Ep. 127: Carmen Rene - Team Management & Multi-Disciplinary Work Groups
Carmen Rene, Vice President Finance/Corporate Controller at SOLVD Health, joins Count Me In to talk about the value of team management and establishing multi-disciplinary work groups. Carmen is a finance executive with experience in Big 4 public accounting management, manufacturing, establishing financial and operational metrics, ERP system implementation, acquisition integrations, and possesses a considerable amount of SOX and internal control knowledge. Her strengths are in creative problem solving, educating non-accountants on accounting acumen, helping others develop self-awareness, and partnering with a variety of stakeholders on "doing the right thing." In this episode, you'll hear Carmen talk about how finance and accounting professionals can be successful in cross-functional collaboration, develop trust, and upskill across the profession. Download and listen now!
FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
Welcome back to Count Me In, IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. This is your host Mitch Roshong, and I'm here to introduce you to our guest speaker of episode 127, Carmen Rene. Carmen is the Vice President of Finance and Corporate Controller at Salt Health. She is a passionate leader who focuses on and emphasizes team management, multidisciplinary work groups, and coaching through obstacles. In this episode, Carmen talks about what it takes to be a leader and build teams around trust. Keep listening as we head over to their conversation now.
Simon Sinek said, “a team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other”. What does that quote mean to you and how you interact with your team?
Sure. This is one of my, certainly one of my favorite philosophers, if you will, on leadership, but certainly one of my favorite quotes by Simon Sinek, because of what it really says to me is just because you are surrounded by a group of people and just because you work with a group of people, you don't necessarily have a shared vision and a common goal and a shared interest in being successful. And so without all of those things, I don't really think that you have a team that is focused on the same thing. And my belief is that, that objective or that dynamic comes when you trust each other. If you have a group of people who you know have your best interests and a common objective in mind, then I believe you have a team and you have an opportunity of being successful.
So what I'm hearing with that, what you just said is having that common objective, having that common mind, you know, how do you get to that common mind? That seems easier said than done.
It's always easier said than done, right? I mean, I think that's a big part of what leadership is about all day long is a constant reminder and communication and check in about what we're looking to accomplish. It's often referred to as the why. What are we looking to get out of what we're accomplishing? What are we looking to accomplish? What are we trying to get and why? And if everybody understands the why, which I believe is a common interest, but, you know, oftentimes I work in accounting, right? It's very easy for people to go, we have to close the books, or because we have month end reporting, or we have investors, we believe we work for a company that we believe in, we're working towards an objective that we believe in, we have a team of people that we care about and we want them to be successful. So our why, is not the journal entry, our why is not finishing the books, the why isn't even for the most part the day to day. The why is where are we going and how do we know when we get there? And then we all understand that what I'm doing today is a step in that journey so that we can achieve, or, you know, land at the destination at some point. I think that's that common interest. And in many cases in business, we don't know what it is, right. If the common interest is I need a job because I need to pay my bills. That's not a common interest, that's Carmen's interest. But if the common interest is to leave mankind better than it was when we got here, because we work for a company that's working on a health solution or a cancer cure, or we're looking to have renewable power so that we can save the planet, right? Then all of a sudden we have a why that means something bigger than the journal entry. But my role in that big why is this team will be successful to ensure that this company has the financing that it needs in order to continue the projects down the path to achieve the objective. And if everybody on your team and keep in mind a team is very often multi-disciplinary, right? It's not just the, in our case, the team of accountants, the team of FP&A analysts, a team of treasury management, right? It's our executive team. It's our supply chain team. It's our friends on the manufacturing side of the house. It's our, everybody who manages the shipping and receiving departments, right. If we all understand the role that we play in that greater objective, then we show up to work, ready to give people the benefit of the doubt, ready to trust that we're all here at the end of the day to accomplish the same thing. Then I think you have a team, not just a group of people that you hang out with all day long.
You mean that makes a lot of sense. And you don't always work in with people who are doing the same thing you're doing. Many times there's people from multi-disciplinary groups who come together within a group and it seems like the things that you were just describing would work very well for that group, that multi-disciplinary group would have to understand the why in order to work well together. What are some steps you've taken to make sure that these types of groups are successful?
