This CFO Insights interview originally appeared in Forbes.
Vena CFO Darrell Cox explores how leading finance teams are built on a combination of knowledge, technical, analytical…and story-telling skills
English and finance appear to exist on different planes, with one deeply rooted in language and the other, numbers. For CFO of Vena Solutions, Darrell Cox, however, the two couldn’t be more closely associated. In fact, according to Darrell, the most important thing a CFO can do is tell a story. This month I connected with him to learn more about his unique finance perspective, the importance of financial storytelling, and the company’s 2018 goals.
Jeff Thomson: You call yourself the company’s Chief Storyteller. How have your studies in English helped shape your view of finance? In what ways do you tell stories?
Darrell Cox: A company is like a character in a book, going through its own set of life-changing experiences. Part of my role is to pitch Vena’s story to potential new investors. The idea is to engage them in the story of our business’ development, showing its full potential and how they can play a role in realizing it.
I also “write” regular narratives for current investors and managers, keeping them engaged in Vena objectives, how we are performing relative to those objectives and why. And if I tell the story right, I can have a major influence on what our central character, Vena, can become – from its investment potential to the company’s product roadmap.
Thomson: What influenced your decision to pursue a career in finance? Does your educational background in English change the way you think of staffing your own finance team? Or do you draw from your prior finance experience when hiring?
Cox: I am interested in the story behind the numbers and can do middle-school math, so a career in finance was natural for me. My appreciation of language and a great story is what distinguishes me in my finance leadership role and what I’m able to accomplish in it.
A finance team is built on a combination of knowledge, technical, analytical and story-telling skills and experience. A key indicator of a great finance team lies in its ability to tell a complete and character-driven story about its business – present, past and future. It’s absolutely a team effort.
Thomson: How can CFOs leverage their grasp of data and analytics to have a larger share of voice when it comes to strategic operational business decisions?
Cox: CFOs need to look forward, towards the many possible outcomes for their business, in order to be most effective in their operational roles. This means looking beyond what happened over a quarter to investigate the story behind it and consider what it means for the future. It’s in this area where we as finance leaders can deliver true business insights.
In other words, it means using the finance role to turn insights into foresight, conjure up different versions of the future and share potential scenarios for the business. Being able to do so maximizes the value CFOs are able to bring by telling these stories behind the numbers.
Thomson: In your CFO’s Perspective piece, Integrated Planning & Corporate Performance Transformation, you discuss integrated planning for performance transformation to support better business decisions and drive action. In the past, this has fallen outside a CFO’s purview, but how do you take your skills as a CFO and maximize collaboration and reach true performance transformation? In doing so, how critical is it to facilitate these efforts by combining the financial and non-financial aspects of business?
Cox: It’s very hard to win and hold someone’s attention in a conversation if you don’t have something interesting to say. For CFOs that means going beyond pure financial data. How else can you convince a business leader to drive change? A far more compelling narrative links data from various sources to deliver a story that commands attention.
It’s not enough to say we spent more on sales than we budgeted. It’s more compelling to say instead that you combined sales, marketing financial and other data to prove you spent more overall, but that unit profitability is much better in one channel than another. Now you’re sharing a larger story that sparks a discussion on more efficient allocation of resources.
It’s my aim to encourage this storytelling power among my fellow department heads to maximize their revenue and growth potential.
Thomson: You have an extensive client list across multiple industries. Are there new and/or untapped markets you’re aiming to penetrate in 2018 and beyond? As CFO, how are you positioning the company for growth?
Cox: Vena is well positioned for growth. Our core markets are budgeting, planning, reporting and month-end close, and they remain largely untapped. An overwhelming majority of companies rely on Excel spreadsheets, or performance management solutions that try to – but fall very short of – replacing Excel with custom, hard to use software.
A vital part of Vena’s story is the reality that companies almost always go back to using the tools they know and love, in this case Excel, especially when it comes to performing tasks that matter most: analysis, scenario planning, reporting and more.
I remain excited about being the only company to bring all these data into one place, while embracing the familiarity and flexibility of Excel as the interface. Our new revenue performance management (RPM) product will help companies understand and act on their most important revenue drivers.
As I’ve done manually with a mash-up of separate technologies in the past, RPM now let’s executives and finance departments draw insights from Salesforce.com, NetSuite, Google Analytics and other sources to deliver more predictable revenue forecasts and inform better business planning. This is the next chapter of Vena’s evolving story as a business.