Ep. 24: Debbie Jacobs - FP&A: Leadership and Relationships

October 31, 2019 | 16 Minutes

Debbie Jacobs, CMA, MBA, is a hands-on finance leader with great experience in improving the overall finance function. For more than 20 years, Debbie Jacobs has built strong relationships to drive change at Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell and Johnson & Johnson. She earned her Six Sigma green belt streamlining worldwide financial reporting. She believes in growing the next generation of finance talent - and was honored to serve as Director for J&J’s Finance Women’s Leadership Initiative. In 2010, she earned her CMA. Most recently Debbie held roles as Sr. Director of FP&A at Experian and VP of FP&A at Young's Holdings. Debbie holds a B.S. from Indiana University and an MBA from Northwestern's Kellogg school. Hear how Debbie encourages management accountants to cultivate cross-functional relationships to drive change by listening now!

Welcome back to Count Me In, IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I am your host, Adam Larson and I'm joined as always by my cohost Mitch Roshong. We are here to bring you the latest perspectives and learnings in management accounting as told by industry leaders shaping the profession. For today's episode of Count Me In, Mitch spoke with Debbie Jacobs about cross functional relationships as FP&A leaders. Mitch, what kind of insight did Debbie have to share? 
Mitch: (00:33)
Debbie Jacobs built strong relationships to ultimately drive change at many well known companies like Hewlett Packard, Honeywell and Johnson and Johnson. She shared her perspectives on forging relationships with cross functional departments and the value of aligning all teams activities with the same business drivers to become valued organizational leaders from the FP and a team. In our conversation, Debbie was also able to tell a lot of real life examples which made her answers very interesting and engaging. Let's go to this discussion now so you can hear for yourself. 
Mitch: (01:03)
How do you go about building relationships with cross functional departments such as marketing, research and development or operations? 
Debbie: (01:19)
You need to show a genuine interest in learning their perspective and their world. And you can go about that in a many different ways. One of my favorite ways of doing it was when I was with Johnson and Johnson. And there I would spend a day out with the sales rep. My finance role there was, I was the finance director supporting commercial operations, which was sales and marketing. And so by spending a day going out with the sales rep, I was able to listen to our customers but also see my business partners, that sales rep you know, going about his job or her job all day long and see what kind of issues they came up with and how they addressed issues as they came about. And I encouraged my team to do the same and it really gave us a different perspective on our, on our business partner. So in addition to showing a genuine interest in learning their perspective and putting yourself in their shoes, it also helps to be present where the informal discussions are taking place. You know, oftentimes we're in meetings with our business partners, but there's a lot of conversations that happen around the so called water cooler. And if you can figure out where those conversations are happening and become a part of the team that way and not in a forced way. But an example I would give is why was that Hewlett Packard and I had recently joined a new division that had been acquired. So the people, my business partners were all people coming in from a company that had been acquired. They liked to play Bridget lunch in the, in the company cafeteria. And, and so I learned to play bridge, which I haven't done before. Simply so that I had an opportunity to sit down with them at lunch and become part of those informal conversations. 
Mitch: (03:32)
And why is it so important for these other operations or functions of the business to really buy into FP&A and, you know, how do you go about convincing them that, you know, you appreciate their relationship and what they have to offer? 
Debbie: (03:51)
Sure. So in my experience working in FP&A, the senior leadership of the business typically looks to FP&A as the, the voice of reason or the voice of objectivity. And in order for us to fill that role, we really need to have a strong partnership build up with the other functions R&D marketing sales. So that we can look at the analysis from multiple points of view. And with that relationship with the business partners, we can drill down in our conversations. I like to call it the, the five levels of why which some of the listeners may have heard of and we need that relationship with marketing or R&D experts to engage with FP&A so that we can do that drill down past the first level of why. So that when the senior leadership turns in a meeting and looks at us and says, you know, what do you think we have enough knowledge beyond sort of the top level skimming of it, of whatever the business case may be, to really be able to answer thoroughly that we understand what is being asked for and give a solid opinion on it. An example I would give is early in my career I was actually a financial analyst at Hewlett Packard and I was part of this big cross functional team and we were investigating whether or not to expand the plant operation. And this was in semiconductors. Do we build a new way for fab to meet the increasing demand? Do we add a third shift to our existing lines? Do we outsource the information? And so as part that business case, I had to work with marketing on the forecasted demand. I had to work with its supply chain and all of the different options of running a third shift or what would it cost to build out a new plant or and then also with R and D, I had to partner with them on what is the technology doing and how is it changing and how would that impact our decision, but when it came time to present the business case, once we had made our decision and we needed a substantial capital investment, we had to take it up several levels within the company. And it still sticks to me to this day that I remember sitting in this room with a bunch of senior leaders and I was probably the lowest level in the room as a financial analyst. And yet the group level CEO turned to me and asked point blank from my opinion on the option we had chosen versus the other two. And they, he did that because we're supposed to be that objective voice. I don't have you know, something at stake here with the different options that were chosen. I'm trying to look at them objectively and that is the role FP&A played. But I wouldn't have been able to answer his question on the spot like that if I hadn't been able to do all of the due diligence ahead of time in partnership with the other functions. 
