CFO to CFO Podcast: Melanie Payne

January 19, 2021 David Axson

The CFO to CFO podcast is hosted by David Axson, the CFO Whisperer.

This week's guest, Melanie Payne, is the Chief Financial Officer of Syniti and has many years of experience working with companies like Accenture, EMC, and Dell. She brings a wealth of expertise to the role of the CFO, but also, the expanding role of the CFO in translating data into valuable information across the enterprise. It's a pleasure to be joined by Melanie today.

 

 

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David Axson (00:07):

Hello and welcome to the Syniti CFO to CFO Podcast Series. My name's David Axson, and I'm going to be a host through this series of podcasts that explore the deepening relationship between CFOs and the use of data across the enterprise.

 

 

Nearly every business interaction now creates a digital footprint, creating more and more data that we can begin to infuse into our management reporting analysis and decision-making processes. And CFOs are becoming increasingly active in guiding the governance of that data and the use of that data to ensure that the organization achieves real value. In this series of podcasts, we'll be speaking to some CFOs and practitioners in the space, about how their role is changing in the use of data across the enterprise, and how they're combining data with talent within their finance organization validation to deliver ever more value. Please enjoy the series and don't hesitate to follow up with any questions if you would like further information.

 

 

I'm delighted to be joined today by Melanie Payne, who is the Chief Financial Officer of Syniti and has many years of experience working with companies like Excentia, EMC, and Dell. She brings a wealth of expertise to the role of the CFO, but also, the expanding role of the CFO in translating data into valuable information across the enterprise. It's a pleasure to be joined by Melanie today.

 

 

Melanie Payne (01:28):

Pleasure to be here, David. Thank you.

 

 

David Axson (01:30):

Thank you, Melanie. Thinking back, 2020 has really been a truly extraordinary year in so many ways. What have been the main learnings from your point of view as a CFO in a small, fast growing company?

 

 

Melanie Payne (01:43):

Your comment on 2020 being exceptional is right on. The main things that have impacted us I'll put them in two categories. One has been around speed and agility, and the need to really move faster in how we make decisions, change course quickly, right? There's been so much uncertainty throughout the year and I think about the speed at which we've had to make adjustments, tweak our strategy, tweak our execution along with that. I think that speed is reflective of a pace of change that isn't going away. So I think that's going to be with us for a little while.

 

 

The other pleasant surprise that hit me this year is an increase in collaboration. You hear a lot of people talking about how hard it's been to not travel, but people getting used to working remotely. For a global finance organization we're typically not on the road a lot, maybe with the exception of the CFO, but the teams are not really big travelers in terms of getting together and collaborating in person. As a matter of fact, we had people on the team that had never seen each other's faces in the years they've been working together. So this shift to find creative ways of connecting with people beyond in-person, has actually improved the collaboration in a team of people that's not been historically used to turning their cameras on, or finding ways of connecting with each other more personally. I'm finding that this wave of people forcing themselves to find ways to look each other in the eye, work together, is impacting us in a very positive way, and I think that will stick with us too.

 

 

David Axson (03:29):

I think that's a fascinating point. Initially it sounds a little counter intuitive, but when you think about it, we in finance, rather than sitting in our cubes playing with our spreadsheets, and rarely do we put our heads above the parapet and see what's going on around us. So.

 

 

Melanie Payne (03:43):

That's right.

 

 

David Axson (03:44):

So I think that collaboration is a really interesting point that I'm sure others finance teams experienced. Are there any other things about changes in the way you've worked that you think are going to have value when we'll ever have the new normal is, comes into play?

 

 

Melanie Payne (03:58):

I certainly think those two things initially will absolutely have value. I think the other couple of things are going to have more long-term value and are shifting the way we think about our strategies, and no surprise to the audience here, digital and talent, right? In the digital space we read a lot about the acceleration of digital transformations, companies digital agendas becoming that much more important. That's no different for the CFOs than it is for any other part of the organization. And the importance of high quality data, automation, especially with the need to make fast decisions and the lack of, whether it's hallway chatter or some people call it tribal knowledge, there was a lot of information we used to get just by being present with other people and catching it on the drive-bys.

