Ep. 147: Jason Whitley - CFOs as Effective Business Partners

October 25, 2021 | 17 Minutes

Jason Whitley, Chief Financial Officer at PHI Inc., joins Count Me In to talk about how CFOs can become effective business partners. Jason has served as CFO of PHI Group, Inc. a global provider of helicopter transportation and technical services for the Oil and Gas and Air Medical industries since June 2020. He has a broad and diverse background as a financial executive with over 30 years of global industry experience. Prior to joining the company, he served as Vice President of Finance with Arcosa leading the finance organization for the Energy Equipment Segment. Prior to Arcosa, he spent twelve years in multiple senior finance positions including divisional CFO at Siemens and Dresser-Rand. He began his career in finance at Procter and Gamble and later at Motorola. In this episode, Jason discusses the crucial skills finance leaders need to be effective business partners, how to develop those skills, and why CFOs are so valuable in building their organizations for sustainable success. Download and listen now!

Contact Jason Whitley: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jason-whitley-18919711/

Mitch: (00:05)
Welcome back to Count Me In, IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host Mitch Roshong, and today's episode is number 147 in our series. The featured guest speaker in today's conversation is Jason Whitley. Jason is the chief financial officer at Phi Inc. And he comes to count me in to share some of the knowledge he's gathered from his over 30 years of global industry experience. While talking with my cohost, Adam, Jason addresses how the CFO can become an effective business partner and emphasizes the various skills one should develop along the way. To hear more about what an aspiring CFO needs to do to contribute to sustainable organizational success, keep listening as we transition into the conversation now. 
Adam: (00:57)
CFOs are now being looked to for governance, risk management, business change, business resilience, technology advancement, and the list goes on from there. Are the inherited skills, finance and accounting professionals possess sufficient enough to make decisions? And if not, what are some of the crucial skills they need to evolve? 
Jason: (01:16)
Yeah, no, that's a, that's a great question. I would say that the, you know, the CFO role has really transformed pretty rapidly over the last several years and it's become, you know, one of the most difficult jobs in the organization to do really well because of the broad scope that you just mentioned. I know that, you know, myself, me and my colleagues who aspired to the role over the years, but it's really a job that's almost impossible to fully prepare for and I don't think the skills are easily inherited. You're expected many times to have a depth of knowledge in several different areas. The ones you mentioned, including, you know, treasury, accounting, risk management tax, IT, controls. And then on top of all that you need to really have a good in-depth knowledge of the business operations. If you want to be an effective business partner. And it probably even left out a few areas, but the point is that it's, it's really extensive. It's difficult obviously to have depth of knowledge in all of those areas. So inevitably you're going to enter the job with some, some skill gaps. And I've seen this in my role. I've seen it observed in probably every CFO that I've interacted with in my career. And I think the key is really to surround yourself with a team of folks that are they're technical experts in these areas and ensure your weaknesses are really covered by their strengths. I think it's also important to develop a strong network. I need a network of mentors and a network of you know, technology and technical aspects for service providers that you can really draw on to supplement your knowledge and some of the skill gaps that you have, or just to bounce ideas off, as the time comes and things are needed, in that fashion. I guess, in addition to, and as you alluded to in your question, and it's really imperative that you develop and hone certain skills throughout your career. And I think those can be developed in many different functions and many different roles, but you know, you're going to need these, if you really want to lead the team and be proactive and addressing the problems that come up every day in business. And I think some of those skills specifically would be, you know, leadership, analytics, planning, communication, and the strategic decision making. It's really key that you're developing these kinds of skills throughout your career. And those can be things that you develop in finance and accounting. It could be in strategy, business development, operations, or other functions, but, you know, every role should involve developing, utilizing those skills. So that you're really ready, when the time comes to take on all of the responsibility and scope, that comes along with the CFO role. 
Adam: (04:07)
So as I hear you talking about all the skills that are involved, one of the things I heard you mention was, having a good network surrounding yourself with people, even people that are smarter than you, I've heard, a lot of people say, it's almost like you're being, almost like you have to be an effective business partner. You have to connect with all these different people. So we've covered some of the skills needed to evolve, then what's next? 