Mitch: (07:26)
If everyone truly needs each other for a successful business strategy to be implemented, what are some of the biggest challenges in leveraging these relationships? Cross-functionally, 
Debbie: (07:38)
The biggest challenge I've ever seen has, has been around communication. If communication isn't spot on then you cause a lot of confusion. You have information that may be out of date that you're using, that a business partner may have updated. Deadlines could be changing and you're not aware of it. So to be effective communication really needs to be frequent and timely and, and understandable. And I'll start with the understandable. And by what I mean by that is if I'm using technical finance terms that my business partners are familiar with, then the chances are I'm not going to get the information I need to do my job because I'm not communicating effectively on what exactly the data is that I need or the information, and we won't be successful as a team. So the solve that from my point of view, it would be, you know, hosting a finance 101 being more descriptive when I'm asking for information such that, not speaking in technical finance terms and on the flip side, we need to make an effort to understand their language. So an example I would be, I would give is I'm currently working on this big a project right now to look at cloud computing and I'm working with the R&D product development people and our infrastructure team and it's very, very technical what we're looking at and there's not a day that goes by where there's 20 words. I have never heard before are not familiar or not and so I'm making an effort to go out there and, and Google them and look them up and make sure I understand what it is that they're talking about so that as the business case I'm helping put together takes form, that it's comprehensive enough to include all of the components that that need to be there. Otherwise we run the risk of coming up short in the amount of money we're asking for. Now, some of the things I can offer up to the listeners here is stuff I've put in place here at experience. So interestingly enough, my business partners that experience more all other finance folks. So I worked at the headquarters level and I interface with the finance people in the 10 business units and I interface with the, the London headquarters. Yeah, so it doesn't really matter though that these people are finance instead of R&D or marketing. But some of the ideas that we came up with to really improve communication is we send out a Monday morning email every Monday morning, someone on my staff sends out an email by 10:00 AM and it has, these are the deliverables for the week. This is who owns the deliverables and this is the date that it is due and who it is due to and we send it out regardless, every Monday by 10. So people know to expect it. And I have a backup on my staff so that if one person's out that Monday, it still gets sent. And if we, you know, by good fortune have nothing due that week, then we still send it out, you know, a nice big smiley face saying no deliverables this big. So nobody's left wondering, Oh, I didn't see that email and then tie to that email is a link to an internal finance website that we built up. And on that website they can find the calendar and the templates and everything that they need and gave to, can't reach one of us because we're often a meeting. So those are just some of the solutions that we've come up with to communication. 
Mitch: (11:55)
How about the communication over business drivers? How important is it for these cross functional teams to make sure they're on the same page and how does a strong cross functional leader actually play a role in achieving the organizational goals. 
Debbie: (12:12)
So it's extremely important that all members of a cross functional team understand the business drivers. Otherwise actions can be taken that have unintended consequences for the business. A good example that I've seen in my career is you will have a product that the company sells and the company also sells consumables that go with that product. So an example would be we sell a printer and we sell the ink. If we sell a medical device, a large capital equipment, and we sell the chemicals that are used in it. Now when your cross functional team is focused on the primary product and how many of those can we sell? But they don't understand that the business drivers or the profitability sit with the consumable. then the organization is focused potentially on the wrong issue especially if a supply chain issue comes up with the consumable and they're still pushing really hard on getting the product out and now all the sudden you've got a bunch of unhappy customers who don't have access to the consumables they need to run the equipment that they've purchased. So a strong cross functional leader helps the team maintain focus on all of the elements by identifying the critical business drivers and then the team we frequently review and discuss them. 
Mitch: (13:50)
Just to kind of close things out, what would be your prediction or you know, potentially a suggestion to the listeners on how to prepare for the future of relationships and cross functional leadership through FP&A? What are some best practices or last things to kind of take away from this conversation? 
Debbie: (14:11)
So, you know, I think having a open, holistic mind when working with your business partners, it's not always going to be about the numbers. You've got to be a true business partner that sees things from a bunch of different perspectives. And especially as technology is changing so rapidly, it's, it's understanding where is, where is your industry going? Whereas industries that are maybe 10 gentle to your and could have an impact and it's engaging in these conversations with your business partners so that as you're working with your business partners, it's not all about the tactical day to day issues that you're trying to address, but that you make time for, you know, these strategic conversations with your business partners. What are they worried about, what do they see coming up in the future and how can you be a true business partner to them and help solve for those issues together. 
Announcer: (15:25)
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