 

 

And with that going away, the importance of having good, fast, reliable data in our systems is that much more important. So I think the importance of digital in the finance space is going to grow. I think the second is, the market was already pretty competitive for finance talent. And I see that getting more fierce as the boundaries of where people are located calm down, with companies getting more virtual. Folks have more options and companies have more access, and that's going to create more competition for the rock stars in the field. So how we proactively create and manage a career experience for the finance professionals on our teams is going to be the differentiator. That's going to influence how we attract and retain our people.

 

 

David Axson (05:49):

I think you're exactly right. What I'm actually seeing is almost a convergence of digital and talent, and the combination of those two and how effectively they work together. I tend to not think about technology per se, as separate. It's an enabler that allows talent to fulfill their potential. I think it's actually quite liberating. You and I both grew up in the age of spreadsheets and playing with Lotus 123 prior to Excel, not to give too much away, but we now have such wide range of technologies to play with.

 

 

I think one of the interesting things I see from a CFO perspective is digital goes hand in hand with data, as you mentioned, and we now have more data than we could ever dream about. You know, in the old days we just had what was in the general ledger and we sold the information once a month or once a quarter. Now we've got financial, operational, customer and market data. How have you seen your role evolve with respect to broader use of data across the enterprises? We in finance, are beginning to include non-financial data in our forecasting to help us better understand future trends and behaviors, but also to really begin to understand how our decisions are impacting the customer in the marketplace.

 

 

Melanie Payne (07:03):

Yeah, absolutely David. I talked earlier about speed agility, acceleration of digital agendas as major waves and trends in any industry, but what we're seeing ourselves and I expect others are seeing this too, is it's caused any kind of data issues (any company, any size has them), but any of those data issues get magnified. So seams between systems or seams between organizations, or even seams between the financial and the operational data are magnified. And so the need to really get trusted data that makes sense across the organization to power that fast decision-making is really important. And what that's done is, it's put the CFO squarely in the critical role of driving business transformation, right.

 

 

Where we might've done, driven finance transformation agendas we're right at the forefront of transforming the businesses. Leading the charge on where data problems exist, where they're impacting speed and decision quality. While, previously we might've been the keeper of an investment budget, or in the role of approving the investments. Now we're right on the front line saying, we have to go do this because we can't support our strategy or drive the right kind of decision-making without better information. Initiatives like mapping our own data across systems and establishing our own data governance processes, and policies. Those are all things we tell our customers are really critical. We, as CFOs are now living those challenges that, excuse me, other parts of the business maybe have felt before we have.

 

 

David Axson (08:57):

Yeah. So we're no longer thinking about the accounts payable, the accounts receivable process. We're thinking about an integrated set of supply processes and an integrated set of customer processes that cut across a lot of different functional boundaries within the organization. I actually think that's really interesting, but to your very first point around collaboration, finance, hasn't always played nicely with other functions because we're often the people that say, no, you can't spend the money.

 

 

Melanie Payne (09:23):

Right.

 

 

David Axson (09:24):

I think it's forcing us as finance professionals to put ourselves in the shoes of the people we're collaborating with and try and understand their environment so that we can help them with this transformation journey, and most importantly of all, ensure the quality and the integrity of data, which is after all, still finances, job number one. I think we still ask ourselves some times, why do you want to do that?

 

 

Melanie Payne (09:46):

Fair enough.

 

 

David Axson (09:46):

If you want to do that, here are some ways that we can think about financing that, where the cash and capital are going to come from to fund those types of investments. I think that's a much more constructive conversation all too often. We were included at the back end of the process and we're involved in any of the thinking about where prioritization of investments were going to be. That really put us in a corner because we were trying to manage the allocation of resources without any real insight into what prioritization was going into that. I think that made our job very hard. So it's another part of the liberation of finance, I think, which is one of my favorite themes at the moment.

 

 

Let's talk a little bit about technology. Virtually all your career has been spent in technology-oriented businesses. And we started off with relatively simplistic tools and relatively closed systems. Now we have such a portfolio of increasingly sophisticated technologies, which are the ones that you see having the biggest impact upon you and your team now and in the future?

 

 

Melanie Payne (10:50):

Yeah, I think this shift you talked about it, it expansive range of tools, self service automation, BI tools, real time connected integrated AI machine learning. Those are starting to expand to have a very real value in the finance space. And what we see happening is we're shifting from a history of IT led big projects, wait six months and give me a million dollars and we can give you this new report kind of a model to use or led automation. And so scripting macros, connectedness, low code generation kinds of tools that allow you to automate user activity without getting a corporate it function involved and going through the whole lengthy linear process of design build test cut over kind of a thing. It also changes the profile of the skill sets we need to have.

