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10 Things I Learned Leading FP&A Teams Through Crises

Applicable solutions from Expedia's Director of FP&A that you need to know

23Jan
Want to hear more from Matt? Join us on April 18 & 19 in San Francisco for the FP&A for High-Tech Summit.

Imagine you come into a new job thinking that it was going to be a challenge – then it turns out to be not just a challenge but instead it's a massive crisis – systems are not up to date, processes are broken, most of the team has left, etc… I have confronted this opportunity twice in the last seven years working for large online e-commerce companies. In both cases, I needed to manage the crises and turn the FP&A teams around… fast.

We were able to turn them around both times, but not without a lot of blood, sweat and tears. We all made some mistakes, but everyone involved learned a ton with a bit of fun thrown in (depends on who you ask though…). If you haven't been through a crisis, you will find out a few things that you weren't prepared for – and boy, did I need to figure a lot of these things out quickly!

Below are some of the key learnings from my experiences that I hope you can apply in your FP&A environment if you happen be in a crisis yourself.

1. I believed that a crisis was a massive opportunity – I didn’t want to let it go to waste!

It is a rare situation when working at a large or established company that you have the mandate to make change and everyone in the organization clearly understands this.

Conversely, change is difficult to implement when the business is running smoothly – there is inertia to do the same thing over and over again. In most cases in a large organization, the processes are probably barely working and would cause too many problems to change them, and/or people hate change, and/or there is no political will to make change.

Being in a crisis allows you to make that change and do the right things in order to be successful – I had that opportunity and I seized it! However, getting others to see this as an opportunity also proved to be challenging – very few qualified people wanted to apply for roles that I posted. Those who took the chance realized the impact they could make and were the right people I wanted on my team.

2. A significant amount of energy, optimism and confidence is necessary to manage a crisis

In the most challenging crisis of the two, wherever I looked, there was this negative view of the FP&A team: how they operated and partnered with others created mistrust and a fear of failure. The inertia of failure that existed had to be turned into an expectation of success – project the positivity and get the team to buy in. We had to believe we were going to get this transformation done and my team fed off of this positivity to deliver what was expected.

Having this positivity unfortunately had some drawbacks. We tended to underestimate time and resources necessary to complete tasks because we were so positive that we would succeed. So we were given a dose of reality for certain milestones, but that didn't dampen our enthusiasm to reach our goals. In fact, this enthusiasm carried over to others in the organization who previously weren't drivers of change and helped change the culture of the organization. So having this positivity was in reality a net benefit to solving the challenges.

3. Fixing an FP&A team in a crisis required changing processes, systems and people – all at the same time

In both crises, I quickly realized that everything needed changing in the FP&A team – the processes, the infrastructure, the systems, etc…There was so much to do but I prioritized and also synchronized all of the different tasks that had to be fixed. I started with data and then worked my way up to people and processes, then forecasting and business partnering – this order was important due to the critical importance of data in an e-commerce FP&A team. In addition, all of these issues needed to be addressed in synchronization, because all of the fixes were necessary for us to be successful.

4. Integrating into a large business should never be done half-way – standardize as much as possible

Again in both crises, the finance and accounting infrastructure was never fully integrated into the parent business. Many finance and accounting processes were left as stand-alone operations apart from the parent. Duplication reigned everywhere, and it seemed like people were reinventing the wheel and/or doing things twice in many cases. Complexity was common.

Being a stand-alone operation also created a different way of managing the business. How the parent looked at its performance management was different than compared to the stand-alone business. Because of this isolation, powerful comprehensive systems were not taken advantage of to modernize operations, as most tasks were still managed within Excel. And there was no way to compare the stand-alone operation performance with other sister companies, so there was no ability to benchmark. As a finance leader, not being able to communicate in the same language as the other divisions to senior leadership was confusing and hurt credibility.

5. It’s so important to focus the team to work only on value-add activities

Trying to fix so many things at once required prioritization of the most critical and important tasks.

In both cases, I had limited resources to right the ship and so I focused on the foundation of the business (i.e. cleaning up the data) first, despite the fact that the business needed strong financial projections to make strategic decisions.

Fixing the foundation first allowed the team to get to the value-add activities quicker instead of continually reinventing the wheel when we wanted to be effective in forecasting and business partnering. Getting to the value-add means you need to get the basics right first.