Jason: (04:30)
Yeah, then I think it's, it is like you just said, you know, becoming an effective business partner. I think the, you know, the way that you do that, you know, first and foremost is you've got to have the trust and respect of, you know, whoever it is. You're partnering with the CEO, the general manager, plant manager, department manager, you know, whoever it is you're supporting as a finance leader, this comes through, you know, basically experienced performance on the job. You know, sometimes it develops quickly. Sometimes it takes some time, but every one of my CFO roles has really evolved and become more impactful, over time. So it was more impactful, I would say at the end than it was at the beginning, as you know, I've developed trust and, you know, and experience was gained, you know, with the individual that I was partnering with and supporting. So I think you have to realize you have to be flexible and, you know, one approach to partnering is not necessarily going to be sufficient, over your entire career. And I've seen really great business partnerships and I've seen some not so great business partnerships in these roles. You know, the one, you know, the ones that didn't work out were usually sort of doomed from the start. It was just, you know, a lack of trust, lack of respect, or maybe appreciation for the role or function of the, of the other person. and that was just something that was never overcome, for one reason or another. So I think, you know, as I mentioned, that's first and foremost, is that you gain trust and respect. I think it's also important to know you can have two really great people, you know, it can be world-class in their respective functions and they still don't have really an effective partnership because they can't work together as a team. So it requires a lot of effort, you need to share information, there needs to be, you know, information and thoughts being shared on a two-way basis, you're working towards common goals and as are said earlier, you really need to respect responsibilities and the focus of each other. But if you, if you get all of these in place, then you can really maximize the effectiveness of both roles. I don't think either person can be highly effective. I think, you know, they can still be effective and really good, but I don't think they can be highly effective and at their best, without really the help and support of the other person. So it's imperative that the partnership work well, you know, for the benefit of that team, for the company and really for the organization overall. 
Adam: (06:53)
Now, Jason, there's something I've heard, you know, other CFOs, your colleagues, your, your peers say and things I've read that in IMA's research that, you know, the CFO of an organization must not also miss not only be able to share insight, but also lead through foresight. So when it comes to innovation data value, how can the CFO navigate the challenges associated with forecasting and best position the organization for sustainable success into the future? 
Jason: (07:20)
Yeah, that's another really great question. I think it's one of the biggest challenges for the CFO, but I think, you know, at the end of the day, the CFO really has a great perspective with which to lead and position the organization for success. We're usually the first to see the numbers. we've got deep insight into the operations. We've got the ability to drill in, on areas of concern, come back, make sure the organization understands them and, you know, offer solutions as well, so that things can be dealt with on a quick and timely basis. I think in the, right hands, you know, this data and understanding the business can be, can be really powerful, lead to great insights about how to position the business for the future. But, you have to have the right systems in place. You have to have a coherent digital strategy, the plan to track and report, and seminate the data as well as analyze it. And that's now the subject for a whole other podcast. But ultimately, you know, having all these things in place can set the direction for the company or the strategy for the company. You can help you change what you're doing in terms of allocating capital or resources in a particular area. You can also recommend something that has been put forward or as an initiative for the company that isn't necessarily working be stopped. I mean, this last one is one that I've seen, you know, finance organization or finance individuals, take a lead on many times in many organizations in many companies. They're the ones that say, "Hey guys, it's time to stop doing what we're doing. It's time to reevaluate or course, and take a new path or sort of cut our losses and come up with a new strategy". I don't think there's that many positions in the company where you have this kind of confluence of information, and it's really powerful in helping you address challenges. And, and as I mentioned earlier, to course correct, depending on what the business dynamic is. So I think the CFO has to be ready to use this information, gotta be ready to speak up, in regards to the trends, you know, the direction of pressure in the marketplace or the organization and make sure everyone understands what the data is telling them and come up with viable strategic solutions to address them. 
Adam: (09:34)
So a lot of accounting and finance professionals, their goal is to get to that CFO level. What skills does a CFO need? And, you know, we've talked a lot about some of those skills already, but if you're an aspiring CFO, what, what, you know, what should you set your sights on? Where should you develop your skills, to get, you know, to get to that next level? 