You know, I think that the most important thing that you can do is be curious. And what I mean by that is, for example, I just put into place, purchasing policy. Kind of boring, right? But as part of that process, I spent some time with the, Ph.D. scientists who worked in laboratory, and we were having a conversation about how they use pipettes. I’m sorry pipettes and pipette tips in the laboratory. Now, as I mentioned, I'm an accountant, right? I never used a pipette tip in my life, but as members of the supply chain, I've ordered them before. So I was sitting with them for a day, observing them in the laboratory about how they use pipettes and how the process in an experiment is impacted or how the results are impacted by the process and how clean they can keep the sample. So literally every time they would move to a step to a next step, they would change the pipette tip. Now that seemed a little excessive to me for a minute. But then later in that day, or sometime later that week, I was reviewing results of something that had come out of the laboratory, product that we had to scrap, right, we had to throw it away. And I asked the question, well, why are we throwing this stuff away? What happened? They said, well we had some contamination in the processing. And it connected me back to that exercise of watching them prepare samples and changing the pipette tips. So all of a sudden I understand a whole lot better why we need pipette tips, why we need so many of them and where contamination can occur. And I brought that back to the purchasing policy around how do I set up a policy that enables them to have a blanket purchase order, right. A standing order for pipette tips, because they use them all day long, every day, all month. Right? So, because I understand, I have a much better understanding of the why, and this is a very small example, but I have a much better understanding of the why and how these products are used, so I can understand how I need to design a process that accommodates, not just me who happens to hate blanket purchase orders, but I can accommodate my scientists who wants to know that there's just going to be a constant stream of product being delivered to their laboratory so that their experiments aren't in any way altered or impacted. I hope that makes sense as a how you can bring multi-disciplinary teams could together to just have a simple conversation. So why their day to day is impacted by my day to day.
It's a simple conversation of being able to turn off your perspective and point of view for a moment and look at things through somebody else's shoes for a moment, and then suddenly your worldview is opened up.
Absolutely. You know, Stephen Covey was right when he said, what is it, seek to understand, “first seek to understand, then seek to be understood”. And that's all I was trying to do here is how do I understand what other people are, what their needs are. It's a very simple, it's a very simple example. What's interesting, kind of the, the by-product of that if you will, is that Ph.D. that I spent the day with in the laboratory so that I could understand how pipette tips got used so I could master the purchasing of them. We're buddies. Right. We got to know, because we spent time together, we just got to know each other in a way that was very different. And now when I have a question about science, she's the one I call. So there's a fringe benefit, if you will. That came from that.
I've got another quote that I'd like you to comment on. This one is from Shafi Qureshi. "I expect my team to make mistakes and break things, thereby enabling individual development and process improvements."
Sure. So I work with Shafi at Salt Health and he's the head of our engineering and manufacturing teams. And I asked him, just tell me what leadership means to you, or how do you define yourself as a leader? And he said, I asked my team what they broke today. And so it was a little more refined quote around that, but his whole concept is around, I want to make sure as a leader, that I'm creating an environment that is safe for people to make mistakes. For two reasons, one is we're all people and we make mistakes, right, and sometimes they're, I missed a meeting mistakes and sometimes they're, oh God, I cut the wrong line and all of the power in the neighborhood is down, right, or somewhere in between. We make mistakes, but we almost always, if we're paying attention, we learn from those mistakes and Shafi's idea is when you're creating laboratory equipment, you're creating processes that have never existed before, something's going to break it's never been done before. The question becomes, how do we fix it? And along the way, when we fix it, do we actually make it better? So he is actively looking at processes that, you know, maybe they work, could they work better? And the only way to know is to tear it apart. Let's see, what if we put this process before that, what we put this step in front of that step, what if we instead of, we did this, right. And that's what he wants his team to be thinking about whether they actually physically break something or not, do they have the mindset that says one it's safe for me to break something and two, I wonder what that thing could be today. And then how do I put it back together?
That all kind of goes back to the building of trust because you have to trust that it's okay that it breaks and that it, you know, it will be put back together. Maybe not the same exact way, but you're building that trust that we've been talking about.