6. Managing this crisis required a directive style of leadership – it was necessary for us to achieve our objectives

Most technology cultures pride themselves on a consensus-building leadership style, which I firmly believe in. However in a crisis, this style could not be applied – we had no time to waste, as there were so many things to fix to ensure improvements.I needed to be firm and take charge in a crisis, as I understood the solutions that should be applied. This worked well … to a point.

Given my broad online e-commerce experience, I applied the best practices I learned to help standardize metrics, integrate systems, and automate processes in each of the crises. These best practices fixed the majority of issues however due to certain special product offerings and complexities, the best practices were not always 'best' in each of the crises.

This is where consensus building from the team and other internal partners to determine the right requirements for the business was helpful to optimize the systems and processes that were implemented. Tailoring slightly different processes to really meet an organization’s needs was necessary to complete the FP&A team's transformation.

7. Systems implementations take much longer than anticipated, especially at a large company

In each crisis, I identified two main systems that needed to be migrated: moving the marketing transactional data from Excel to the organization-wide financial planning tool Hyperion, and standardizing metrics to include the right data. It was clear to both my team and I on what should be done, however the processes had to be changed significantly.Because so much institutional knowledge had left the business in the last few years, we understood why this was never entertained before.

Specifically on the metrics change, we created documentation where none existed, and applied it to multiple layers within the organization; we uncovered so many uses of these metrics which were not known to the majority of our teams. The near organization-wide access to financial metrics created an abundance of stakeholders and teams to work with – bureaucracy existed for a reason already, but it was also amplified in this case.

The best way to work with these teams was to continuously communicate with the leaders, provide updates and to ensure deliverables were completed. You can enable and accelerate the process if you know the right people to talk to – call them, talk to them and provide them the reasons for why this project is so important. This 'greasing the wheel' will certainly help facilitate meeting the timelines.

8. Hire a BI/Data specialist at the start of the transformation to help build reports and straighten out data flows

Ensuring that data can be visualized or analyzed in a timely manner is very important in a data-driven e-commerce organization. Most financial analysts are not programmers who are able to write code to automate reports in Tableau or in Excel using macros. Asking these team members to do this type of work usually does not set the right expectation with them – having said that all analysts should have some macro skills for automation in Excel.

So in one of the crises, we wanted to hire for this skill-set in our team quickly as the reporting infrastructure was either broken or did not exist, despite the fact that FP&A owned the financial correctness of the data. However this was difficult as the goal of the organization was to centralize all BI & data specialists within the technology team to serve all the business partners. But when we as business partners weren’t served adequately, we were motivated to address this gap.

It took almost a year, but we finally hired our specialist and the streamlining of our reports and data flows have made all the analysts lives' easier so they can focus on analysis as opposed to report building. IMHO, a BI systems person who manages requirements and processes are critical in an e-commerce FP&A team – and should be the first hire.

9.New motivated team members need time to understand the business – but they will get there

In any crisis, you will be forced to ramp up your hiring. I hired staff in both cases and the people I put in place were both motivated and experienced but were still 'rookies' on the job given the challenging environment.

This was a significant opportunity for these employees to build their personal brand internally within the organization to show what they could do. They had a fresh perspective wanted to add value by looking at problems differently to suggest new solutions – however, it was tough for them to contribute right out of the gate. They were thrown into the fire with little guidance and significant demands placed on them. But in the end, they made it happen.

Looking back on what we did, what the teams accomplished were monumental given the lack of experience they had. Over time, I saw that the more experience they gained, the better they performed. Have patience with motivated employees and they will succeed.

10. My first crisis experience as “le nettoyeur” gave me the opportunity to do the same thing again in another crisis

Realizing that the first crisis was an opportunity, when a similar opportunity came up again, I said I would jump in without hesitation. The same issues that I saw in the first case were present in the second case: I had to reorganize the team and apply the same rigor to fix the data, reports and processes in an interim role until a new leader came on board.

As an interim leader, you're only able to fix so much: hire some staff, standardize reports, focus on key metrics, create forecast processes, etc… In this case, I provided the second FP&A team as much guidance as possible to help them drive to the goals they needed to reach.

My personal brand has now been cultivated to be not just an e-commerce FP&A 'nettoyeur', but one who can confront a challenging situation, determine the best course of action, and drive the team to achieve success. All because I was able to identify a crisis as an opportunity and had the confidence to turn it around.

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