When Laura Onopchenko came to NerdWallet in 2017 as the company’s first CFO, she faced a delicate task: help prepare the creative, fast-growing consumer financial-advice site for a future as a maturing company. Her solution: set up an investment council comprised of the company’s business leaders so on a monthly basis they can agree to the allocation of resources transparently and equitably.
“We all have a really good idea of what’s a good use of our dollars, and people are good stewards of that, but they don’t always know what that demands are from other teams in the business,” Onopchenko said last week in a CFO Thought Leader podcast. “Your request might have a projected ROI of an 8, where something that someone else is proposing has a projected ROI of a 10. If we just funded your request, knowing it’s an 8, which is pretty high, we wouldn’t necessarily have the dollars left for the 10.”
Onopchenko said the council prevents the kind of behind-the-scenes politicking that can create an unhealthy dynamic. “The hardest part of any company’s success is getting people to work together, so they do their best work,” she said.
Prior to joining NerdWallet, which gets about 10 million website and mobile app visitors a month, and has about 5 million account holders, she was vice president of finance at the pharmacy division of DaVita, a Fortune 200 healthcare services company. Onopchenko said her first initiative at NerdWallet was to introduce the long-term planning objective by asking the company’s business leaders to divide their annual budget requests into two buckets: one for the short-term and one based on a three-year timeframe.
“I was seeing a lot of hesitation on the leadership team's faces because I think they were really nervous,” she said. But I told them, “if we could not make commitments for a three-year trajectory, then in my seat as financial steward to maximize long-term shareholder value, it was hard for me to sign up for some of the investments that the team so clearly saw were needed.”
Onopchenko said it was crucial for her to reassure her colleagues that the finance and accounting teams were there to help them reach their objectives and not just say no.
“For many people, their experience working with finance has been that finance does not show up like a partner,” she said. “Unfortunately, they’re often viewed as the police or the bank. I believe it’s an unfair perception, so I’m always very thoughtful about how I ensure I’m going out as a partner.”
Encouraging good work
Her emphasis on creating a healthy work dynamic extends to the people on her finance and accounting teams. Before she goes home, she rewinds the events of the day and takes note of the things her staff has done that should be recognized and not allowed to fall through the cracks in the rush of time.
“For so many of us who are in back to back to back meetings, there are a lot of moments that we miss in the day to actually tell somebody something what we needed to tell them,” she said. “This is important, because, as you become increasingly senior, it’s harder to build trust with people. So, I always think about that and make sure I circle back. That serves not only building trust; it’s great for the organization and makes you more approachable as you become more senior. It also signals to the organization what you’re paying attention to, that you’re actually acknowledging the right things happening even when people think they’re not seen.”
Much of what she learned about creating a healthy environment stems from her experience heading finance in the pharmacy division at DaVita, which she called a company that actually exemplifies the ideals of corporate leadership students learn in business school.
“I’ve heard my whole career that the company [is supposed to] hold employees and leaders to the same standard, but I’ve never seen it in practice the way I experienced it at DaVita,”she said. “There was no room for you to be anything but strong in leadership and [creating] the kind of environment where folks can do great work.”
Given the importance of staff who are doing their best work, it’s surprising CFOs don’t get more involved in building company culture and instead leave that largely to human resources, she said.
“What does it cost an organization when employees are not constructive in their relationships?” she said. “At best, it’s lost productivity. At worst, it leads to turnover, which is one of the most expensive losses. I actually believe finance is uniquely situated to see signs where things aren’t working and to act on them.”
The financial frame, she said, gives CFOs the ideal perspective for building a healthy corporate culture because most conflicts come down to resource allocation. “When you have two teams ask for headcount to do the same work, do you say, ‘We’re not going to spend that twice,’ or do you go and mediate a constructive conversation? I’ve always loved the financial frame as an organizing principle to think through thorny issues.”
To stay on top of how NerdWallet is doing, Onopchenko said she places a high priority on the company’s net promoter score. That’s the metric that tracks how well people who visit the site or hold an account talk about the services they received.
“We’re making our first meaningful investment in a brand, and so we’re looking at brand awareness,” she said. “We believe our business will thrive if, when people know about NerdWallet, and we ask them how your experience was, they say, ‘I loved my experience with NerdWallet.’”
To get people saying positive things about them, the company has to offer content that’s accessible and helps them as they make financial decisions. “We believe very simplistically the combination of these two things — the more people know about us, the more people we help answer their financial questions — in the long-term, that positions us really well for all of the exciting things we believe are ahead.”
Her work creating a good environment for both business leaders and staff is part of that forward-looking agenda as well, she believes.