Reflections on how to be a finance leader in a new organisation - during the pandemic

Charity

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Leading through a pandemic has been challenging for many leaders, especially when that leader is new to the organisation.

Our charity team caught up with Rachel Hewitt, who joined ClientEarth as the Chief Financial Officer, right in the midst of the pandemic in September 2020. In this article Rachel discusses how she approached being a finance leader in a new organisation during an unprecedented time and shares what she learned.

I started a new role at the end of September 2020, joining an ambitious international NGO at a key point in its development. ClientEarth is an environmental charity with a unique approach - using the law to create powerful change and a future where people and planet thrive together. Doing this remotely I had to take a different approach to getting to know the organisation, its culture, and my colleagues. Here are some reflections on what I learned.

Be prepared!

Before I joined I started to form ideas about key challenges and areas of focus for the role. This came from the recruitment pack, from analysing past Annual Accounts, through asking questions during the recruitment process, observing Board meetings, and asking for advance reading to orientate myself. I developed a spider diagram of these first impressions, and tested them out (and added to them) over my first few months. 

Getting to know the organisation

There is a natural hierarchy to induction schedules, so we followed this. I prioritised meeting my team. On my first day, we started with the monthly all-finance team meeting, which was perfect! I had an organogram, and once we had all introduced ourselves, the team continued with their normal meeting. This gave me a great insight into their current priorities, and a glimpse of team dynamics. I then met with each of my direct reports - where I listened, and asked lots of questions - and set up weekly meetings to continue the conversation.

I had a schedule of induction meetings across the organisation - key colleagues, trustees and contacts - as CFO it is so important to understand the broader organisation. I wanted to find out what each team does, but also get feedback on how they interact with finance, what we do well and could do better. Writing up notes at the end of each meeting helped me to capture the key points and any themes.

After 2 months I took stock of who I had met, and identified a few gaps - colleagues I could see I would be working with. I was not going to come across them in the kitchen at lunchtime, so I set up Zoom meetings with them too. I also had some small sessions with finance colleagues I interact less with day to day, to get to know them and their work.

Showing up as a CFO

I had to create a balance between induction and delivering the role. I joined just as we went in to annual planning and budgeting. So, having ensured I had met all the Senior Leadership Team and my team, I asked for some induction meetings to be moved back by a few weeks to give me space for this important work and ensure I was fully focused when we did get to meet.

I also set a small number of key focus areas for myself:

  • Financial sustainability - we are fortunate to be increasing income, but growing restricted funding too fast can be problematic - it is harder to fund core functions (so they are not able to grow at the same rate to support the larger organisation). I ensured I fully understood 'what funds what' and focused on this as the budget was developed, testing income risk and other assumptions with ‘fresh eyes’.

  • The control environment - with remote working, having robust controls in place is critical; completing the first full year using a new financial system also made this a priority. I used this to see how the team works day to day: I asked to be walked through certain processes (through Zoom screen-sharing!) so I could see the system, the supporting documentation, the information flows and how the controls are implemented. It was a great opportunity for conversations with individuals in the team, who all had great ideas for improvements.

  • My team were telling me that the finance function had not always been able to keep up with the growth of the organisation, especially global expansion through subsidiary offices and new programmes. I have used roles and responsibilities mapping to re-align the team, creating clearer functions for Financial Planning & Analysis, Financial Accounting and Systems, and International Finance, and adding resources where needed. We are still working on this, translating our analysis into updated Job Descriptions, but the discussions have been invaluable - I can see that we understand each other's roles and how they inter-link better now - this has helped collaboration across the team.

Tackling these 3 priorities early-on gave me confidence that as CFO I was focusing on the right areas. Developing my understanding of the organisation in this practical way also helped me build credibility with my colleagues and with the Board.

What have I learned?

  1. The conversation is often as valuable as the output of a piece of work, so make time for this. I miss the unplanned corridor chats. A Zoom call is not the same, but will have to do for now.

  2. A number of teams send out great progress updates. I need to make more time to read them, to continue to learn about how we achieve impact.

  3. Building relationships remotely is about visibility - I accept every invitation to a team meeting that I receive! And when I'm asked 'can you give us a financial update' I have tried to tailor this to the audience, to show that I understand their priorities, and help future collaboration.

Honesty and compassion have been essential over the last year. Many colleagues have caring responsibilities and less visible personal challenges. I have tried to spot when people are looking fed up, frustrated or exhausted - and asked what I can do to help. I have encouraged flexible working and taking leave just to have a rest, tried to de-prioritise where we could to reduce workloads, and shared how taking my dog for a walk at lunchtime helps me keep a clear head. As an organisation we have tried to support staff - our CEO introduced corporate rest days (we all take a long weekend, and no internal email traffic builds up whilst we are off), and a separate budget for staff well-being including counselling. Dedicated staff will always work hard, but we also need to recognise that remote working slows things down and endless Zoom calls can be very tiring. 

I can't wait to get into the office and meet my amazing team and inspirational colleagues, but I will also still enjoy some days working from home with my dog for company.