Story Telling Through Data: One CFO’s Journey of Developing Skills Beyond Technical Expertise
Have you ever tried driving a car in Europe? If you have, then you know how disorienting it is to drive on the other side of the road. Although you know the basics, suddenly movements that have become automatic now feel awkward and far from natural. Such a situation begins to approximate my professional shift in focus from financial reporting as an auditor in public accounting to my role as CFO of the Pennsylvania Institute of CPAs (PICPA). Instead of telling a tale of history through numbers, I now have the immensely enjoyable challenge of formulating strategy and making decisions based on financial and operational data. By combining the data we already have with some new technologies, we have moved down a path of data-driven decision making, the power of which extends far beyond a historical financial statement.
Using data to inform strategy is not really a skill one acquires in auditing. While serving a diverse set of client needs taught me many things, my part in the story would come to an end well before the conclusion: I would make my recommendations to management, and then went on my way. Now, as CFO, I am accountable for sifting through the recommendations of others, formulating a strategy, and then executing it. To do this, I have had to develop skills beyond what are typical of most public accounting auditors.
Because of the rigorous educational, ethical, and licensing standards we need to uphold, CPAs enjoy a unique position of trust. Organizations and clients will often look to us to help interpret the story being told and to offer input on directing efforts and resources. Whether a CPA finds herself in the role of decision maker or an adviser, understanding the tools and concepts beyond the focus of her technical expertise is the first step in broadening her understanding. Some of the steps I took included education, hands-on learning, and digging into the details. For example, I attended a conference recently that offered sessions on high-level topics such as member engagement and philanthropy, as well as practical learning labs focused on topics such as marketing, IT, and more. Reaching out to my network and discussing with peers “what works for you” has also provided invaluable insight. Not only have I been able to rely on my pre-existing network, but my immersion into this new world of CFO for a state society has enabled me to create a new network as well.
Much of my time these days is spent on evaluating tools and technologies that enable organizational goals to be met in new and efficient ways. Some of the most interesting to me are those tools in the data analytics and business intelligence space. Typically the domain of statisticians in large organizations with deep pockets, these tools are now becoming available more broadly at significantly lower costs. Even a mid-sized nonprofit organization such as the PICPA can take advantage of these tools to change the way we see our data.
In my role I oversee both the finance and technology groups, so both the raw data and the technology that will facilitate analysis live within my teams. I have been delighted to see what this combination of data and technology can accomplish. With my team, we are called upon to ask the critical questions that will prompt new insight into existing data. By looking at the information in new – and often visual – ways, we are continuing to find innovative methods to accomplish organizational objectives.
Even with the development of new skills in data and technology, I have been surprised to find that, at the core, both financial reporting and strategic decision making still require the ability to tell a story through data. Perhaps this is the true value of a CPA, regardless of her role or title.