Why a human-centric culture matters to a finance career

A human-centric culture requires a level of empathy because it focuses on the needs of others while fulfilling the financial team’s role to maintain profitability.

The ability to work with stakeholders across the business is at the heart of any human-centric work culture, and it’s becoming a core skill for those building a successful finance career.

Leon Gettler

When executives needing to hire for their finance team approach Tony Citera CPA, partner at recruitment firm SHK Asia Pacific, they are as likely to talk about social skills as they are about accounting qualifications. 

Citera says organisations are increasingly looking for finance teams and CFOs that can see beyond the profit and loss reports. They want to create finance departments that are human-centric cultures that fit into organisations focused on their employees, customers and suppliers.

Citera stresses that financial qualifications and experience are still important but says “it’s gone beyond that” when hiring.

He looks for people whose style of work enables them to collaborate with multiple stakeholders, who can deal with ambiguity when business data doesn’t tie with the financial numbers, and who can bring disparate elements together to meet varying objectives around the organisation.

What is a human-centric culture?

A human-centric culture requires a level of empathy because it focuses on the needs of others, such as employees concerned about workloads and customers needing their product delivered on time, while fulfilling the financial team’s role to maintain profitability.

Citera says it involves the personal touch: “You don’t operate from your desk and shoot emails. You have to be face to face. You have to have a seat at the table. It’s about becoming a true business partner.”

He says the human-centric finance team must participate in conversations around the organisation, enabling team members to direct, guide and highlight issues.

“Not only are they gaining an intimate knowledge of how the business is run, they are also influencing what steps should be taken.”

Having a humanistic side enables the finance team to be more powerful and more influential.

“You make the business think about whether there is a better way of doing this rather than as a cost exercise.”

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Finance beyond numbers

Tony Nash, CEO of online bookstore Booktopia, looks for finance people who can use their number skills to see a better way of delivering outcomes.

“That means your finance team is entrepreneurial of their own accord. They are looking at it as if they are part earners in the business,” he says.

Nash says creating a human-centric culture is a “win win”, where the customer benefits, the supplier wins and the employee wins.

It creates a model that can go on forever because everyone is succeeding.

“That’s very much part of the human-centric modelling where the employee actually needs to be a winner. And that needs to be done in conjunction with all the other parties as well,” he says.

However, Nash does not underplay the traditional role of the finance team. 

“It has to do a meticulous job in terms of understanding what the gross margins are like and therefore how much money you can work with to fund the business growth, pay market rates or above market rates, reward people, create fun and interesting things for people to participate in, and bind them to the company. 

“These are all part of our core streams of planning and outcome-based initiatives we are doing with our people. It’s very important.”

In practice, Nash’s team spends considerable time working with each department to understand what their dreams and aspirations are, who they want to hire, and what learning and development programs they want to implement over the next year.

This intelligence is brought into the financial budget, with discussions around whether it is possible, and what might be held over for another year or longer.

Nash and his board are still responsible for the vision and outcomes for the company, founded in 2004 and winner of several major business awards. 

“In saying that, my broad sweeping statements about those outcomes are all well and good but if it doesn’t come out in the numbers, it’s very hard to execute,” he says.

5 tips for a human-centric culture

Citera, a former finance director of Sensis and divisional CFO at Telstra, recalls a focus on five core values to create a human-centric culture when he was at Telstra: 

  • show you care in terms of the work you do
  • don’t operate in silos and do work as a team
  • empower teams and trust them to deliver
  • make the complex simple
  • have the courage to call something out and influence change

It was all aimed at creating a business that worked with its stakeholders to deliver on strategy.

“I think they’re quite important and if you don’t have those values and behaviours that are rewarded and recognised, you may fail in trying to achieve the right culture or deliver on your strategy,” he says.

Boards and executive teams are increasingly aware that finance has an important technical role but also needs people with human-centric skills to gather information and influence decisions. Those requirements are being felt in decisions about hiring and careers.

Read next: Harnessing data analysis to shape stories: the rise and rise of the management accountant

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