With the finance function being transformed by AI, automation, and data analytics, among various other trends, it’s more important than ever for accounting and finance professionals to remain nimble and proactively focus on professional development. In a conversation with Strategic Finance, Hilla Sferruzza, CFO and executive vice president at Meritage Homes Corporation, and Scott Settersten, CFO of Ulta Beauty, shared insights into best practices for gaining important knowledge and new skills.
SF: What are the most important elements of professional development?
Sferruzza: For accounting and finance professionals, you have to have a passion for the business. Sometimes in our world, it becomes all about numbers and you forget what those numbers represent. In my world, that’s homes and tasks completed by our operational team. Having that connection to the business and a hunger to learn is important for professional development. So it goes hand in hand with openness to change, but always be raising your hand and trying to understand what else the company is working on—how does it connect to what I do, our global mission for the company, and our strategy? That passion for the business coupled with the hunger to learn is a differentiator between the run-of-the-mill employee and those that push the envelope in their professional development.
Settersten: When I think about the elements of career growth and professional development, it’s a shared responsibility between the employee and the employer. For young people starting down their career path, it’s important to remember that it’s a continuous process that needs to be nurtured over the course of a very long career, and you should always be looking for new opportunities and ways to develop different skill sets. It’s going to be a blend of technical skill development as well as fundamental management and leadership skills. Subject matter expertise is the baseline. You have to know how to do your job well before you begin thinking of other ways to develop yourself. It’s a mix of formal and informal mentorship and coaching opportunities. You can get it through a formal relationship within your company or a mentorship program, but there are other ways to do that in a more informal fashion. It could be a mixture of pursuing internal opportunities within the company, but there are also external things like working with nonprofit boards where people can gain experience and develop different skills. There are accounting and finance-specific software or analytical tools, and you need to keep current on that. Those are the table stakes part of being a productive employee within the finance organization.
SF: What benchmarks are relevant for charting one’s progress in career growth?
Settersten: It’s incumbent upon the employee to develop an individual development plan. It’s each individual’s responsibility to think about his or her career road map, ambitions, and objectives and then build a plan that has check-in points that provide an opportunity to take inventory and measure progress. Develop a plan; get input from your supervisor, manager, colleagues, and mentors; set clear, measurable objectives; and have a way to manage against those over a period of time. And make sure you obtain feedback from people along the way to ensure you’re making progress against your plan.
Sferruzza: As much as we like to measure things in the accounting and finance world, don’t look at benchmarks and metrics as numerical computation. It’s relationship building. The way that you can mark your success in an organization is your connectivity to your peers, supervisors, and other [colleagues] outside of your direct team. Those connections that you make are how you develop. Understanding and being able to go to a peer with a question, presenting an opportunity to a supervisor, and assisting on a project for an unrelated function within your organization are the keys to success. Underlying it all is general knowledge of the business. If you want to succeed you have to understand the business itself, not just your narrow-focus functional area. Creating opportunities to form as many connections as you can throughout the business is critical to benchmarking success.
SF: How can senior executives help longer-tenured team members and new hires to continue to improve their skills and knowledge?
Sferruzza: One area where you can challenge existing team members who have been with you for a while is through UAT [user acceptance testing]. There’s always something new and different happening in the IT [information technology] world, and if it’s systems-related, the accounting and finance team members are usually the system functional experts. Having them test the system, particularly when it doesn’t relate to accounting and finance issues, helps them understand the business better. Another area where you can push team members to challenge themselves is through public speaking or presentations. As you move up the ranks, that’s going to be a part of your job, so it’s really important to hone those skills. Find opportunities to have your team members step in for you in a team meeting—or even an external event—and make the presentation. Fundamental to all these different ideas is to get out of your box. It’s easy in accounting and finance to fall into [defined roles]. “I have month-end duties. This is what I do on Monday; this is what I do on Tuesday,” and you get stuck in a rut. It’s important to break out of that box every once in a while, remember why you love what you do, and connect with your functional expertise and the business as a whole. Challenging yourself and your team to get out of the comfort zone is really important.
