Using Technology to Bridge the Gap Between Finance and Business – Darrell Cox

Finance departments are often viewed as the creaky cogs that slow down the business machine, thanks only to their obscure processes. But technology is helping to change that.

Darrell Cox is the CFO of planning software company, Vena Solutions. What’s one big reason he joined the firm? Because he was so impressed by the software’s capabilities.

In this episode of Spend Culture Stories, Darrell explains how technology is bridging the gap between finance and everyone else, why self-created uncertainty can be a boost, and the importance of being a business partner as well as a numbers guy.

Darrell Cox of Vena Solutions

Headshot of Darrell Cox, used in blog about connecting finance and business

💵 What he does: CFO at business planning software Vena Solutions.

💡 Key quote: “There’s more data that you can bring into the business to make better decisions, and data you can bring into the finance department to make finance data more relevant. If you combine the financials with sales data, for example, it’s so much more powerful. But you can’t do that with financial information alone, you’ve got to bring in data from other sources. So you really can’t do it without technology.”

👋 Where to find him: LinkedIn | Company profile

Listen to the episode

Episode summary 

Darrell Cox was sold on technology as a business tool before he’d even heard of Vena. While working at other companies, he struggled to find the right planning software, patching together his own.

“I’d build a little data mart in the background to collect data from different systems. It was bubblegum and duct tape pulling the thing together,” he says.

When someone introduced him to Vena, and added that the company was looking for a CFO, Darrell knew he’d found what he’d been looking for.

“I was like, I’ve got to work there. I’d been trying to build something like this everywhere I’d been, and there it was,” he says.

Technology evangelist Darrell explains that slow and unreliable financial processes impact the whole company. They hamper the finance department’s ability to explore innovative solutions and frustrate everyone else.

“If you get the technology right, you can make that process smooth, you can make it meaningful, you can do it rapidly and without mistakes, and increase confidence and participation in the process,” Darrell says.

From inside the tool he’s always wanted, Darrell explains how to find data that complements your finance figures, as well as how to prioritize opportunities that move the business forward.

Top takeaways from this week’s conversation

Turn finance into a story 📚 

When you’re communicating financial information to anyone outside of the finance team, be aware that they don’t necessarily speak accounting. 

If you want people in other departments to engage, you need to present the figures in a way that’s relevant and understandable to them.

“You can’t just send out flat numbers — you’ve got to tell a story,” Darrell says. “That will engage people and get their attention on what you need them to notice, and get them to act in a certain way, or at least influence their decisions.”

Vena helps with this, Darrell says, by drawing from multiple data sources, so it’s easy to find details that intersect with the numbers from finance. For example, you can pull up sales figures and show how they interact with the accounting figures. 

This helps you reach as many stakeholders as possible on their level, and have a real influence over the business.

Taking risks that create certainty can be good — so long as you’re agile 🚀

When COVID-19 first closed down the economy, organizations in every industry panicked (with the possible exception of toilet paper suppliers).

Everyone was forced to adapt, including finance departments. They shifted focus to the short term, and made bold, decisive moves designed to limit revenue loss as much as possible.

Unfortunately, many organizations failed to recover. But as the cloud of COVID slowly starts to lift, those that survived can gather potential learnings.

One big one, according to Darrell, is that taking risks that create uncertainty can be a good thing, if you’re prepared to act quickly. Agility became a vital component of managing in the pandemic, and it’s still helpful to organizations now.

Prioritize opportunities that move the business forward ⏩ 

When planning your projects as a CFO, the first items on your to-do list will be the bread-and-butter work: payroll, accounts payable and accounts receivable, and so on.

Second on your list are less frequent but still important tasks like creating reports and analysis.

As for the rest of your time, Darrell recommends prioritizing activities that will contribute most to the organization as a whole. CFOs need to think and act like business partners, not calculators, he says.

If it feels like there’s never enough time to properly dig into a new innovation before month end rolls around, Darrell suggests dedicating an entire team to looking at potential improvements.

