Winning the War for Finance Talent: A Q&A With Loren Mahon of Oracle

As the demands placed on senior financial leaders evolve and expand, one of their leading challenges is recruiting and retaining finance talent.


To understand the challenge and steps effective companies are taking in response, FEI Daily spoke with Loren Mahon, VP, Finance Systems, of Oracle Corporation, and a member of FEI’s Board of Directors. Oracle recently sponsored a report, Winning the War for Finance Talent: Game Plan for the Digital Age, that provides advice on grooming finance teams.

FEI Daily: How would you characterize the market for finance talent today?


Loren Mahon: The market is very competitive. There are new skills that many companies are trying to attract and retain in their finance function, and there is a lot of competition. There is a gap in areas like data analytics, strategic visioning, and business partnering, those are areas where there may be a lack of talent and therefore a competitive environment.


FEI Daily: When you look at those areas, what's driving their growing importance?

Mahon: The CFO role is changing. They are acting as catalysts of business model change and have a growing oversight of IT strategy and investment. And therefore, CFO teams are looking for individuals who can drive digital transformation, analyze data for strategic insights, and communicate these insights effectively to their line of business partners. More than being simply a provider of information, the business partnering skills being required now by businesses are really around persuasion, and around the ability to identify opportunities and risks for the business. It is not just proficiency in accounting and finance but also the ability to leverage technology to stay abreast of change that have become table stakes.

There are also increasing demands on the data analytics side that require the ability for businesses to gather more information about their customers, about their internal operations, and about the market environment, and the need to turn that information into insights that are useful and can help drive real-time decision-making.

It used to be more traditional for finance teams to provide data in rigid formats to specific teams. Now the ability to share data in real time is a critical success factor. That collaboration is really around making the information more consumable, and it being more and more critical for everybody across the organization to be using the same data as they're making decisions.

There's a need for analysis on top of that information to support data-driven decision opportunities for the business. There’s also a need to leverage modern technology to enable not only better data analytics, but also improve basic accounting processes, such as the accounting close or operational management.

FEI Daily: Does that change the types of skills or people you’re looking for?

Mahon: In general, we’re looking beyond traditional finance and accounting skills. That may mean individuals who might be coming, for example, from marketing or sales, and who have the ability to take their knowledge, apply it in a financial context, and identify opportunity and risk. I think getting those individuals into finance teams is challenging but necessary.

From our perspective, we're following a three-step approach to optimizing our talent. We're identifying the gaps we have, we're investing in filling those gaps either by acquiring outside talent or by grooming from within, and then we're focused on understanding what it takes to make sure we retain existing talent in those critical skills.

FEI Daily: Are there any challenges in helping someone with a data science background bridge into finance or business?

Mahon: It depends on the individual data scientist. I think there are some data scientists who have a lot of business acumen, and some who have less business acumen. And it really depends on the individual, just like any other role. I think you need to acclimate the individual based on what their specific needs are, or the role that you need them to play.

FEI Daily: Are there differences in recruiting younger talent versus more experienced talent?

Mahon: I think there's a difference in the expectations of younger talent. I think one of the things we've seen particularly in the recent research that we co-sponsored with the Wall Street Journal, Custom Studio, Winning the War for Finance Talent: Game Plan for the Digital Age is attracting and retaining younger talent means you have equip them with the latest digital technology on the device of their choice. There's an inherent expectation that what they'll be doing has some social, mobile embedded capabilities; that there will be ease of use, and that there is an open collaboration opportunity available for individuals to do the work that they want to do. I think those are different expectations than you have from a more-experienced, more-traditional finance and accounting professional.

FEI Daily: Is there a challenge making finance more attractive to younger professionals?

Mahon: I don't think so. I've talked with a number of younger professionals, both those just beginning their careers in finance and in meeting with individuals at universities. They see finance still as a very viable, very interesting career opportunity.

They may, however, have different expectations about what that career will look like. I think they don't necessarily expect to spend that whole career at one company. They expect that career to involve the opportunity to have a voice in business decisions, and to be collaborative and creative.

They want to be somebody who's looking at data and business process, and understanding what opportunities and risks those drive, and be able to share their opinion and insights with decision-makers. So I definitely think it is still seen as a very attractive career opportunity for young professionals.

FEI Daily: Does that shift put a greater emphasis on "softer skills"?

Mahon: It definitely does. There's a need for softer skills, and in fact, we're seeing that as we're working with the challenge of grooming our in-house talent as well as filling the gaps from outside. There’s a need to do some of that training in-house as we develop improved skills in partnering and team work, and managing in very fast-paced, collaborative environments.

FEI Daily: How does the use of global and virtual teams change either the recruiting dynamic or the retention dynamic?

Mahon: I think it changes the recruiting dynamic by widening the places where you're looking for individuals. It has pluses and minuses. One is you're able to look for individuals in many locations, potentially, but again then, you're also competing in many locations as an employer. From a recruiting perspective, there’s a broader possibility of where you can source candidates from, and particularly that works well when you have the opportunity to source from smaller municipalities globally.

From a retention perspective, it does change your requirements from a management perspective. Obviously you have to have managers who are very good at managing virtual teams, and have the ability to retain those team members in that competitive landscape. And the primary success factor that we've seen in retaining individuals goes back to the ability to offer those individuals the opportunity to have a very interesting career trajectory. Something that captivates them, keeps them interested, allows them to grow, to develop, to try different things, to acquire new skills and to be able to have a good partnership relationship with whatever business they're supporting, or whatever process area they're supporting over time. And that really becomes key to retaining individuals in that environment. And of course all of that has to be enabled by using the latest social, mobile, and analytical tools.

FEI Daily: What are some of the things more successful companies are doing to help groom their existing talent for different roles?

Mahon: One is they're partnering with universities not just as a way as to attract new talent but to develop curriculum to fill skill gaps, particularly the soft skill training that's needed. I think job sharing and role rotations are more common now. And then more cross-pollination across the traditional silos of marketing and sales operations, customer support and finance is another way successful companies are doing that training across their teams, and not just within finance. In addition many CFO’s are working closely with their HR counterparts on managing top talent with talent review boards and coaching.

FEI Daily: As expectations for finance professionals evolve, does that create challenges or skill gaps for people who've been at this a while?

Mahon: I think that depends on both the individuals and the organization. I think most successful companies that I've seen, and it is certainly true in our company, have managed that change environment with their staff as they've grown and modernized. I think those gaps are being filled by the best companies by doing some of the things that we’ve talked about — teaching people to be more comfortable with sharing data or asking the right questions, looking at analytics in a much broader sense, and considering strategic opportunities and risks as a part of their job.

The best companies are identifying what those needs are as they're modernizing their finance teams, and they're filling those skill gaps with their existing professionals by internal grooming and training.