As finance leaders go beyond the traditional numbers aspects of their jobs to a more strategic role, helping to build culture has become critical. Lance Ludman, CFO of Calgary, Alberta-based Benevity, spoke with StrategicCFO360 about why that evolution is important, how he’s managing it and why you should always hire people smarter than you.
As the CFO role has evolved from forecasting and accounting to a more operational and strategic partnership across the business, how do employee experience and engagement fit into that role?
I tell junior members of our team that everything I learned was in 2000-2001 and 2008-09. Those economic downturns forced finance professionals to expand their understanding of the operations beyond the financials and to partner across the business to encourage “unit-economic thinking.” Those experiences made me more effective within my role.
I personally encourage every member of my team to get out of the spreadsheet and off the 20-person Zoom meeting and go engage operators across the company—to gain fluency in the opportunities and challenges in different business functions. Those partnership dialogues are the foundation of business performance and professional growth. Despite the CFO role being rooted in numbers and budgets, there’s still a very real human connection to your coworkers and a desire to work towards a common goal.
What advice do you have for CFOs who want to explore beyond the traditional financial aspects of the role and help build culture within their organization?
CFOs know the weekly/monthly/quarterly/annual deliverables for which we are accountable. Those are table stakes. The space and capacity to create enterprise value beyond the traditional finance remit is a function of your team.
When two CFOs meet, the conversation nearly always includes anecdotes about a great FP&A director or controller or superstar analyst. The CFO’s ability to move beyond the financial aspect of the role is a function of the capacity and capability of their team. A CFO who wants to contribute to the culture of their organization can start by focusing on the people they’re hiring and building a purpose-driven team.
The CFO is foremost a manager who must attract, develop and motivate great talent. My advice to other CFOs is simple: hire people who are intrinsically and unabashedly curious, who can communicate the story behind the numbers to non-financial colleagues—and who are smarter than you.
As your team becomes more self-sufficient, carve out the time to participate in culture-building activities—particularly those that align with the corporate purpose. I would also encourage CFOs to champion or sponsor an employee resource group that will broaden your perspectives of the people you work with and their lived experiences.
Modern employees want a sense of purpose to go hand and hand with their work. As a CFO, how can you champion employees and create space for a meaningful experience at work?
I’m privileged to be Benevity’s CFO. Our solutions power corporate purpose programs for hundreds of iconic brands—including more than 25 percent of the Fortune 500. Benevity-ites are obsessed with assisting our clients to achieve their social impact objectives, and we draw daily motivation from that mission.
Our people, including me, have personal social impact objectives, and Benevity as an organization has impact objectives that we aim to achieve as a corporate citizen. Fundamentally, it’s important that an organization aligns its market, personal and corporate goals to be self-reinforcing.
I recognize it might sound trite, but championing employees and creating meaningful experiences is easier at Benevity than any place I’ve ever worked because it is so built into the company culture. For me as CFO, it’s more about continuing to connect those dots, celebrate successes and support those initiatives.
What key takeaways or advice would you give other CFOs trying to do the same? What is a CFO’s responsibility in creating a purpose-driven workplace?
With the recent macroeconomic shift and the transition of SaaS companies from growth-at-any-cost to a more balanced, profitable-growth bias, it’s important to consistently remind your teams about the purpose of a company.
Traditionally, you have heard that a company exists for three sets of stakeholders: its clients, employees and its shareholders. If we’re honest, nearly everyone understands the first two. The CEO’s and CFO’s task has been to explain more broadly the role and importance of shareholders to employees further removed from that aspect of business.
Increasingly, leaders have recognized there is a fourth stakeholder—society. Companies have an obligation and an opportunity to positively impact their communities, both local and global. Employees instinctively get this. And demand this.
In my opinion, a CFO’s responsibility is to both encourage and account for this obligation. It’s the CFO’s job to identify and track the co-linearity of doing well and doing good. When we share results with our employees or board, we talk about how we are executing on our business and impact metrics. The impact dashboard isn’t the last slide in the presentation—it’s near the top, and often the very first slide.