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Innovation Is the Key Trait Needed to Rise to the Top, Say CFOs

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Feb 5th 2015
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The majority of chief financial officers say their staffers have room for improvement when it comes to innovative thinking and suggestions. That’s the result of a recent survey developed by staffing firm Robert Half Management Resources.  According to the survey, only 31 percent of CFOs said that innovation is a strength of their employees while 59 percent said their staffs are somewhat innovative but that improvement is  needed.

Yet fostering innovation isn’t that tough, and the rewards far exceed the effort.

“Innovation in a CFO’s functional areas of responsibility would be a process improvement idea,” says Paul McDonald, a senior executive director with Robert Half in Westlake Village, Calif. “The CFO looks at it from the standpoint of how to do things differently and how to execute on that.”

That could include how to close the book faster, how to file reports more quickly, suggesting a new software tool to help build efficiencies in the department, or how to better use business analytics.

And, yes, there’s plenty of room for innovation in accounting and finance. “A lot of people look at these professionals as following the rules, doing things by rote and convention,” McDonald says. “But there actually is a lot of creativity and innovation that can be injected into finance and accounting.”

The key is that companies must foster an environment of creative thinking and allow time for it.

“CFOs who bought into innovation create good morale,” McDonald says. “A great idea could save companies a lot of money. And when employees are heard, retention goes up." And sometimes just listening seriously is enough; it doesn’t necessarily mean all ideas must be executed.

So what keeps innovative ideas on the back burner? Too much bureaucracy and a “this is the way things always are done” mindset, McDonald says.

“People get bogged down with daily tasks and putting out fires, and they don’t put this on the calendar as a priority,” he adds.

Instead, schedule a brainstorming session off-site or in a conference room without distractions. In that kind of environment, barriers break down—and the ideas flow.

Even casual one-on-one chats are effective. Managers should ask employees for ideas, what’s on their minds, and what could make the department run better.

Employees, though, need to mind office politics and hierarchy. The trick is to speak up and not hold back, but it has to be in the appropriate setting, McDonald cautions. For example, if a senior manager walks by and asks about ideas, the staffer can say “I have an idea that I’d like to run by my manager first.”

The senior manager sees that something is on its way, explains McDonald, but the immediate manager is not left out of the loop.

The Robert Half survey was conducted by an independent research firm in phone interviews with more than 2,100 CFOs in more than 20 of the largest U.S. markets.

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