The start of a new year means plenty of outlook and sentiment surveys analyzing business opportunities and challenges, including our own poll of 361 leaders. In the “concerns” column, one issue reigns supreme: Attracting and retaining talent.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (opens in new tab), unemployment in December remained at a 50-year low of 3.5%. While companies can reap productivity and efficiency benefits from a full-employment economy, it also means fierce competition as HR teams struggle to find, develop and retain the “right” talent. Rapid development of technology and emerging markets means an intensifying discrepancy between the skills candidates possess and those required for success.
Trendy terms like “war for talent,” and the “workforce of the future” are bandied about endlessly. But what do they mean for CFOs? And more importantly, how can you win?
Talent and the CFO
CFOs are feeling the pressure when it comes to personnel management. Talent acquisition and retention was cited as a top concern (opens in new tab) for companies of all sizes in Brainyard’s latest CFO survey. Deloitte’s 2019 Q4 North American CFO Signals survey (opens in new tab) echoed this sentiment, with talent level/quality ranked as the top internal concern.
These finance execs have every reason to worry. While departments across the board are under pressure, the finance function is feeling an inordinate amount of the hiring crunch. The need to future-proof the finance function directly escalates the already-present talent dilemma.
Our first piece of advice: Don’t just depend on HR for recruitment and development. A survey by EY (opens in new tab) found high-performing companies tend to have CFOs heavily involved in strategic workforce planning. If you’re not in that mode, we have some advice on how to become indispensable in conserving human capital.
On a departmental level, no one is in a better place to determine what the finance team needs — and how to get it — than the CFO.
Many functions within finance lend themselves to automation. Transactional activities like general accounting operations, cash disbursement, revenue management and external reporting contain processes that can be automated. In theory, that means employees can be reassigned to higher-value tasks, like business development, external relations (opens in new tab) and strategic planning.
However, in EY’s DNA of the CFO (opens in new tab) survey, CFOs cited “staff capacity to adapt to change” as the primary challenge to adopting new technologies. This signals a shift in the ideal financial candidate’s profile. Gone are the days of lengthy job descriptions, threshold GPAs and non-negotiable technical requirements. Companies are hiring for potential rather than experience (opens in new tab). While this trend can be attributed partially to the competitive talent market, it is also a direct result of how fast technology is changing.
The skills needed to adapt to the rapidly evolving fintech landscape have nothing to do with knowing how to build a pivot table in Excel.
“Soft skills are very much in vogue,” says Ethan Taub, CEO of the financial marketplace Goalry (opens in new tab). “Adaptability, interpersonal communication and creativity are our three main drivers in our business, quite different to what financial institutions would have prioritized in the past. While you can teach or enhance peoples’ soft skills, to a degree, it is much simpler and quicker to teach technical and analytical skills.”
The key is to remain flexible in your talent search. Challenge past notions of what makes an “ideal” finance candidate. Taub emphasizes a focus on the person rather than the skillset. Instead of looking for expertise that will likely be outdated soon, search for candidates with the capacity to learn quickly, think strategically and adapt to the changing requirements of the finance function. Change your mindset to embrace a talent pool of diverse backgrounds, skills and personalities.
Answering the question of what employees want is crucial in both attracting and keeping talent. Free snacks and a foosball table in the office are cool and all, but let’s not get distracted by bells and whistles. Desirable employees are looking for reliable indicators of a company’s culture and commitment to growth. Instead of free bagels on Friday, focus on technology, culture and career development to differentiate your company’s employee value proposition.
Let’s dig into three key areas.
Technology: Research from the Randstad US Workplace 2025 study shows 80% of surveyed workers said that use of the latest digital tools greatly influenced their desire to join a company. Especially as the number of digital natives in the talent pool increases, professionals are seeking tools that match their abilities and expectations.
For finance in particular though, technology carries a bigger advantage. As mentioned previously, automation has the capacity to take over tedious, repetitive tasks that were previously performed by humans. The benefit to this is twofold.
First, it results in better work-life balance. Darren Heffernan, CFO of the financial software company Trintech, said in an interview with CFO Dive (opens in new tab) that when he started in finance, it was expected that employees would work weekends and holidays to close the books. No longer, said Heffernan: “If you want to attract talent, that’s not the way to do it. So, in modern finance, teams must focus on automating to sustain and grow business, and do what’s being asked of us as finance professionals. We’ve got to make it more interesting for the new talent.”
For example, a study by Gartner (opens in new tab) showed that the deployment of robotic process automation in financial report processes alone can save a finance team 25,000 hours of work annually. Additionally, KPMG research suggests as much as a 40% increase in efficiency from blockchain (opens in new tab) due to straight-through, “single version of the truth” processing.
When it comes to transformative finance technologies like advanced data analytics, true artificial intelligence, robotic process automation (RPA), blockchain, and use of cloud computing, we advise having answer — even if that answer is “it’s not ready to be implemented yet.”
