As CFO of RIPE NCC (Regional Internet Registry for Europe, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia), Gwen van Berne, CMA, heads the finance function for one of five Regional Internet Registries providing Internet resource allocations, registration services and coordination activities that support the operation of the Internet globally. She’s also a dynamic and internationally minded finance leader who has a profound belief in the power of storytelling in the finance function. “The finance professional must be an engaging communicator and builder of narrative,” says Gwen, “to truly deliver value to their organizations.”
But she notes that it doesn’t stop there; finance professionals need to also build and tell their own story, earning their seat at the top table as key decision makers on issues ranging from environmental, social, and governance (ESG) to leveraging Big Data.
Jeff Thomson: The role of the finance professional is transforming, thanks to automation of many key accounting tasks and the elevation of the finance role to that of strategic business partner. Consequently, the finance professional’s role has expanded from “number cruncher,” to storyteller. How can people working in finance more effectively tell the story behind the numbers they report and the decisions they make?
Gwen van Berne: The finance profession indeed evolved, and our days as bean counters are long gone. Finance experts are active across the full business advisory spectrum and for our role as advisors it is important that our audience understands what we are saying. An accountant needs to get buy-in from colleagues or stakeholders for the stories that we tell. Gaining support is crucial if you want to have impact for your organization. An effective story always starts with a clear problem description and comes up with ideas for improvement.
Good solutions also require that you really listen to other people and that you are open for feedback. I have seen it too often that finance people just prepare flat data overviews which are crammed with detail, and they forget to make a connection with the recipients of their data. They also forget to stay adaptable throughout the collective thinking process. To facilitate this, you have to insert recommendations and decision points. In the end we want to reach an agreement on the solution and to get there you have to understand your business, and you have to place yourself in the shoes of your management and customer.
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What also helps in the development of a clear strategic narrative is to play with the horizon (what do we need to do now and what can be done in five years’ time) and it’s always a must to pay attention to the visuals and the readability of your information. Don’t forget to collect enough info on the risk side because risk and reward is always connected, and every investment decision needs to be balanced.
Lastly in your stories provide context. It’s always extremely helpful to include a peer comparison and a quantification of the problem compared to something your audience can easily relate to. A Dutch newspaper recently wrote an article about the wealth position of the richest person on earth ($185 billion USD) and to make this number imaginable for the reader…they explained that this money can buy you 400,000 Dutch houses. Not everyone is as familiar with financial numbers and these storytelling tricks are really effective.
Thomson: Finance teams are increasingly getting a “knock on the door” for help from their sustainable business or corporate responsibility counterparts for help in building cross-collaborative teams to meet new demands for ESG information. We are also observing the pace of the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) Foundation’s movement toward establishing a Sustainability Standards Board alongside the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). Do you foresee this potential alignment as creating opportunities for management accountants? What are those opportunities?
Van Berne: I am very positive about this movement. I have always believed that organizations should focus on long-term value creation for a broad groups of stakeholders, which is wider and more relevant than producing a yearly profit alone. Anglo-Saxon capitalism tends to optimize the money side of things, but any business has expansive connections with its external environment, and companies can also be seen as joint enterprises between employers and employees. What’s more valuable? The organization that makes more money or the one that employs more people and is better at the protection of natural resources?
The 21st century has finally brought us the awareness that nature is precious and that commodities are not limitless. High development speed can trigger costs that are not directly visible in your P&L statement. It’s important that we quantify and measure what those costs are to come to more balanced decisions for our companies and to protect wider and future interest. ESG reporting pushes us to expand our organization’s horizon and to think about future generations.
Finance people have a natural affinity with data and with measuring performance. Because of their traditional financial reporting responsibilities, they are well positioned within their organizations to steer and feed multidisciplinary teams to measure and understand the wider environmental, social and governance effects. Let’s not forget our profession’s strong relationship with ethics. Accountants understand that they have to apply value and judgement and we have always emphasized the importance of integrity, honesty and moral principles in our professional codes.
The opportunity for accountants is that this approach will create new and interesting jobs where it’s completely allowed and even necessary that you think outside your direct bubble and finance environment. Accounting students will have better shots in their pursuits of meaningful careers, and future CMAs [Certified Management Accountants] will fulfill positions where they can deliver long-term results for the organizations they are working for. There is great momentum for our profession to take up the gauntlet.
Thomson: Your work at RIPE NCC focuses on supporting “Internet Governance,” establishing a common set of standards for governments, the private sector and civil society to make decisions around the evolution of the Internet. How does your organization balance what may be the conflicting needs of these stakeholders to facilitate shared decision making? As a finance professional, how do you contribute to the decision-making process central to the mission of your organization?
Van Berne: Most Internet Governance bodies including RIPE NCC work with a multistakeholder model where the standards are being defined through a bottom-up decision making process and every voice represents the same value. The different actors are engaged in an inclusive and participative process and important matters require community input. By nature, the Internet is an open platform; this is why it was able to grow so quickly to its current proportions and this is how it’s still being managed today: through direct participation and bottom-up coordination.