 

 

As we talked about talent, we talked about how the roles are evolving. Certainly your finance professionals have to have that foundational understanding of the business and the numbers and strong analytical and process skills. They'll always be core, but we're also finding a need for strong technology skills, like building connections into our data lakes, like understanding data mapping and building process automation to simplify routine things, to give us that speed, those skills are increasingly table stakes for finance teams.

 

 

David Axson (12:34):

Yeah. I think one of the interesting areas for me is the opportunity we now have based upon getting the data right, which is obviously job one here, is the ability to use different techniques and visualization representations of data so that we can help explain to people that perhaps aren't comfortable with numbers or aren't comfortable with a spreadsheet format for everything that we deliver and the ability for people to then be able to interrogate that information on their own. Using these self service tools allows us as finance to sit side by side and help them think about what the right decision might be. One of the things I like to say now is that finances job starts when we deliver the report or the analysis because that report or analysis is only as good as the decisions that result from it. And all too often in finance, we're exhausted and it's very late at night or very early in the morning.

 

 

By the time we can hit send on email with the report. Now these technologies are enabling us to do that in a much more consistent and rapid fashion. So we can actually spend more time working with our business partners to help them better interpret that information and to then make more effective decisions on the basis of that. And again, it's a different skillset. Those collaborations skills become even more important in that environment. And the ability to get out of our cube and start having a communication and a conversation with people I think is going to be a big skill moving forward. It's always has been for the best finance professionals, but it's now going to be routine for all finance professionals. And I think that's going to change a little bit the profile of how we hire and how we develop our people going forward.

 

 

Melanie Payne (14:13):

I agree with that. And I also see a need for the emotional intelligence or empathy to be able to sit in this seat of the business leader that you're partnered with when you're going through those results, when you're guiding and informing the decision-making to really understand where they're coming from. Whereas in the past that may have been less critical. I think it's really important to take the emotional and the human side of the number and the data into that as well.

 

 

David Axson (14:44):

Or sometimes we have to sell the numbers to get people to interpret them appropriately. And that's not always the easiest thing to do because everyone has their own points of view, but our ability to be able to shape that conversation. I think is an important part of our toolkit going forward in terms of your role as CFO of Syniti, what are your priorities for enhancing the value that you and your team can deliver to the business as you continue to grow moving forward?

 

 

Melanie Payne (15:10):

Yeah, we touched on all of the things that are really critical for us and they're shaping the initiatives we're taking on in 2021 and going forward right. Enhancing our digital skills, business partnering with our audience, understanding the business end-to-end connecting the dots between organizations, between the financial results and forecasts and the operating levers that people can pull. I very much see that as our role in making sure that people, everyone in the organization connects the dots between the decisions they make every day and the performance of the business. And so arming our team to be able to effectively have those conversations and drive that more outward with their counterparts outside of finances is a key priority. I think the other is the technology and the speed, right? The expectation for fast information and better informed decisions, insight, whatever words you want to use, the expectations are higher. And we should expect more from ourselves as well as finance team members.

 

 

So our agenda for the next one to three years is really around elevating our speed, making sure we're doing that with good quality data that connects across the organization, enhancing our digital skills and business partnership.

 

 

David Axson (16:46):

The speed is a really interesting one to me because all too often in the past, I think we've been constrained by the accounting calendar. When we've closed the books, when we've published the reports and we've sort of made the business fit the accounting calendar rather than making the accounting and finance information fit to the needs and the cycle within the business. I think one of the things that digitization and the availability of broader data sets with increased frequency is doing is allowing us to better match what we do in finance with the rhythm of the business, rather than forcing the business to try and fit in within our cycle. Used to be that no one could call anyone in finance for the first week of the month, because we were closing the books or the whole month of October was out because we were trying to get the budgets organized, frankly I feel that's not really an acceptable answer to be able to give back to the business these days.

