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Leading With Purpose in the Year Ahead

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Learn how to keep a financial team engaged remotely and manage talent in a post-pandemic world.

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In the fall, at the Financial Executives International (FEI) Corporate Financial Reporting Insights Conference, I had the privilege of moderating a discussion on leading the next generation of financial and accounting executives with Sundeep Reddy, Senior Vice President, Controller, and Chief Accounting Officer at McKesson Corporation; Mary-Lee Stillwell, Vice President of Accounting and External Reporting at Verizon; and Diego Baca, Assurance Senior Manager at Ernst & Young LLP.

Although the panelists work in very different industries, they shared strong points of agreement on how to keep a financial team engaged remotely, and they offered important insights for managing talent in a post-pandemic world. As I set my sites on being a better leader in 2021, there are a few key lessons I can take from our dialogue.

1.    Respecting the individuality of each team member is more important than ever. The difficulties being faced by people working remotely vary widely, depending on their life circumstances. A parent whose children’s school or daycare center has been closed experiences one kind of challenge; someone who lives alone in an apartment during social distancing experiences another. Yet the diversity of our teams is a strength. More than ever, leaders need to motivate team members as individuals and give them flexibility, even if their schedule does not fit within the traditional 9-to-5 workday. And, as Mary-Lee Stillwell pointed out, “Younger people want to work together. They may need a different kind of flexibility from us.”

2.    Recreating the informality of in-office interactions online boosts morale. One of the most enjoyable things about sharing an office with a team is the impromptu interactions that take place in break rooms and hallways. But it is possible to recreate that experience virtually, allowing team members to bond and exchange crucial information. Diego Baca has replicated an “audit room” by having a regular daily calendar meeting with no set agenda that team members can drop in and out of as they like. Sundeep Reddy has dozens of recurring meetings with team members on his schedule and finds that holding the meeting, whether or not there are issues to be discussed, leads to the kind of natural conversational flow that, in turn, leads to new insights.

3.    Offering immediate feedback helps link newer members to the team. At a time when everything is remote, advice and praise shouldn’t be similarly distant — or the danger is that newer team members, in particular, will be at sea when it comes to the simple question of how they are doing. Sundeep Reddy pointed out, “In this environment, you don’t want an issue to fester. Giving feedback right away, whether by text, IM or a quick video chat, keeps us connected.”

4.    Encouraging digital natives to experiment with new ways of meeting team goals can accelerate their development — and the team’s digital transformation. As leaders learn the power of their companies’ digital platforms during this pandemic, they have increasing respect for younger team members eager to use technology in unprecedented waysMary-Lee Stillwell pointed out, “Using technology well is all about challenging the status quo and asking why we do things a certain way. My team knows everything is on the table, and no idea is a dumb idea.” Sundeep Reddy, who compared trying to customize an enterprise resource planning system to “steering the Titanic,” encourages his team to find fleet over-the-top solutions, such as robotic process automation, or RPA. “I tell them, ‘Don’t stop networking. Let’s keep educating ourselves about what other companies are doing in terms of technology.’”

5.    Communicating a sense of purpose is crucial — the antidote for alienation. At a moment when the newest hires may never even have set foot in the office, they need to be guided by the organization’s core principles and culture, and to feel part of something larger than themselves. For example, as the world’s leading distributor of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, McKesson is playing a key role in the response to COVID-19. Sundeep Reddy said, “I remind my team that we are not just a back-office function, but our work cascades toward the well-being of patients around the world.” During this pandemic, we all need inspiration!

Without a doubt, COVID-19 is accelerating the digital transformation of accounting and auditing. At the same time, working remotely — which may not end with the pandemic — is putting new strains on financial teams. The best leaders are evolving, becoming more flexible, finding new ways to communicate empathy and helping their team members understand the real value of their contributions to society at large, as all of us work toward a brighter tomorrow.

Learn how to evolve a healthy corporate culture in a remote working world.

The views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

Becky Burke is EY Americas Assurance Talent Leader at Ernst & Young.