Settersten: For me, the overriding notion is to share my insights, experiences, and thoughts about the business, the organization’s strategies, and what we’re doing to execute to drive results in the business. I have various functions reporting up through me: real estate, investor relations, loss prevention, core finance, accounting, and compliance. I regularly gather groups of new hires together for a CFO lunch meeting. It doesn’t matter what particular functional area they work in. I share with them the history of the company, my personal story line around my family, how I found my way to Ulta Beauty, and what keeps me engaged and excited about the business. Then I describe how I see their core role and responsibilities within the company, including good stewardship and ethical standards like “When you see a problem, tell someone about it” to set expectations for what we want to see from them. Then we cover career development programs and opportunities, but stress that it’s a shared responsibility, and they need to be the primary driver. With new officers or people that we’re grooming to be future leaders of the company, I spend time sharing thoughts about the strategy of the business and what we’re doing tactically to drive results across the business. I talk with them about how to influence decisions. We’ll always debrief after important meetings to assess why we positioned an issue a certain way, what the reaction or pushback was from key decision makers, if any, what did we learn from that, and what was the feedback from the audience on a particular topic. We give our people many opportunities to present to the executive team. Interpersonal skill development is the key for finance professionals, and so to continually polish that and get them ready for the next stage of their career is probably the most important learning experience they can have. Afterward, I always make sure I give them feedback on how it went, how it was interpreted by the audience, and how we can make it better next time.
SF: To what extent is offering professional development, coaching, and mentorship opportunities the responsibility of the C-suite, team leader, or manager? Settersten: People need to understand that it’s a shared responsibility, and I believe younger employees understand that point these days; they’re very self-sufficient in many ways with social media and other platforms. They’re starting their careers with internships much earlier than many of us ever did, so they know the world is complex and they’re getting up to speed a lot quicker than we ever had the opportunity to do before. So, they get it. Companies are also increasingly investing more in their people than ever before. If you want to draw and retain the best talent, you have to have programs in place to develop your people internally. [Professional development requires] people working together, but it’s up to the employee to take advantage of the available opportunities. You can’t be passive. You need to actively engage in your career progression. So whether that’s during coaching or review sessions or being proactive and looking for opportunities and inquiring, engaging, and then following through on it, make sure you’re taking follow-up action to take advantage of all available opportunities. Getting back to the mix of internal and external opportunities, don’t have tunnel vision, [thinking that] there’s only one way to do this. There are many different ways to develop your skill sets; some you can do on your own time, some on the company’s time, and some company sponsored. You have to keep an open mind to all opportunities, be proactive, and take advantage where you can.
Sferruzza: You can probably make people do some sort of training and track it and make sure that they’re doing what’s needed, but that’s typically reserved for cybersecurity, sexual harassment and ethics training. You do it because you have to do it. Hopefully, we’re not making you do professional development; you have to want to do it. That’s what’s going to set you apart from the pack. Especially in accounting and finance, where there are many folks with a similar title hoping to get to the next level, it’s a pyramid. Not everyone’s going to be able to move up to the next level and even fewer people to the level above that. So, you really need to want it. The employee needs to be hungry [to take on more responsibilities]. The manager’s opportunity is to encourage it, make them aware of the resources available, and monitor progress, but the employee fundamentally needs to own it. Having said that, the company needs to make sure those resources are available and easy [to access]. Today’s employees are extremely tech-savvy, so we need to make sure that we’re providing development opportunities in a manner that aligns with what they’re looking for in a scenario that’s safe, so virtual solutions are very helpful. We spend a tremendous amount on employee development, particularly as we’re growing our younger staff, and there’s plenty of research that millennials value the experience, not just the outcome, so we want to make sure that we’re viewed as a company that provides you with experiences that lead to growth opportunities. For my team, we have advanced Excel learning classes, which is a functional skill set in our business. It’s something that we need; you need to know how to be able to [master] Excel and financial modeling—that’s a given. It gives you a leg up in your everyday business, and our library of available professional development is open to every employee in the entire company. Follow your passion, and it might be learning for learning’s sake, or it might give you some more insight or teach you something about yourself, where you say, “I didn’t realize I had a passion for this,” or “Now that I get this [concept], maybe this is a path that I should push a little further in my professional development with my supervisor or [career] coach.” Having that whole suite of professional development tools available is important. We have a lot of curated solutions for the skills that you [need to] have in our industry, but we also buy professional development classes, some virtual, that are available to anyone in our company. It doesn’t have to be something that’s particular to [the finance function] if you’re learning about public speaking skills or how to share bad news. If you’re a new supervisor and have to have a tough conversation with an employee, there are people who know how to train to those skills much better than we do. We also subscribe to third-party providers to allow our employees to gain access to a wide library of professional development classes free of cost. In fact, we incentivize them; they get points for taking these classes that they can use to buy stuff on our company store. We think it’s a good investment in themselves.