 

 

We need to synchronize what we're doing in finance and accounting with the rhythm of decision-making within the business, and that's really about it's speed, but it's also how we organize our work and how we prioritize where we spend that time. And I think looking at technology as an enabler to do that, rather than simply an automation of a transaction process or of a report. It's how it allows us to begin to interact with our business partners. That becomes a very freeing and I think career advancing and nurturing process for our people. And one of the things I've enjoyed, I would say, I like to say that finance is one of the coolest jobs in business.

 

 

Actually think it's the coolest job. So I probably need my head examining for thinking that way, but it's because we have one of the few functions where we do get to see all aspects because ultimately nearly everything that happens within our businesses results in a change in a line item on a P and L account or a balance sheet or a cashflow statement. And therefore we really do get a very interesting view of the cause and effect relationships within the business. And that makes it fun for me. I skate and I probably need my head examining, but what aspects of finance do you find the most satisfying you've been in the finance roles for over 30 years now, and it really strikes me that I can just tell, by the way you talk, you're passionate about this. So what is it makes it fun for you?

 

 

Melanie Payne (19:11):

A lot of it frankly, is personal. It's about how I'm wired and I agree with you. Maybe I need my head examined too. I think it is the coolest job in the company. I thrive on change and I love to build things that are great and lasting, and I love to grow and develop other people and where better to be able to connect the dots in something to identify opportunities, to grow and build. Nothing's changing faster than the tech industry right now. So I can't imagine a better place to be and so much opportunity for the up and coming finance professional to take their careers in so many different directions in and outside of finance, right. The boundaries that define finance are changing and evolving.

 

 

David Axson (20:01):

Well, I think, yeah, and a lot of the time we're collaborating more with people outside of finance that sometimes with our colleagues inside of finance, we're trying to connect those dots. We're trying to understand why did that number move or why perhaps more interesting, why might it move in the future? Or how can we make it move in the future? As we moved from sort of a backward looking descriptive view of the world to a much more prescriptive view that we want to bring to the business going forward. Are there any other things that you think about at the moment as you look to the future that get you really excited?

 

 

Melanie Payne (20:33):

I love technology. I've always loved technology. And so the nerd in me loves to see the change in what's coming, the innovative and creative startups. Anybody that's in a role like mine get, I don't know, I must get 50 spam emails a week on this new tech company. That's got this great new capability. That's all the buzz words on the planet, AI and machine learning and blah, blah, blah. I think my team's getting tired of me forwarding those things over saying, Hey, we taken a look at this, could this help us? So what I get really excited about is the opportunity to take new things try to do something creative. We'll win some, we'll lose some, we might not be successful on every one of them, but I'm in this, try lots of things, fail fast every once in a while, you'll win one. And if we can change the game and make things easier, more automated free up time for our teams, I think that can give them the power to be a lot more impactful to the organizations that they serve.

 

 

David Axson (21:45):

I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of changing our perspective, because when we look backwards, detail equals accuracy. The more detail we have, the more accurate it becomes. But as soon as we try and pivot to the future uncertainty and ambiguity of the name of the game, and sometimes when I was training as an accountant, I was a little difficult because things add up, they balance their right, because the very word accounting is looking backwards at things. And as soon as you pivot to the future, you've got to be tolerant to failure. Whether it's trying a new way of evaluating an investment or seeing how a new technology can be deployed within your workplace and the comfort to fail occasionally.

 

 

But to learn from those failures, I think is a great leadership characteristic that I'm beginning to see emerge in a lot of CFOs that are out there. So all in all, I think it's a fascinating time. And I think you exhibit many of the attributes of what we want to see in forward looking CFOs, who are really a partnership with the CEO and the rest of the C-suite team. You understand data, you understand talent. You're curious about technology, and its application and evolution. So I think this has been a really interesting discussion and Melanie, I would just like to thank you for your time. It's been a pleasure and good luck to you and Syniti in the future.

 

 

Melanie Payne (23:05):

It's been my pleasure, David. Thanks so much.

About the Author

David Axson

David Axson is a global strategist, consultant, keynote speaker, and author. Known as the CFO Whisperer, he has worked in strategy, finance, and technology for more than 35 years, advising CFOs and businesses in more than 50 countries across multiple industries. He has served as a global leader, driving global mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures at a number of organizations, including Bank of America, Accenture, and Hewlett-Packard. He was a co-founder and chief operating officer of The Hackett Group, led Accenture strategies, global finance thought leadership for nearly a decade, and served as head of corporate planning at Bank of America.

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