That's right. You know, I'll add another one on there. One of my favorite managers of all time, Mike Tenori, when I was at Bose corporation, during the budgeting process he used to always say, “I can handle anything except surprises. So no surprises”. And I think about that from the making mistakes perspective as well. That making mistakes comes from, it's going to happen. The no surprises comes from, I want you to be trustful, I want you to feel comfortable knowing that I will deal with any mistake that comes up. Just tell me about it. I don't want to learn about it when I'm presenting to the board. I don't want to learn about it when we've gone to the street, we've missed our targets, right? I don't want to know about it when the customer calls and says, this is broken. I want to know about it when you know about it and we'll fix it. And that's another way of really creating trust that says, if I have a problem, I'm going to let you know.
So, you know, knowing your why, building trust, we've been talking about this whole time, these are all elements for building a great team. How have you done that whilst, hiring during a pandemic?
It's a great question. I'm really curious to know how long we're asking questions about, or we're going back and saying things that, well I learned that during the pandemic. I think there's been tremendous learning during the pandemic. I've onboarded three people. Two of whom I didn't meet in person for six months. One of whom I knew and I'd worked with at a different place and so we were able to hit the ground running pretty easily, but to your question about how have I built trust? I have spent a lot of time, it's probably the same thing I would've done with people if we'd been in person, but it was actually easier. I spent a lot of time with these individuals that I onboarded. Oftentimes I was on a teams meeting all day and we would have the teams meeting open, which is, which is great for sharing screens right, here let me show you, I could actually demonstrate like strokes on an Excel file. Hey, here's what I'm gonna do, watch what I'm doing, watch how I'm formatting, I'll show you where I'm retrieving. So you could actually see my screen and see what I'm doing. I don't remember a time really where we did that in person in a way that was as easy as it is when I'm at my computer and you're at your computer, right? We might've done it in the conference room, but somebody wasn't able to drive at the same time that I was driving, right. So being together on teams was really helpful. I'll show what I'm talking about, we can talk it through, I'll give you a task and then I'm going to go, not really away. I'm going to go look at my other monitor and work on something else and give you a few minutes to do the next step. Might ask me questions as you go. All right. So we spent a lot of time together on teams working through projects, but I had a plan of what things I wanted them to master in their first couple of weeks or whatever. And along the way, because of this dynamic of the pandemic and we're working from home in a situation, you just get to talking about other things, right? Like for example, you know I have dogs like the dogs will come in the room and they want to meet the person on the camera because believe it or not, they pay attention. Or, you know, somebody's roommate comes in or whatever happens and you just get to talking to people while you're doing the work. So there's a rapport that gets developed by spending that amount of time with somebody. I have been thinking about how I would onboard in person again, I've never been as successful of onboarding employees as I have been during the pandemic. Something about the fact that we are maybe part of it's that we're captive, but I think my style changed dramatically in that it was much easier for us to be in the same space together without actually being in each other's space. And that's something that I think the virtual platform has really helped us and really enabled us to do.
I liked that being in the same space with each other, but not being in each other's spaces, giving that room to breathe in a sense, especially when you're a new hire, it's almost overwhelming.
You know, I saw something on Facebook last night, a friend of mine posted it there. They returned to the office as of June 1st. And, they were given, again, everybody's workstation. There was a custom made cookie and the cookie had a microphone with the slash through it. And that cookie said, “welcome back, remember you're not on mute anymore”. And I think that, that's another thing. I think the mute button is actually really helpful because sometimes you need to, you need to just mute yourself for a minute, not leaving, not disengage. It's a very easy way to take a quick break. Wait, I'm just going to, I need to think out loud for a second I'm going to mute myself. Hard to do that when you're in each other's space together physically. So I am, I'm a little conscientious about what happens when the mute button isn't there anymore.
Yeah. So keeping, just to kind of wrap up our conversation, keeping that idea of, you know, the hiring hat. When we had talked previously, you mentioned you'd like to hire directly out of college and I'd been reading an article in a team training and development magazine called "Don't hire skills, hire to skill". And they had mentioned, although college degrees can indicate that a candidate has gained certain skills and knowledge, they don't always paint a full picture of a person's talent potential. What do you look at when you're hiring? Somebody maybe out of college or maybe not even out of college, maybe some use in working in the industry for years, but maybe doesn't have the full college or what, you know, what is your view on that?