Freeing your team from time-consuming, mundane tasks heralds in the second perk: Professionals now have the time to focus on strategic priorities. Instead of generating reports, finance employees can be analyzing data to drive decisions, constructing strategic plans and modeling, and managing risk. Implementing technology will allow for personnel to be reallocated from high-turnover, transactional activities to tasks that impact top-line growth. This shift in responsibilities is integral to both attract and retain talent.
Culture: Especially when targeting millennial and Gen Z talent, the importance of workplace culture is paramount. Seems like old news, right?
Well, not really as there seems to be a disconnect. In a survey by Accenture (opens in new tab), 76% of executives insisted that their organizations have a defined value system that is understood and well-communicated. Yet only 31% of employee respondents believed this to be true.
As a prominent leader within the organization, the CFO has a good deal of power to influence and embody a strong company culture. The book A Great Place to Work for All (opens in new tab) found that the most effective leaders are the ones who are able to build trust with and among team leaders and focus on a bigger purpose rather than immediate results. They also embody traits like humility, compassion and vulnerability.
Focus on what your culture means and be sure to epitomize it, both consciously and unconsciously.
Career Development: Companies can’t just scoop up the talent they need – they must invest in their people by communicating how they can learn new skills and advance. Perhaps that is why, in its 2019 survey, Gartner found (opens in new tab) the CFOs who construct a development-based career culture are better able to hire and retain talent.
Hilary Richards, advisory vice president in Gartner’s finance practice, named two key attributes that both attract finance talent and reduce attrition: career culture and how employees view their ability to progress and develop.
Here are some questions you can expect to be asked when interviewing. Do you have good answers?
HR should also be able to point to incentives that motivate employees to gain new expertise. People want to work with colleagues who are curious and continually learning. Despite this, a study by Randstad (opens in new tab) shows 40% of U.S. employees have not been offered resources or been paid anything by their employers to improve their skills.
When you look at some of the biggest companies and their efforts around job training, it’s understandable that implementing learning initiatives may be intimidating for smaller firms. For instance, PwC’s $3B investment in training (opens in new tab) would be hard for the large majority of companies to match. However, important upskilling can occur at any company — regardless of revenue — thanks to a market flush with inexpensive learning opportunities.
Firstly, analyze and prioritize. Determine what skills your workers are lacking that your company needs for success. From there, a learning program can be designed using a vast variety of formats, including mentorship, online learning (from internal and/or external sources) and immersive in-person sessions. One of the most popular and cost-effective ways to train employees is through massive open online courses (MOOCs)(opens in new tab) and microlearning (opens in new tab).
MOOCs are online courses characterized by accessibility, flexibility and affordability. Courses are created by top universities and companies. They are then delivered at little to no cost through providers like Coursera (opens in new tab), Udemy (opens in new tab) and edX (opens in new tab).
Microlearning operates in a similar fashion but instead of long courses, content is broken up into small, very specific learning units for quicker, easier comprehension. Want to make it more fun? Try a gamification learning option (opens in new tab).
Regardless of format or investment level, companies are highlighting their learning and development opportunities as a key facet of the employee value proposition. Smart, motivated people want to feel invested in, and they are going to choose a company that has a plan for the tech-driven Fourth Industrial Revolution (opens in new tab) — and that will partner with their employees to prepare.
How Do We Get There?
Let’s not forget the question of “how” here. How are CFOs supposed to enact talent initiatives, particularly those that have such an emphasis on development?
A strong partnership with the chief human resources officer (CHRO) will be crucial. Operating in silos will prove detrimental to talent strategy, and the company as a whole. The multi-faceted nature of effective talent recruitment illustrates the need for working across the business, particularly with the CHRO. And as we’ve discussed, finance chiefs bring plenty to the table, including data and analytical insights that can be invaluable for HR colleagues.
In EY’s report (opens in new tab), 80% of CHROs and CFOs surveyed said that they have worked together more over the past three years. And, that research found a link between an effective partnership and improved company performance — most notably higher EBITDA growth, employee engagement and productivity.
In the past, CFOs and CHROs could, and for the most part did, operate in separate lanes. CFOs would provide a budget, and CHROs would comply. However, strategic workforce planning needs to be a proactive activity that takes both people and the financial impact into account.
When it comes to strategic workforce planning, data is fertile ground for CFOs and CHROs to build a talent plan. Working toward data-driven decisions can foster better alignment between workforce strategy and corporate performance. In particular, predictive workforce analytics (opens in new tab) can give insights into the success of past talent decisions and needed future actions.
Working cohesively paves the way for linking effective workforce planning with operational execution. Done well, this will maximize the value generation of human capital investments.
As CFOs strive to build an effective finance team, working strategically across multiple disciplines will be key. While talent scarcity is an obstacle for businesses today, CFOs can play a critical role in differentiating their recruiting and retention records — and gain the needed people in return.
Megan O’Brien is Brainyard’s finance & business editor, covering the latest trends in strategy for CFOs. She has written extensively on executive topics as a former content creator for Deloitte’s C-suite programs. Reach Megan here.