How HR could work with CFOs more effectively
Former accountant turned HR director Shakil Butt on when he realised HR was equal to finance and how, by working together, HR and finance can build a better organisation
Back in 2009 I began my transition from finance to HR and went back to university to study for my CIPD qualification. I recall sitting in my lectures at university and every now and then, irrespective of the module, irrespective of the lecturer, if there was any reference made to finance it was usually a disparaging remark citing stereotypes that are held to be true about accountants.
Accountants were often portrayed as being boring, serious individuals lacking people skills and focussed on maximising profits and minimising costs in the pursuit of growth and market share. This would result in students being amused and often agreeing with this one-dimensional narrative, prompting me to remind both the lecturer and my fellow students that I too was an accountant. I took it as light hearted jibes at my profession but there was some element of truth in what was being said.
We are very serious about the numbers. We are often looked to by the leadership to provide guidance, reflecting back at what has happened, giving real time information in the here and now, as well as forecasting what the future could look like, with options to enable delivery of the organisational strategy. In holding this responsibility within organisations our place in the boardroom is secured and we are often the go to confidante for the senior leader.
It was ‘drilled’ into me that we were the most important professional discipline. We see all the money coming in, all the money going out. We are the nerve centre of the organisation. I believed the hype my professional body instilled in me. It is all about the bottom line.
Just as my lecturers and fellow HR students held a view about finance, as accountants we too held a view about HR professionals, and it was not flattering. HR was simply concerned with recruitment, time keeping, attendance and dismissals. They would be very ‘wishy washy’ over what they were doing and how that would benefit the organisation. Their data was not reliable because they lacked the discipline finance professionals had. This depiction was no better than the earlier stereotype but again had some basis.
Some HR professionals are transactional, but equally some are transformational, leading on change and enabling people to be the best versions of themselves. However they fall short by not being able to demonstrate their impact.
During my tenure as head of accounts, at a former employer I would sit on a budget review committee alongside other finance colleagues, and every year different functional leads would submit their budget for the forthcoming year and be required to justify their request. The HR lead’s budget was one of the easiest to dismantle. The budget might have an amount to focus on well being, but then not being able to explain why well being was an issue for the organisation, what benefits it would bring if implemented, what it would cost, how long it would take etc. The question of why this was business critical was not addressed.
The data coming out of HR was not reliable. Numbers of staff and payroll costs is an annual statutory reporting requirement. My experience with numbers produced by the HR system was that the data had gaps due to errors or omissions, had duplicate information and was not real time, which was due to a combination of manual processing or the system itself, usually being limited to Excel spreadsheets.
I get it. HR professionals entered the HR profession because they wanted to work with people not numbers or technology. This mindset is what holds HR professionals back. It is what leads to that perpetual pursuit of having a voice in the boardroom but then finding yourself being denied or seen as less relevant in relation to others, particularly finance.
HR and finance: complementary business drivers
Contrary to perception the two disciplines are not the antithesis of each other; rather they are complementary. It was not until I entered the HR profession myself that my view of HR and finance changed. Finance is not the most important discipline. I realised that every business decision has two aspects. The financial aspect and the people aspect and unless leaders are hearing both voices then they are not making holistic decisions in the interest of the organisation.
The accountant is trained to think about how to maximise profit and minimise losses, focusing on efficiency, but this does not necessarily lead to sustainable effective decision making and can lead to short termism. Sales revenue has dropped, so we need to make cuts to the sales team (a financial decision), but perhaps what the sales team needs is greater investment in their training to stay relevant and current to compete in a changing market or redeploy (a people decision). We saw this play out during the pandemic with some businesses making drastic cuts resulting in negative publicity over the decision or the way it was done, leading to a PR crisis.
HR professionals need to be more comfortable speaking the language the accountants will understand. The CIPD’s professional map launched in 2019 was a potential game changer with a focus on three pillars: being evidenced based, principles led and outcomes driven.
If an HR professional can understand what are the pain points of the organisation and what is keeping the leaders awake at night and if they can work with finance on delivering solutions that are clear from the offset, with milestones that can be measured and outcomes that can be reported on translating into tangible results, this can completely break down any artificial barriers between finance and HR.
I know HR can perform miracles when done well. Whatever the area of work, ensure you can answer the basic questions of why this is important to the organisation, what is it going to cost, who will it benefit, how long will it take, how will you know if you have succeeded, what are the risks, what is the impact of doing nothing, how does it align with the strategy etc. This will guarantee a better conversation with your fellow finance professionals, gaining their support and respect.
Let us together with finance build a better organisation that is strategic with enabled, empowered people. Let us together with finance rewrite the stereotypes that have limited us for so long and have mutual respect for the value each profession brings to the organisation.
Shakil Butt, pictured below, is an HR freelance consultant, D&I specialist and visiting lecturer. He served as treasurer and chair of the audit and risk committee at the CIPD from April 2016 to December 2022. He also sat on the people, culture and remuneration committee and was the board champion for inclusion