Jason: (09:55)
Yeah, a great question. I think, you know, some of the skills I mentioned earlier, but let me, let me dive a little bit deeper into what I think are really the most important, and get a little bit more granular in terms of what, what you really need to become an effective CFO, if you're trying to get to that level. But one of the ways that I think about it, is, is a way that my mentor, you know, 20 years ago, a CFO that I worked with describing it. So basically, you know, finance, you have two different jobs, right? And they're equally important. The first one is you gotta make sure the numbers are right. And this is, you know, reporting the controls, processes, systems. I mean, ultimately you're the single source of truth for the organization. And this is where you're going to spend, you know, 51% of your time, the other 49% of your time is to help improve the numbers. So it's really that simple, you know, those two things. And by improving the numbers, now we're talking about getting involved with strategy analytics, restructuring exercises, maybe a new initiative, you know, M&A, when that comes up, business development, cost reduction, working all of these things with the operations and the commercial folks. And I think, you know, the CFO can lead and dig into both areas, or the one that, that can really lead and dig into both of those areas is going to be the most highly effective and is going to be the best advocate for all the key stakeholders in the firm. I've been involved in a couple of situations where, you know, the first one wasn't in place, you know, the, the control aspect to it and making sure the numbers are right. And we spent massive amounts of time putting the house in order. And it became the only job we had, for some period of time. So we had to build the foundation through people, processes, and systems, so that we could really move on to the more value added activities of the job, which is the second piece that I mentioned. I think the, the other piece is that there needs to be complete transparency. So you have to develop the skill for, you know, putting out not only the good news, but the bad news and make sure that there aren't any surprises. I used to have a former CEO that said, you know, bad news doesn't age well, and I think that that adage applies to every organization I've been in. You don't want to hold up the dissemination of the bad news because the situation could get worse. A lot of times they don't resolve themselves favorably. And if you can get the information out there quickly enough, you can bring to bear all the resources of the organization on the problem. And I think the key for the CFO, here, is to the set the tone at the top. So the organization falls this line of thinking, constantly. A couple other points: I think you need to build organizational rapport. It's good to have strong partnerships with all of the executive staff members, or the extended staff. And, and these will change depending on the job that you're in, but learning how to develop organizational rapport, is important because you need to be a trusted resource for, for all of those stakeholders. And you can't really have the impact you want to have in an organization unless you've got that rapport. And if you do have it, and your impact is going to be much greater than it would be otherwise. And I think, lastly, I would say you just need to approach the position with a balanced viewpoint. Don't be too conservative, don't be too aggressive in your approach. You'd never want to approach, you know, an accounting problem or our forecast now with that mindset, for instance, because you'll end up being, over time, if you continually do that, you'll end up being labeled and you'll continually get second guessed. So in an example of a forecast, I mean, when you put together a commitment, you want to have balanced lists of risk and opportunities to discuss when you talk about what the number is going to be. This ensures that everyone understands what you've put in, right? That it potentially could be an issue, right. But you've talked about and learned how to mitigate those issues. And you've talked about opportunities that maybe aren't there, that you're going to work on, to make sure that they benefit the organization. So you're trying to get to the right answer for the reporting for, you know, for our business forecast or, or any particular problem, regardless of the, you know, the accepted practice or maybe the potential organizational impact, you have to be able to do that. And over time, these forecast, terminology, these beats and messes, they should balance out, you know, solid reasoning for your decisions along the way, that's important to get your decisions or your recommendations accepted by doing that and having this, I think it's important basically to make sure you've got a strong reputation along these lines, within the organization or within the company. 
Adam: (14:35)
So as we wrap up our conversation, do you have any thoughts on the role of the CFO and building their organizations, as we look toward the future? 
Jason: (14:44)
Yeah, I do. I think overall, you have to be flexible in your approach to the organization and to the business partnership that we talked about earlier. I think, you don't want to be flexible when it comes to your approach to ethics, controls and compliance, but, you know, as the scene goes in career progression, what got you here, won't get you there. these are kinds of things that you need to think about as a CFO. And when I, when I talk about, compliance, I think it's pretty clear what, I mean, there's really no room for flexibility here. You need to possess, an exhibit to the organization and impeccable ethics. You gotta be strong because there's going to be issues that you're gonna face, on compliance or controls, or, you know, you're asked to push the limits. These just aren't areas where you can compromise, but on your approach to the business and business partnership, I would say, you know, every dynamic, you know, a CEO and a CFO is, is different. You're going to need to adapt your operating style, many times to work most effectively with, you know, see if a CEO or general manager or department manager, depending on, you know, whatever the case may be. So your principles and focus can be the same, but your approach to the job, is going to be different. And sometimes just in order to get the same result, you know, but ultimately that's what you're all aligned towards maximizing the strategic value of the enterprise. So I think flexibility is key there and it's also a key in addressing business problems and building an organization. More directly answering your question, that's capable of thriving in the future. So if a finance organization can sort of learn and grow along with the company, and the organization to be, you know, make sure they continue to be relevant, and capable of helping the group with strong analytics and strategic decision making, then they're going to be hugely valuable to the, to the organization. 
Closing: (16:39)
This has been Count Me In: IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like what you heard and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.