This level of inclusiveness is inspirational, and something we can all learn from. When you have it, it can generate the greatest inventions of all time, but it’s also no secret that direct participation is slow and difficult in situations of increased complexity. The number of actors has grown, and for new rules we need to bridge a lot of institutional gaps. To bring more balance between the different needs of our stakeholders RIPE continuously shares its technical knowledge, we facilitate discussions for governments and our community provides input to develop (inter)national policies.
During my time at RIPE NCC we made sure that the finance team was supportive of our mission by serving as a role model for neutrality and openness. Major decisions were taken in close consultation with our community and as a CFO I always tried to present all the relevant facts and recommendations in a clear and understandable way so that our members were well informed before they had to make a final decision during the General Meetings. The Internet is full of videos and our reports and presentations are accessible for everyone, and I take pride in our transparency and how RIPE NCC does this.
Thomson: Though gender diversity is widely promoted as a benefit to companies, women remain under-represented in senior leadership roles, including in the finance function. What do you think are the key challenges holding women back from rising into the senior ranks, and how can companies address them? What have you done to break down barriers to become a CFO, as interim Managing Director and Board Member?
Van Berne: Unfortunately, there are several barriers for their advancement. We are all familiar with the problem that they have to break through “glass ceilings” before they get promoted to the executive level positions, but the issue is broader and links to the full career trajectory. Work floors are sticky too and there is a lot that needs to change between that first job and retirement. Necessary steps where men and women build up character and wisdom.
Recent research showed that women do not always feel that their working environment is supportive, and they struggle with stereotype expectations. Regarding these expectations, it is still our dominant belief that women have to be “nice” above everything else but not all leadership situations can be seen through the lens of women being archetypical moms or caretakers. Hillary Clinton provoked a lot of strong reactions when she ran for president (“people thought she was cold”) but she also showed us her competence for the job and thanks to her we are now a lot more warmed up to the idea of a tough woman in the role of commander in chief.
CFOs and accountants are responsible for the rigor in their organizations, and we all recognize that they deal with business decisions where they can’t always be nice to everyone. However, if that CFO happens to be female and she expresses a strong reaction (instead of radiating warmth and affection) it does not automatically mean that she is cold, unlikeable or non-constructive; she might just be showing you a more masculine side of her leadership flexibility and she probably has good reasons for doing so.
With time I really hope that we will get used to new forms of leadership presence. Men and women need to build up more tolerance with their standard expectations from each other. To change your own attitudes in life, I think it is good to move around and to stretch yourself outside your direct comfort zone. Be true to who you are but also look for people who are different. Don’t stay within a single circle or discipline. Look at things from multiple perspectives. I do that in my own career too.
I am also trying to break down diversity barriers by sharing my experiences and by bringing up the gender equality conversation. The accounting profession should act as a trailblazer to promote diversity and inclusion because unbiased and objective decision making (something our profession also stands for) can’t be done without it and diverse teams simply perform better. We need to tap into the widest talent pool that we have in order to innovate and transform organizations during these challenging economic times.
Thomson: In the Information Age, companies struggle with managing their own data and using it to strategically make decisions. Increasingly, finance professionals are being asked to collaborate with data scientists and others who are adept at extracting insights from big data. What skills do finance professionals need to work effectively with these new organizational players? What new skill sets have you had to learn to keep pace with the evolution of technology in finance? Do you see the CFO taking on the role of digital transformation officer now, or in the near future?
Van Berne: Throughout my career, I’ve supported a lot of teams with their digital transformations. Many of them dealt with IT landscape improvements or data enhancements for reporting and monitoring purposes and some were more fundamental in terms of newness of the technology. What I learned is that with every transformation success it’s also about the questions up front. You can build the biggest data warehouse ever or the deepest data lake but if you don’t have a clear idea about what you want to achieve with that data, people will get lost or they will drown in those repositories.
I am not even talking about the bigger social dilemmas such as privacy issues. If you get it right, however, you can definitely outperform the competition. Finance people can play a crucial role in the Information Age. They have the affinity with data, they bring the right advisory mindset and they are strategically well positioned within their organizations to fulfill these roles.
As someone with a law background, I learned early on in my career that accounting is the language of business, and so I wanted to expand my multidisciplinary skills and learn more about finance. The CMA provided me with a broader theoretical framework to better understand the financial concepts that were attached to my daily work. It created a stronger platform for strategic thinking, and it helped me to ask better questions. A couple of years later I became responsible for IT Business Development for a global securities services provider, and I haven’t stopped learning about technology since.
You keep pace by staying curious and you look for industries where you expose yourself to digital transformations and new tools. RIPE NCC was a great experience too, but for CFOs the digital transformations are everywhere. We are in the era of big data and in every organization and in every finance team you will have the opportunity to work with data. You will have to inform, guide and lead your business. I have no doubt that in the role of business partner many CFOs will be responsible for a majority of the data transformations.
This article has been edited and condensed.