8 ways to... motivate your finance team

If you want to retain the brightest and best people, you’ve got to keep them keen. Here are eight pieces of advice for doing this…

1 Partner with operations people
Several commentators say that what once worked to motivate finance professionals in the past may not work so well today.

“The finance function has changed enormously in the past few years so the old talent-management approach doesn’t necessarily work,” says Dan Zbacnik, financial management leader at KPMG Canada.

“Money doesn’t always cut it now. These new types of people are looking for on-the-job satisfaction, learning and constantly growing. They are looking for more partnering with operations people. Finance people may come in with technical skills, but they want to learn about the operations as well.”

2 Beware micromanaging
Stephen Brooks, specialist in people management at PA Consulting, says there are three proven ways of motivating people: what he calls “autonomy, mastery and purpose”.

The first of these can pose problems for financial professionals, he thinks.

“As they develop, finance people tend to have a controlling function, but as you reach managerial level you need to stop being like that. That can be quite difficult for some people.

Finance attracts people who find it more difficult to trust and delegate.”

Micromanaging is a big no-no, because it saps people’s sense of urgency and because it is inefficient, essentially amounting to doing someone’s work for them.

3 Let employees ‘make progress’
Managers might think they know what motivates teams – but they may be wrong, according to Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School and author of The Progress Principle.

Amabile collected electronic diaries from 238 people working on projects in seven companies, looking at what motivated people from hour to hour over several months.

“What we found was, of things that get people engaged in their work, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. There is a tremendous motivational effect when people make even small, incremental progress,” she says.

Amabile’s statement contradicts what employers say.

A corresponding survey asked 600 managers to rank “recognition”, “incentives”, “interpersonal support”, “support for making progress” and “clear goals” as motivating factors. “Recognition” came first, some way ahead of “progress”.

Amabile says managers should not over-emphasise the importance of incentives, financial or otherwise. “We found that people rarely mentioned incentives. Of course, when they got recognition, that made them happy. But they had to have done something first.”

4 Develop people, don’t rely on training
Brooks says development has multiple rewards, and that money well spent will deliver long-term advantages.

“The evidence shows that people stay with organisations that develop them. Sometimes you are going to lose people if you don’t offer them career advancement. But if you develop people, top talent attracts top talent, and you get into a virtuous cycle.”

That doesn’t just mean sending someone off on a course somewhere, though: training is only 20-30 per cent of the puzzle, Brooks says. “Where you get companies spending lots of money on training and then losing people, they are often doing other things wrong.”

5 Pay still matters
For all the happy talk about workplace satisfaction, progress and purpose, money still talks for many. “What we are seeing with finance leaders is that compensation is the most important thing,” says Phil Scrivener (ACMA, 1987), a senior director at the Hackett Group, a finance consulting firm.

“Because it is still a very competitive market, pay is going to be vital. Linking your payment model to what skills you want is going to be the key component for developing the right organisational capability.”

Hackett recently completed a survey of 200 financial professionals about people management. It found that those who made motivation and retention a priority were the most successful.

“We measured that companies can have a 16 per cent improvement in performance by having a coherent talent management strategy,” he says.

6 Understand everything your team can do
Brooks says it is common for organisations to under-use all the talents of team members. People forget what so-and-so did in a previous job, or career, or university, which is a shame.

Those skills and experiences may not only be useful, but also a way to motivate individuals by allowing them to do things that interest them.

“Most organisations don’t know very much about their workforce,” he says. “They forget that individuals did loads of stuff before they joined. They tend to think about people as they are now rather than everything they have done.”

Brooks says technology, such as workforce management systems, can help to mine CVs and other resources so that such skills and experiences become useful – turning what resides dimly in someone’s memory into information that can be accessed in a systematic way.

7 Parcel out unappealing work
Moving to a centralised transaction processing model can deliver efficiencies, but it can also help motivate people. “It means you are no longer using people with developed skills to do very mundane work, such as gathering information and inputting it,” says Zbacnik at KPMG.

“If you can automate, then people can be more analytical and transaction processing becomes more about problem-solving, like figuring out why a system has rejected a transaction.”

8 Don’t over-emphasise technical skills
When hiring people to perform certain roles there is a tendency for companies to sometimes hire qualifications rather than people. It may make sense to de-emphasise what technical skills someone has and instead look at whether they are going to fit into the organisation, says Brooks.

“When things go wrong it’s rarely because of their technical abilities. It’s more because they don’t fit into the organisation. We need to pay more attention to broader skills, capabilities and cultural fit. It’s often the less tangible skills that are important.”


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