportunities to demonstrate leadership and their abilities in data management, governance, and analytics. Demonstrating a high degree of competence in a particular skill such as financial planning and analysis is one way to provide leadership. Finance professionals can demonstrate leadership by sharing technical accounting knowledge, making an information process more efficient, analyzing and presenting data to reveal a new pattern or insight, or discovering or creating a new data visualization tool that helps management understand the business better.
Another way to show leadership is to act as a connector who can synthesize various sources of information. For example, a finance analyst might recognize that an action in one department might have implications for another and work to quantify and communicate the financial impact. Making these types of connections can reveal opportunities that may be valuable to the company’s senior management and board of directors. Serving as a bridge between those who are comfortable with data analytics and those who aren’t can also represent a chance to lead within an organization.
Understanding the C-suite’s big-picture priorities may trigger specific ideas for how to support those initiatives through specific projects, training, or resources. Moreover, acting like a leader also means anticipating what’s coming around the corner, e.g., working backward from a deadline or anticipating what a client might want or will likely need.
When unanticipated issues arise, being able to use analytic frameworks to break a problem into parts, use data to understand the problem better, articulate what resources you need, and calmly work through the problem to find a solution rather than reacting to it impulsively is a great way to show leadership.
More generally, adopting a curious mindset, showing initiative, and committing to continuous improvement and learning will set a good example and create leadership opportunities regardless of your current job title or level of experience.
CULTURAL ELEMENT OF LEADERSHIP
A shift toward a more democratic, less hierarchical leadership culture is an emerging global trend. Good leaders recognize that insights come from all levels and that every team member has an important contribution to make. This is especially the case in the age of Big Data, where the increasing complexity of various factors that inform decisions may favor flat team structures and collaboration.
In this environment, good leaders build a culture of trust and serve as facilitators of employees’ success. They ensure that team members have a seat at the table and are comfortable voicing their opinions and exchanging feedback, as well as encourage them to consider each other’s ideas and play devil’s advocate when appropriate. Even the most junior member of the team armed with a fresh idea, perspective, or analysis can be influential and make valuable contributions in a democratic leadership culture.
MAKE TIME FOR MENTORSHIP
The value of mentorship can’t be overstated. Management best practices are absorbed on the job by working with colleagues in leadership roles. Most good leaders have learned from other good leaders who took the time to provide advice and training during their formative years. My advice for junior professionals is to find good mentors and be open to asking for—and receiving—feedback.
Similarly, my advice to more experienced professionals is to pay it forward by making time for mentorship. Simple routines such as regular check-ins providing informal feedback and career advice or including junior staff on client calls can make a big impact on colleagues’ professional development. Providing internal training and knowledge-sharing programs is another valuable way to demonstrate leadership and show commitment to the professional development of team members.