The following is a contributed article from Jason Lin, CFO of Centage Corporation. Opinions expressed are author's own.
It's a new year and a new decade: the perfect time to update the plan you’ve spent months discussing and creating. No one knows better than you do that the minute the first set of results come in, your plan is out of date and needs revisions.
Only now, it’s not just a matter of updating projects. You also have to have an eye on the strategic insight you're expected to bring to the decision-making table. According to a CFO sentiment study by Insperity, 75% of CFOs say their roles are increasingly strategic to the business, especially when it comes to driving operations, including marketing, sales, HR and risk management. This means all eyes are on you to provide concise insight and advice as to how the company can meet its business goals.
How do you meet your company's expectations for 2020? I recommend five strategies:
Update your reporting tools
It’s no surprise that CFOs have outgrown the traditional internal reporting tools long relied upon, including spreadsheets and PowerPoint decks. Business managers need to see accurate and up-to-date data in relevant dashboards, so they can drill down to identify the root causes of variances and uncover surprises. Reports that rely on last month’s data are stale, a snapshot of what occurred in the recent past. Only real-time data allows your business managers to assess what is happening now and respond to trends as they occur.
Cloud-based tools are useful here, as they proactively retrieve data from multiple sources and provide a robust way for users to get the story behind the data. If your business is spread out geographically, this type of cloud-based reporting solution can ensure all stakeholders are looking at the same data, giving your enterprise a single source of truth.
Meet regularly with your controller
The controller is very close to your company’s expense minutiae, and can provide insight into what’s happening on the field week by week. It's a good idea to meet with your controller regularly to understand how money is being spent so you can update your plan accordingly. Once, our controller pointed out that our actual bonus and commission payouts were very different from our forecast projection. Digging in deeper and correcting it created a significant impact.
It’s also a good idea for your controller to meet with other business executives, such as your chief marketing officer and VPs of sales and operations. Our controller hosts biweekly meetings with our VP of marketing to ensure our marketing funnel is on track to meet our goals throughout the year.
A department once removed a vendor expense in our forecast, but the auto-renewal had already occurred in a previous period. Our controller caught that mistake, too. Cross-functional meetings are a good way for the entire finance team to learn the business and become better strategic partners thereto.
Put KPI tracking on autopilot
One of the toughest challenges we face as CFOs is identifying the right internal KPIs to track to assess ongoing performance. Drivers will be unique to the company and sector. For example, because we’re a software company, we track opportunity creation to monitor our new business performance, as well as customer onboarding (i.e., time to value) as usage, which is a leading indicator to retention rates.
Your list of drivers may be long, which means you’ll need to identify the ones that will have the most impact on your plan and develop KPIs that enable you to track them easily and frequently. You'll need a tight grasp on leading indicators in Q1; your board will begin asking in February whether the company is likely to meet quarterly goals.
Complicating matters further, according to a Gartner survey, nearly seven in ten financial planning and analysis (FP&A) leaders say the volume of nonstandard, manual processes is a top problem for 2020. Fortunately, there are FP&A tools that allow you to customize reports and track data pulled from other business systems, such as your general ledger (GL), customer relationship management (CRM), or enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. By pulling up-to-date data directly into your plan, you’ll be in a position to detect problems early and report them to management and the board.
Focus on automation and efficiency
The 2019 CFO sentiment study makes clear that operational excellence is the top mandate for CFOs in the coming decade. Are your manufacturing facilities operating at maximum potential? Are there inefficiencies in your supply chain, and if so, what’s the best way to reduce them? Which market sectors should sales focus on to enhance profits and long-term viability?
According to a Gartner survey of FP&A priorities in 2020, 74% of CFOs say that they have insufficient forward-looking information in their management reports, and another 52% view annual budgets as disconnected from long-term plans. Clearly, operational excellence isn’t achievable until these gaps are bridged.
How to bridge them? In general, business intelligence tools are becoming more widespread and sophisticated. These tools act as data warehouses, pulling in data from various systems, including CRM, payroll, ERP and GL. All data is normalized so it can be layered, offering nuanced views of your business and all of its moving parts. These tools are also fully automated, eliminating the time-consuming and error-prone process of entering data.
For instance, let’s say you enter data on the cost and terms for a new office your company has rented. These tools can input that expense according to your company’s unique business structure (e.g., allocate that expense to the appropriate division), and automatically update all outputs, such as your P&L, balance sheet and cash flow statement.
Measure, revise and measure again
Be prepared to revise your plan with each new set of results that come in, and plan on asking many what-ifs and doing scenario planning exercises. My best advice: ditch the spreadsheet and adopt a tool that will automate your most critical workflows and what-if testing.
This change will allow you to test multiple scenarios and plan for each outcome. For instance, your business plan might call for hiring ten new sales reps, which the board hopes will increase revenue by, say, 20%. What is the impact of missing those hiring plans? Knowing how this will affect your financial statements ahead of time will allow the executive team to respond as quickly as possible. As a CFO once said to me, his monthly forecasting exercises offers him 12 chances to perfect his plan.