Uncovering the Hidden Stories in Your Data

Day four of FEI's Financial Leadership Summit taught attendees how to tell influential stories with data.

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Your organization has considerable data. Hidden in the data are stories - of your employees, stakeholders, and strategy. How are you crafting an intentional narrative? Day four of the 2021 Financial Leadership Summit helped us uncover how to tell influential stories. From the questions we ask during team meetings to what we transparently share about ourselves to unexpected patterns in the effect of the pandemic on American households to the way we gather ESG data to the AI technology that connects dots humans might miss - we were enlightened about myriad new ways to turn data into viable roadmaps.

In their fireside chat, Driving Innovation Through the Finance Department, Maggie Martensen, CFO of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and Past President, FEI Chicago Chapter moderated attendee questions and Amy Shelly, CFO of OCC, an equity derivatives clearing organization, offered wonderful insights. Amy began her comments by authentically sharing a story about being an athlete who loves training for and participating in triathlons. In March 2020, her training pivoted to virtual Zoom sessions and she shared how that transition helped her stay connected to her training partners. She then addressed how roughly 10% of the OCC team is hoteling in the office today and they may be back in the office full time around Labor Day. Amy shared how they’ve struggled to find equity in which employees are allowed back in the office when, and which stays home. Perhaps you’re encountering the same dilemma. 

Based on her recent work from anywhere experiences, Amy believes finance professionals will be doing more to pull together disparate data to craft stories. She said securing emotional support and buy in for change comes from clearly articulating the win for all parties involved and quickly addressing possible roadblocks. Often, these blocks form when a leader doesn’t communicate fully or ask the question, “Have we missed something?” Listening actively to uncover pain points, each party’s goal, and their roadmap builds trust to grease the wheels of implementation. One of things that resonated with me was Amy’s use of the metaphor that today’s finance executive is akin to a baseball team’s catcher. The catcher sees the whole field, directs who is positioned where, and knows what pitch is coming. Finance executives can be the same.

Thank you to FEI Chicago for an incredible networking event. As Christina Coulter so eloquently said, the session was smart, fun and, perhaps just as importantly, well executed. Frank Cesario, last year’s Financial Leadership Summit Conference Chair, guided us in openly sharing what we do at the end of a long week, sharing a personal story, and considering what we’d do if we knew we couldn’t fail. Emotions can be data, too.

Augustine “Gus” Faucher, Chief Economist with The PNC Financial Services Group led us through a brilliant session entitled Economic Update: From Crisis to Recovery. Gus mentioned that even though volatility is still fairly high, the stock market has rebounded strongly and investors believe the economy will recover. He shared that in Q2 2020, the American economy contracted 10% and it lost 22 million jobs. But, the household savings rate jumped from 7% to 18% in mid 2020. Pairing the economic stimulus and more robust savings led us to where we are today - households are buying durable goods. In fact, 20% more than before the pandemic - likely because personal income is 15% higher than before the pandemic and the financial obligations ratio dipped below 15%. Gus also mentioned that he does not expect inflation to rise much and that unemployment will drop to 5% this year and likely to 4% in 2022. He shared incredible amounts of data in a way that was easy to see where the economy is headed. 

Steve Soter and Mandi McReynolds from Workiva, and Chris Power from Salesforce led us through The Time is Now: Get Ready for the Intersection of ESG and Financial Reporting. Investors, lenders, and customers are increasingly asking for the disclosure of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) data. Historically, ESG may have been handled by marketing or corporate communications, but it’s now commonly found in the office of the CFO. I learned about greenwashing, which is conveying a false impression about how your company’s products are environmentally sound. Doing this greatly reduces brand trust. To reduce risk to your brand’s image, Mandi suggested proactively creating a narrative and connection between your organization’s core values, internal stakeholders’ voices, and brand in the community. Also, choose community partners based on alignment between your their ESG values. Maybe, as Chris mentioned, you form an internal ESG advisory council to guide you in gathering the right data to create a competitive advantage with your disclosures.

In Technology's Role in Changing the Finance Profession, Jim Bourke, Partner, Member of the Board of Directors and Management Committee from Withum, offered insights into ways to replicate company culture virtually to help reduce stress and improve engagement. Whether it be moving away from desktop computers, becoming search engine agnostic, encrypting your hard drives, paying for the highest internet bandwidth, getting rid of handset phones or ensuring you have one IT professional for every 40 FTEs… he shared great insights and resources. Jim also offered many software suggestions, so consider watching his session on demand or reviewing his slides for specific-to-you recommendations.

Thank you to Ledgent, Visual Lease, and Cambridge Global Payments for your pre-conference sessions.

Finance leaders know their roles are evolving and expanding. A key part of this evolution is sifting through data you’ve not collected before to help you become a storyteller. Of your organization’s strategy. Of your stakeholders’ perception of your brand. Of your employees’ happiness and wellbeing. And, of your personal story. Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I’ve talked with many of you over the years. I know you have stories. They deserve to be heard. I think it’s time you start sharing. You never know who will be inspired to follow in your footsteps.

For the last four years, Michael S. Seaver has served as emcee of the Financial Leadership Summit. For more on his work as speaker, leadership consultant, and executive coach, visit michaelsseaver.com.