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Who Do You Want Driving Your Finance Transformation? The Finance Team Veteran or the Killer Project Manager?

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Already have a finance team veteran with a gift for project management? Lucky you. Everyone else has to choose. Here’s one way to work through this important decision.

Finance transformation is messy. It’s technical, it’s strategic, it’s political, it’s ridiculously complex and it’s usually a lot bigger than anyone thinks it’s going to be. On some days, you’ll want someone at the helm who already knows the recipe for great project management – the jack of all trades who’s already demonstrated her ability to manage all types of hairy projects. On others, you’ll want someone who knows where all the bodies are buried. But it’s rare to find a person with both of those qualities: the grizzled finance veteran who can manage a complex project like it’s nobody’s business. You’ll probably have to choose. So which is it? 

Here’s the debate:

How much institutional knowledge do you really need to succeed?
Everyone thinks their organization is special. The truth is, the best project managers know how to quickly learn and navigate the political and cultural currents as well. Don’t overestimate the difficulty of this part of the job.
It would take at least six months just to learn the ins and outs of our organization.
A veteran can get us there faster.
If we go with a finance veteran, what we may lose in project management skill is more than made up for in institutional knowledge. For our organization, that’s really important.
We can’t afford to go with someone who sees the world through finance-colored glasses.
Finance transformation is way bigger than finance alone. It’s about supply chain, sales, marketing, IT, you name it. We need someone who brings broader experience in all those areas.
Jack of all trades, master of none.
We’re talking about the same project, right? The one that will shape the future of our finance function for the next 5-10 years? For that, I want someone who lives and breathes finance, not a generalist.
We can’t afford to lose our best talent to the black hole of finance transformation.
No matter which veteran we put at the wheel of finance transformation, we’ll lose their leadership in another key area. This isn’t the time to give up key leadership anywhere. Let’s bring in the project management specialists and stick to what we do best.
This is a big opportunity to take our top talent in finance to the next level. We can’t just hand it off to an outsider.
Take a great controller or accountant, put them behind the wheel of a big transformation and what do you have? The next generation of leadership. Plus, when the transformation is done, we’ll still have someone who can help sustain the change for years to come.
Transformation is too tricky for anyone who’s not a project management ninja.
Have you ever had an up-close-and-personal look at finance transformation? If you have, you know that it takes a special breed to handle that kind of job. Go with a professional.
That’s what a team is for.
Put a finance vet at the helm, then make sure she has plenty of project management firepower on her team.

My Take

Sam Silvers, Principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Sound familiar? The question of whether to bring in a specialist or go with an existing resource definitely isn’t unique to Finance Transformation (FT). But with FT, the stakes are a lot higher. That’s why I see a lot of hand-wringing about this question among CFOs and other finance leaders set to embark on a big transformation project.

So which is it? Experienced veteran, or project management ninja? This is the part where I say it depends. It’s all about the talent you have to work with. You may have that unbelievably skilled controller who you know can run circles around the best dedicated project managers – in that case, the answer is a no-brainer. Similarly, a project manager with a history in finance, or a deep knowledge of your particular organization, may be a perfect fit.

Having seen this debate played out time after time, however, I tend to come down in favor of the finance team veteran. Good finance leaders should have some core project management strengths – strengths that they can build on to take on a huge undertaking like finance transformation. And don’t forget that they’ll be supported by a team – this isn’t a one-person job. Having an effective team can help compensate for most minor gaps.

The benefits of going with a finance vet can be significant. People who have been around the block can more skillfully navigate the political currents that so often become big obstacles to others. This has a direct impact on the speed and momentum of the project. Plus, when it’s all said and done (they do end, in spite of what you might have heard), you’ll have an important resource within reach at all times – while “hired gun” project managers take a lot of institutional knowledge with them when they go off to their next adventure. Finally, finance transformation is about the DNA of your organization. Ideally, a finance person would be leading the charge.

All things considered, this isn’t an exact science. The important thing is to find the right person, regardless of their pedigree. Time’s a-wasting.

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