“They’re looking at the processes, what the gaps are between where you are now and where you want to be, and addressing those in a systematic way, and selecting the right system,” he says.

Spend culture highlights

Best supporting department goes to: Finance 💡

[01:19] “I look at myself as a trusted business advisor. The CFO or the finance group typically doesn’t make the most important decisions in an organization, but we aim to provide the best possible support, to assist others in making great business decisions. We see ourselves as critical in that role, and if we’re doing that really well, we’re going to have a better outcome as a business. So I look at myself as a support member of the team. Part of the way I do that is to support and run the management operating processes. It’s not just about reporting: it’s about reporting, planning, and evaluating.”

Vena’s spend culture revolves around trust 💡 

[07:24] “First we work on the plan together, as a leadership team. When people are comfortable and we have objectives set in a way that everyone’s happy with, everyone gets their own piece. There’s not too much interference from me or the CEO on what the individual business leaders spend on, because we give them this platform and the ability to make their own decisions. 

They know what they need to spend to get to a certain objective. If they’re going to spend less or too much, we run the budget process quarterly, so you’re able to make changes in an agile way: it’s not just waiting until the end of the year. The culture is open, transparent, and everyone’s comfortable that the people there are doing what they would expect them to do.”

Action-oriented CFOs go into every meeting ready to move and grow 💡 

[10:33] “Action-oriented means that whenever you’re producing a report or walking into a meeting, you’re always thinking about what you want to accomplish, what is the outcome, who are you talking to? What do they need to get from you to be successful in the role? 

Growth mindset is about aiming big and thinking forward, but it’s also about learning and growing yourself. And it’s about integrating technology. There’s so much more data, and technology is getting cheaper and cheaper all the time, so there’s really no reason why anyone shouldn’t be fully embracing technology to be more effective in their roles. It’s leading change, it’s not being passive.”

People — not numbers — are the heart of a company 💡 

[11:51] “The most important thing is to be engaging and approachable. The stereotypes around finance people have evolved for a reason: because they’re so numbers-oriented or logic-oriented, they sometimes lose sight of the ultimate objective, which is people. 

Your organization is made up of people — it’s not just about the numbers. You’ve got to get your audience into what you are trying to accomplish, and that’s about being a storyteller.”

How to reuse the finance mindset you learned in the pandemic 💡 

[17:19] “If you’re going to fail fast and minimize your marketing losses, you’re looking at leading indicators, not lagging indicators, just like during the pandemic, when you were looking for signs over the horizon of whether things were going to get worse or better. 

If you’re testing those marketing campaigns or new strategies to see if they’re going to work out, you’re looking at leading indicators, not lagging indicators, because you’ll be able to minimize the cost of proving the success of those campaigns. That allows you to either invest more and be more successful — to double down — or to cut your losses and reallocate the funding somewhere else, where it will deliver a better return.”

More data means more personal investment 💡 

[22:47] “Bring in as much data from as many different systems as you can to get to the most stakeholders. Not every stakeholder has influence over every number: they have specific numbers. 

And at the executive management level, financials alone aren’t interesting. You’ve got to combine it with other things. Start there and cascade it down to as many stakeholders as possible. Having more stakeholders, you get more people aligned. And once you make a business decision at a macro level, more people get behind it.”

Top quotes

[13:13 ] “The finance role is a bit of a translator: you’ve got a 10-number alphabet and you’re trying to turn that into English, or Italian, or whatever.”

[19:32]: “If you’re looking beyond your day into the future, and you’re trying to get information to make a better business decision, you’ll think about even the most mundane tasks differently.”

[26:09] “It’s always a balance. Do you buy the best in class for each individual thing, or do you buy a platform?”

[28:06] “I like to have a small group within the finance team that’s responsible for process improvements: supporting those processes with the right system. The first aim is something like getting the information to the team sooner, or better analysis, or a business outcome. And then looking at how finance supports that.”

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