Parts of this article was first published in Forbes.
In business, as in all facets of life, nothing ever stays the same. Markets boom and bust. Consumer tastes shift. And new technologies revolutionize even the most entrenched processes.
Change can be incredibly positive. Change builds resilience, opens us up to new perspectives, and creates opportunities we never saw coming.
But change can also be uncomfortable. And this discomfort feels especially pervasive during our current era of rapid technological transformation. Entire industries are being disrupted by digitization, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI) – from real estate, where algorithms can read millions of homebuyer documents in seconds, to medicine, where AI can read x-rays faster and more accurately than radiologists.
This is as true for finance as it is for any other sector. From the smallest accounting firms to the largest enterprises, automation is already a foregone conclusion – particularly in the accounts payable (AP) function, which is notoriously tedious and time-consuming. Over the course of my career, I have helped dozens of companies navigate these changes. And I’ve witnessed the full spectrum of employee reactions – from motivation, excitement, and quick adoption all the way to skepticism and resistance.
But whatever the reaction, change is nevertheless well underway – and its potential is limitless. From HR Executives to CFOs, our business leaders must do all they can to help their teams navigate these changes, as well as recognize the opportunities these changes present.
Make AI personal.
Many companies consider their people to be their greatest asset. This aphorism is especially true during times of great change.
“The biggest failure point in almost any project, whether it’s digital transformation or something else, is people,” said Ryan Prindiville, Partner-in-Charge, Consulting at Armanino LLP, a top CPA and consulting firm that uses AI in its AP function. Indeed, in my experience the single largest determining factor in how smoothly a company adopts new technology is the mindset of its employees toward technological change.
Employees who recognize all the opportunities posed by new technologies – not only for their department and their company but also for their job satisfaction, their skillsets, and their future career prospects – are much more likely to embrace and even spearhead these changes.
Leaders play a huge part in illustrating this positive path forward by setting expectations and providing a roadmap with a clearly defined North Star. Prindiville explains, “If you go into a project without a roadmap, it's kind of like going on a hike without a map, a compass, and no water, without knowing where you're going.” By laying a clear path and providing the needed tools, leaders can guide their team smoothly along the journey, and celebrate small wins along the way to boost morale.
Identify individual skillsets and train accordingly.
In addition to illustrating the journey through innovation, leaders must do what they can to set every single one of them up for success. From adding machines to digital spreadsheets, innovations in finance have always led to job changes -- but they have also created new opportunities.
In finance departments, the need for these innovations is significant: a recent study found that 86% of CFOs reported needing financial professionals’ skill set to evolve for continuous planning and forecasting. In the case of AP teams, AI solutions are already liberating accountants and clerks from redundant, menial work like data entry, approvals, three-way matching – freeing them up for more cerebral work that adds real value and can be more rewarding for employees.
The best leaders will plan ahead for these opportunities by identifying and training employees so they can take full advantage of that newfound time. And this work shouldn’t be done in a vacuum; a conversation with impacted employees about their interests will keep them more invested and engaged.
Perhaps those with the best interpersonal skills can devote more time toward negotiating with vendors or advising clients. Those with a business mindset can help develop financial strategies for the organization. To guarantee success, department leaders should work alongside HR to provide training that can help their team members reach their full potential.
Equip your first adopters to become ambassadors.
Once leaders have identified their team members who are most excited about technological innovation, they should equip them with the tools and messages they need to serve as ambassadors for change throughout the department and the entire organization.
Well before the adoption of new technology even occurs, these employees can begin stirring up enthusiasm within their own teams by highlighting the positive outcomes their colleagues will enjoy. In AP, for example, the tedious workload eased by AI solutions is almost guaranteed to boost morale. Ambassadors should also underscore the job skills their colleagues will gain from the mastery of these technologies: more and more companies are hiring for these skills, and employees may even be able to negotiate internally for better compensation.
When it comes time to implement the new technology, these ambassadors should be the first adopters. Their fluency in the new technology, paired with their enthusiasm for the change, will make them ideal teachers and go-to troubleshooters – ensuring swift and smooth adoption across the board.
Respect employees’ fears and communicate accordingly.
No matter how well a company prepares, there will always be some degree of fear associated with change. The best leaders will treat this fear with the respect it deserves.
Leaders should get ahead of fears by communicating as early and often as possible in a realistic, transparent, and reassuring manner. Walk employees through exactly what they should expect, and when they should expect it. Emphasize the positive outcomes of coming changes but also acknowledge any negative externalities; employees will see straight-through attempts to sugar-coat change, which can further exacerbate distrust and resistance. Be open and available – perhaps by hosting virtual or in-person “town halls” where employees can ask questions and voice their concerns. Encourage “ambassadors” to be a sounding board, and to communicate to leadership any shifts in morale.
By helping employees feel respected, heard, and understood, leaders can avoid much of the resistance associated with change.
Implement a culture with an embrace-the-change mindset.
Change is inevitable. And without it, progress is impossible. The difference between success and failure – in our relationships, our careers, and our businesses – rests on our willingness to embrace it.
While daunting, digital transformation is not slowing down – and it is going to open doors we never knew existed. Across sectors, finance teams will soon enjoy efficiencies that we can hardly comprehend today. As leaders, we must do all we can to encourage and maximize these changes for our employees – our greatest assets – freeing them up to imagine bigger ideas and build better companies than ever before.
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