Leadership

Create alignment across the business with effective storytelling

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Ben Myers started his career working with Google's business development team and later moved to Strategy and FP&A at Fox Studios. During the past decade, he's been both an investor and operator of start-ups in the USA and Brazil, including as finance lead (CFO) for companies backed by venture capital firms such as Redpoint, Headline, and Index. He is a founding member of the Vareto Visionaries, a curated community for strategic finance leaders, and through FOG Ventures, he is an investor in Vareto.

Finance professionals don't create reports and forecasts in a vacuum. One of the hardest parts of the job is not just to present numbers, but to use the numbers to tell a story that teammates can digest and act on. This could mean having different conversations with different stakeholders — the discussion with your board and leadership team may well be different than the conversations you hold with the entire company. There always will be tension between wanting to be as transparent as possible, for inclusion and understanding, versus potentially alarming stakeholders who may not have as much experience with start-up lifecycles. How do you create alignment around a singular goal, without giving away too much information that could distract team members from the desired outcome? It can be difficult to find that balance. 

Effective CFOs & finance leaders who do this well know how to tell a story. They know what information different audiences need, they present the information in ways that are easy to understand. They empower others to own the numbers. They educate across the business while encouraging feedback and questions.

Get the right information to the right people

A good first step is thinking critically about what information each audience needs to find success. This requires a deep understanding of your stakeholders and the roles they play in your organization. To build this foundation, sit down with the leadership team to determine together what information is appropriate to share with different stakeholders. 

Some organizations choose to operate under full transparency, showcasing to their employees the same information that’s presented at board and/or investor meetings. Others take a more measured approach, presenting focused information that’s meaningful to various stakeholders without “oversharing” or causing turmoil. There’s no right or wrong way to go about this — a lot depends on your specific company’s stakeholders and their level of experience — but it’s important to think through the options and the outcomes. And also how this evolves over time:  what works for a scrappy founding team of 10 is not necessarily what still works when you’ve got 100+ team members spread over various offices and time zones.

Leaders who drive impressive outcomes often lean toward transparency. Strive to share the most information possible to help the company, team or individual execute effectively, keeping in mind what people need to know in order to do their jobs well and what level of information they can handle. This is especially pertinent for broad company updates with internal stakeholders, where some individuals more junior in their careers could be unsettled by updates that appear to show weakness in company growth or stability.  At an all-hands Zoom, for example, showing a cash balance/runway of 24 months when you’re near breakeven is one thing. Showing negative EBITDA and only 4 months of cash left is another. Think carefully about how your team can digest and respond to the information, and what outcomes you want to create.

Transform numbers into actionable reports

The truth is, not everyone can make sense of numbers on their own. In fact, most can’t. It’s our job as finance leaders to tell the story of the numbers in a way that people can digest. Crafting simplified trendlines or graphs allows people to see the progress of the business, and these visualizations can help people better understand the story you’re trying to tell. For example, if margins are contracting, an easy-to-understand chart can help show the scope of the problem and encourage individuals to get more efficient in their work. Coming to meetings equipped with KPI trendlines can help people dive deeper into ongoing issues and create a path toward alignment. Even better, work to create internal real-time dashboards, with automatic reports that highlight these key figures / KPIs, that stakeholders can access whenever they want. When team members start to “feed themselves” with the dashboards you’ve provided, you’re on the right track.

Empower teams to own their numbers

Orienting people around your company’s core issues helps them align to a north star. As today’s macroeconomic uncertainty slows growth, alignment across the business can keep priorities on track and help the business reach its goals. First, keep your overall messaging around strategies centered on key issues. Then, make sure each team has easy, ongoing access to the granular data they need to make good decisions in their areas of expertise. (The dashboards referenced above are a key enabler here). Help them see how their contributions influence the overall success of the business and find where they can make an outsized impact on trends the company is experiencing. Teams should feel like everyone owns that topline number, and it’s up to them all to figure out improvements. 

Educate across the business

Finance professionals have the power to significantly shape company culture.  Holding “Finance 101” sessions with new hires as part of your onboarding process can quickly align new employees on key metrics – both for their own specific areas, as well as your company’s top-of-line growth goals, EBITDA, and other important KPIs. Regular all-hands meetings are a great opportunity to remind everyone about the company’s “north star” KPIs and provide updates on where the organization as a whole is headed. 

But to make this approach even more effective, think about how to further this instruction and alignment by empowering functional leaders to continue the education of their teams.  For example, consider individual training sessions for team leaders to help them dive deep into the metrics that matter most to their work. Encourage curiosity about the numbers within departments and motivate everyone, from managers to individual contributors, to own their part. 

Invite candid feedback and questions

The best way to inspire employee engagement and ownership of the numbers is to encourage open communication. Transparency with financials is a fine line to walk, and it works best when individuals are encouraged to ask questions, give feedback, and grow together.  Help your devs to ask questions about marketing spend and outcomes, for example, or show the sales team how to better understand what makes a “profitable” customer.  Ben Horowitz’s book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” has some great examples of how creating an empowered culture can help teams tackle even moments of extreme difficulty.

The power of a business aligned

The power of aligning internal teams to financial KPIs is that it helps everyone to work together towards common objectives. An effective finance leader takes the opportunity to help all stakeholders, from SDRs and data analysts to C(X)Os and Board members, understand the company’s KPIs and how each person can contribute to the larger picture. This leads to improved efficiency, better use of resources, and, ultimately, increased profitability. 

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