Managing Change Means Mastering Communication

Sue Lindsay

Change can be difficult, but in an era where finance departments are being tasked with implementing new technologies and processes, it can also be essential.

And while the drivers for change are often rooted in technology and process transformation, the successful delivery of a complex change program can come down to a very human level.

Faced with the need to both streamline costs and improve processes, in 2016 the diversified food company Goodman Fielder embarked on an extensive change program that would lead to moving many accounting tasks offshore while centralizing and automating others.

Goodman Fielder financial controller Sue Lindsay says that, prior to 2016, all the company’s transactional accounting was done in-house. But following an extensive review, the company decided to take much of that work offshore.

“We had new owners come into the business about 12 months prior, and like any new owners, they looked for efficiencies,” Lindsay says. “But we also had stakeholders who wanted more from our finance team than just accounting, and we had competitors who had already made the change in terms of offshoring and finding efficiencies.”

“There were things we needed to change, so in a way it forced our hand – we couldn’t continue to go along thinking everything was OK. So, in order to maintain our competitiveness and be effective, we needed to go through the same journey, to be cost-effective and move with the times. And we also owed it to ourselves to adapt to new ways of working.”

Designing the future state

Working with one of the Big 4 accounting firms, they developed a change program that would make the retained finance team a high-performing partner to the business, working alongside its different areas and functions. Lindsay says the intention was to reflect the general shift within the accounting profession away from a traditional view of decision support and financial reporting and planning, to a much more strategic “business insight” function.

“So it was about designing what the new retained team looked like and its role, and also understanding how we wanted ourselves to be perceived and how we wanted to hold each other accountable and grow as a team as well as individually,” she says.

Designing this future state required a significant process of self-assessment, as the finance function determined its charter for the retained team, including the competencies it wanted, the role it would play as a business partner, and how it wanted to be perceived by stakeholders across the business.

“And from there we went on a journey of assessing what we wanted to achieve, both from a strategy perspective and a training and development perspective, and through that process we undertook our training and development,” Lindsay says.

Critical communication

A key factor in managing the change program effectively was constant communication throughout the function.

“Once we had gone through the review phases, it was very much about making sure we communicated regularly,” Lindsay says. “So there was a weekly communication with the wider project team, and there was a fortnightly communication with everyone in our finance team to give them an update on where we were at with each of the streams, what was being impacted and what was being changed.”

Lindsay says in the early days of the change program there was often not much to report, but during those periods they maintained constant communication.

“We thought it was much better to communicate that there was nothing to communicate, rather than not communicate,” Lindsay says. “Not hearing anything at all leaves a person wondering, ‘Is there nothing to tell me, or are they not telling me something, or have they forgotten?’ It is open-ended.”

“We closed the loop by saying that we have communicated to you a fortnight ago and nothing has changed since last fortnight, but we are just letting you know. And it was as simple as that.”

The exercise in regular communication is now fused into the culture of the retained team.

“There is a way to go, but we have rolled out what we call our backbone for how we want to interact with each other and as a team,” Lindsay says. “We are seeing a lot of benefits in terms of our team dynamics. We have come quite far, to a point where the team does have robust discussions, and we have created an environment where the team [members] are more comfortable raising their concerns and speaking out, which is great.”

“I can’t overstate how important communication is in the whole process. And having an open mind, because it is not always as simple as you think.”

Evolving expectations

While it is still early days in assessing the effectiveness of the new model, Lindsay is comfortable that the signs of success are evident, through changes team members are making in their day-to-day activities and through feedback from the business at large.

While she says the changes made at Goodman Fielder were inevitable for her organization, she also believes they are inevitable for the accounting profession at large, as already evidenced through the wording of job descriptions.

“The days of people wanting a financial accountant are gone,” Lindsay says. “You don’t even see those words. They are not asking you to do the profit and loss or statutory reporting, those things are a given now.”

“They are using titles like ‘commercial finance manager’ or ‘business partner’; they are using words like collaboration and strategic thinking and commercial acumen. And a lot of our people have been accountants in the traditional sense, so this is a big leap for a lot of them.”

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About Sue Lindsay

Sue Lindsay is the Senior Treasury Executive and Financial Controller at Goodman Fielder (NZ). She has more than 30 years’ experience leading finance teams across different industries. She’s seen the evolution of the finance function first hand, and this, combined with her passion to encourage success in others, has been at the heart of her latest project and the catalyst for her own ‘sea change’ – the transformation from Accountants to high performing Finance Business Partners.