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Navigating Burnout in Finance

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Navigating Burnout in Finance

I have recently heard from over a dozen Finance professionals who either want to leave their jobs or have already left their jobs. This comes from all levels–CFOs, VPs of Finance, and Directors of Finance. And to add to that, they are not even on a green card or citizenship.They still want to leave because they just can't take the burnout anymore. It’s bad when the work of Finance causes so much stress that you don't even want to do it. 

Some of this “Finance burnout” is driven by unpredictable macroeconomic conditions–like the bank run last year, or prior to that, Covid. It's very tough for companies to create a financial plan that will be realistic for the next 12 to 18 months. Pretty much every time they create a plan, it becomes obsolete because market conditions tend to behave in a different manner. So they either do better than the plan or worse off than the plan. And then they have to replan, re-forecast, and figure out whether they should be investing in certain areas or reducing expenses in other areas. 

As people come to me in a very burned out state, I've been helping a good number of them figure out how to deal with stress through alternative methods like breathing, meditation, relaxation techniques, and also how to get a job where the demands are not that high. 

But burnout in the office of CFO is not a new problem, which I learned the hard way.

The moment I went from frustration to empathy

I was at Hewlett Packard (HP) from 2006 to 2013, in strategy and operations roles where I used to work very closely with the finance teams. I would ask them for information, like, “Give me the P&L for this department or for this region,” and it would take them not days, but weeks to get me it. I was frustrated. I’d ask, “Why does it take you that much time?” and I couldn't get an answer.

But then, I actually decided to take a rotation into the Finance organization at HP.  Only when I started leading a team of FP&A and finance people did I realize how much they have to go behind the scenes to pull data from multiple systems and then transform it in a way that it would be usable by the business leaders. I saw how that work takes tons of time and the team was pretty much working 24/7. 

In late 2013, I was offered to take the VP of FP&A role for the 23 billion dollar Enterprise Services business of HP, and I said no to it. I chickened out. And the reason I said no was because I used to see how VP of FP&A and his team were working 24/7. Once I went to his home for dinner, and his wife said, 'I'm so happy today because thanks to you, I'm able to see my husband having dinner with us after a long time.” And I said to myself, “I don't want to do that to my family. I don't want my family to be subjected to this kind of situation.” 

That's when this whole idea started rattling around in my mind and in my heart that I want to do something for the FP&A organization. This led to co-founding my current company, Vareto, a planning and decision making platform. But first, I spent a few years as COO of a startup, Udacity.

120 versions of the truth

When I joined that startup, the first thing I asked my CFO was the forecast for the quarter and the year. They couldn't give it. And then I asked my business leaders what their plan was, what their budget was, what their forecast was. Everybody gave me different numbers. Some of them said, “We have no clue.” 

When we were restructuring the company, we had a month to create the plan for the business. It was like a very truncated annual-planning exercise for the company–and the process was painfully cumbersome. We had 12 department and function leaders, which meant that my FP&A team had to create 12 different templates to get inputs and share the actuals to date. During the  last two weeks of planning, we ended up getting 120 different versions of input from these 12 different departments. 

You can imagine the errors that happen when you have to actually go through 120 different inputs and parse all of that information into one uber-model. You may miss some of the input from operations. You get a number ten from one leader, an eight from another. It led to a lot of shouting matches between different leaders. To just fix it, I ended up bringing all the 12 leaders into a room for 2 days straight.

We worked during those two days trying to reconcile the give-and-gets across different departments, so that I could finally get to a plan that I could take to the board. The process was arduous and painful. And the size of that FP&A team? Just two people.

When companies have to replan and re-forecast almost on a monthly basis–which is what it’s like in many of the companies I talk to – you simply can not do it using Excel spreadsheets, Google sheets, or even some of the gen 2 solutions we were using at my prior startup. 

Vareto 2.0: Collaboration at the heart of Finance

That's why Kat Orekhova and I started Vareto. With our combined experience in Finance, we decided to take a first-principles approach to solving the types of problems I described. Instead of simply building a better version of the existing solutions, we committed to taking a deep look at the Finance jobs to be done in today’s business world, the obstacles impairing those jobs, and the availability of new technology or ways of working that hadn’t existed when the last round of FP&A solutions were born. 

We built a reporting and planning platform that people love. Now we’re unveiling a major innovation to that platform with Vareto 2.0 and the first multiplayer modeling capability in the enterprise category of FP&A. Many problems I witnessed in my previous roles stem from the expectation that Finance must maintain close connection with the business while using tools that only Finance can operate. 

Maybe tool specialization made sense before good UX became table stakes in business applications. Anyone can enter a Sales, HR, or accounting system and understand how to navigate and complete tasks. And yet Finance is still on a software island, trapped in the role of taking data separated by department spreadsheets and putting it back together into a business view. Truly collaborative, usable tools have not been available to Finance. But Kat and I have known from the beginning that there is absolutely no way that Finance can operate in isolation and deliver quality work. 

Going forward, collaboration must be central and substantive–not an afterthought–to the tools that Finance uses and shares with business partners.

With that, multiplayer functionality is hardly a “cool thing” to have. It is the only way to solve the root problem of having to use spreadsheets as the carrier pigeon between Finance and everyone else. Multiplayer solves major problems like versioning, miscommunication, and time lag. It gives the finance team a straightforward way to communicate with cross functional teams, and truly empowers them to have a seat at the table and be seen as the strategic thought partners they are. 

Reenergizing Finance

What is the result? Empowered business leaders who understand the underlying fundamentals of how their function is doing. Enabling them to make better decisions and provide better inputs to actually grow the company. This frees up Finance to remain in a difficult job, but in the good, rewarding way that gets you up in the morning and makes you feel energized. Where you are making an impact on the financial health of your business and the well-being of your business partners–not just fixing broken reference links all day long. That’s what I want for my friends in Finance. And if it’s not happening, invite me to dinner so I can talk to your spouse.

Want to Learn More About Alternative Ways to Manage Burnout?

If you’re interested in learning more practical strategies to alleviate stress and manage burnout, please join Emil Vasilev from Cherry and myself for our virtual retreat on SKY Breath practice done by millions globally - Sign up here --> http://tiny.cc/april26sky

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