Is there a link between a finance digitalization strategy and retention?

Ryan Frere
Ryan Frere
is EVP & GM of B2B at Flywire.

I caught a really nice interview in the Wall Street Journal with Hormel’s CFO, who recently retired after 43 years with the company. He rose through the ranks to become CFO of Hormel Foods in 2016.

How long do employees typically stay at a company? I’m sure it’s no spoiler alert to say that it’s not 43 years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median tenure at 4.1 years. Given that dynamic, plus the current challenges around recruitment, companies across every industry are focused on, as Fast Company put it, “going from the great resignation to the great retention.”

And finance is no exception. Retention is high on the list of priorities for accounting and finance teams, and CFOs are formalizing programs that work to keep and develop people in finance roles to that end. CFOs have increased budgets for training, and put reverse-mentoring programs in place, with early career staff exchanging skills, knowledge and insights with senior professionals, according to research from Robert Half.

One retention strategy I’ve heard come up a lot recently is making sure your finance team is aware of and educated about your department’s strategy for digitalization. Having a solid technology roadmap that shows your visions for automating different finance processes and components is a way to retain staff, according to “The Gartner 2022 Finance Digital Plans & Priorities” webinar held recently. And IBM’s CFO Study backs up the same point, with the report’s authors writing that “A well-defined finance transformation strategy sets the blueprint for employees.”

Here’s one thing to keep in mind as you develop and, most importantly, communicate technology plans: frame automation and digitalization strategy as a way to refine roles, not eliminate them. For some, automation seems synonymous with reduced headcount. It’s important to be clear that by allowing each individual to zero in on what they’re really good at, they’ll spend less time on tactical support and more on offering their strategic thinking. This helps the business, and helps employees foster next-level skills in areas they’re really passionate about.

It’s a retention strategy that fits well with how the role of finance has changed, as former Hormel CFO Jim Sheehan puts it, from backward looking to forward looking. “It’s very much what’s going to happen, not what’s happened,” he told the Wall Street Journal.

If you’re not there yet, you’re not alone. Nearly half of finance’s time is still spent on transactional activities, according to the IBM CFO Study, a number the report’s authors say has remained relatively consistent for 18 years of research. “Freeing up the time to work on strategic challenges is an issue for finance organizations—especially if finance doesn’t have the right tools and systems needed to automate traditional work: making payments, closing the books, and the like,” IBM’s report says.

We explore the talent issue, and strategies for handling legacy finance technology landscapes in our recent “CFO’s Guide to Bold Finance Leadership.” In this report, we look at four challenges for finance teams and lend advice from real CFOs on how to approach them. You can access that here.