SF: Can you offer advice for career coaching and mentoring?
Settersten: Everyone builds their own method. Be yourself—your authentic self—when you’re thinking about how you’re going to coach and mentor people. Always accentuate the positive; when you’re giving feedback to people, make sure that you’re recognizing good work consistently in front of their peers and superiors, so that people feel like, “You’re thinking about me, you care about me, and you want to see me do well.” That has to be balanced with [constructive criticism]. If you see something that’s going to be a significant roadblock for someone, you need to communicate that to them so they get the benefit of your insight. That shows a level of caring for individuals as well. Finance people are by nature more risk-averse than your average employee across the business, so sometimes they take a little bit more of a nudge to push them to take a chance or a risk, whether it be a promotion or some other new initiative to get them stretched outside of their box. Often they need a little bit more motivation to take that next step. For younger employees, don’t wait for a formal mentoring program. If you see somebody in your day-to-day activities that you respect or like their style, don’t be too shy to approach them. Most people are more than willing to share their time to help younger employees develop.
Sferruzza: It may seem a little counterintuitive, but I’ve had the most success when I mentor folks not in my functional area. There’s too much emotional baggage when you’re mentoring someone on your own team because you’re already their direct or indirect boss, and it’s hard to be open about, “I’m experiencing frustration with this employee; how do I handle that?” Because you probably know what employee they’re talking about. It gives everyone a little bit of freedom if you mentor someone outside of your functional area, and maybe you’ll both learn something. We want to share our knowledge, that’s why we’re mentors, but it’s really important to listen. The first couple opportunities when I mentored people, I had so much information to share, I talked a lot and forgot to listen to what advice they needed. I gave them good advice on everything, every topic under the sun, but didn’t tailor it to them, so they probably left my office a little overwhelmed and not really sure what to do with the 50 pieces of advice I gave them. Remember to listen first. I have to make a conscious effort to remember this. Some of the things that we think aren’t that fun and interesting are really fun and interesting to people coming up the corporate ladder looking for opportunities. We have to put our mental headspace back to where we were when we were [at the experience level of] the person that we’re mentoring and create opportunities or make recommendations on topics that may seem mundane [to experienced professionals]. They may be fun and exciting to someone coming up the ranks, so remember what it was like to be at that level and what opportunities seemed interesting then. I always try to remember that [early-career] perspective.
SF: What do you see in your crystal ball as it relates to the future of skills acquisition and professional development?
Sferruzza: I see the intersection of operations and finance becoming very blurry. If you ask me what kind of a CFO I am, I’d say I'm an operational CFO. I'm heavily involved in strategy and operations. I’m not our COO; we have one of those, and he’s excellent. But we intersect significantly more today than we did 15 years ago when I joined the company. So I see a migration to operational finance with some of the finance and accounting staff becoming subject matter experts to help a particular area with their accounting and finance needs, where you also have a little bit more insight into an operational area. You’re still a finance functional expert but with a more versatile skill set.
Settersten: It comes back to critical thinking skills. The world continues to change at an accelerated pace, whether it’s your business or career trajectory. Critical thinking skills include being able to collaborate, being open to other opinions, and interacting with other people to come to a consensus. Be open-minded when thinking about business challenges, and solicit feedback from across the enterprise to come up with the best solution to whatever problem you’re tackling. General business acumen [is crucial], so think more like a general manager and don’t focus only on finance.