It's a great question. One I really have thought a lot about over the years, and I've come to realize that regardless of what position I'm hiring for, you know, whether I'm hiring a staff accountant or a senior financial analyst, I have three questions that I ask. And it's interesting because they're actually the same questions I expect somebody who's interviewing me to ask me, right. And my, so my three questions are, 1. How well does this person communicate? Now I know that's a huge question, but I have a couple of things that I'm specifically looking for. I'm looking for, I'm looking for the candidate to give me an explanation about how he or she varies the communication style. So is this going to be a, I'm really good at chitchat? I get to know this person, or I just walk in and I’ve got to get the work, I just have to get the information, right. Both are applicable, right? Both have a purpose and I'd like to know when you might use each. Some responses warrant a yes. Some responses warrant a paragraph, right. So how do they understand the distinction? I'm also looking for the mode or the method of communication and specifically the ability to vary this. Frequently in my career, I've heard somebody say, “well, he didn't call me back or I emailed him, I didn't get the information”. Okay, cool. How are you following up? Well, I emailed him. Okay. Well call him. So then I'll ask later. Well, did you call him? Well, I sent him an email, right? Like that is not going to achieve the objective. So if you've emailed somebody and they haven’t gotten back to you, then call them. If they still haven't gotten back to you, go see them in person or send them a text, right. Find a different way to communicate. And so as I'm interviewing candidates, I'm looking for those nuances. What did they mean when they say they're a good communicator? Give me some examples of what that looks like. It's a big topic on communication and a lot of times pushing information isn't the same as being able to receive information. So how well can this person provide information and receive information? Did you read what they sent you? No, I just filed it. Well, that's not really a good two-way street of communication. So that's the first thing that I'm looking for is talk to me about your communication styles and strategies, right. The second thing that I interview for is how does this person solve problems? And oftentimes we don't really know that we're, we have a process, but when you're in an interview situation, you know, I really probe about, okay, so here's a task that's been put in front of you. Like, what's the first thing you do. What's the next thing you do? How do you get through solving that problem? And I'm looking for things like, well, first of all, like Google all of the words and the requests so I make sure I understand what's being asked of me. I think that's pretty smart. Make sure you understand, get clarity on what the objective is, right. But I'm really interested in this part. How do they know when they're done? Right? What does success look like? Kind of the same thing, because if you understand what you're going for, then it's much easier to create your path. So the answer to that question, when I asked somebody, how do you solve problems? Describe for me how you solve problems. If they can say to me, I want to make sure I understand what the objective is. I want to know what success looks like, or completeness looks like, you know, the balance sheet has to balance like that's important, you know, something like that. And then I create steps that I think I need to take along the way. Like that's a pretty complete answer. A really complete answer is somebody who can say, and if I get stuck along the way I may need to rethink, or I may need to ask questions, right. That's really what I'm looking for there. None of that is taught in school, right? That's all stuff that you learned. You may learn from doing school projects, but there's not a class that I know of that's on problem solving, right? It's all about, here's a problem go solve it and here's some skills to help you. So that's what I'm looking for. And then the third one that I'm looking for, which is probably the most uncomfortable for people in the finance profession is how well do you deal with ambiguity and specifically what I mean about this is a lot of us went into finance and accounting because we thought there was an answer, right? It's a little bit black and white. It's not so nebulous. Well in the corporate world or in the non-academic world, right. We aren't given the information or the variables that we need to answer the question. So we've got to make a lot of assumptions. We have to create a lot of the information that we need. And so how comfortable is someone with that saying, well, I created a model, these are the assumptions that I made, so here's the answer. How comfortable are they with making the assumptions? Because within those assumptions, there's a lot of ambiguity. There's a lot of unknowns. Yet, they are critical to being able to solve a problem, create an output, right, but deliverable. So that's the first one. One is that the data has a lot of ambiguity in it. The second one and probably the one that we're learning the most about during this pandemic is you just don't know what comes next. And for some people that can be paralyzing, I don't know what's going to happen. No, you don't. I don't know what's going to happen next. And how comfortable are you with that in the day to day? First of all, I'm curious if somebody ever even thought about it, because if they thought about it, it makes for a great conversation. Yeah I really thought about how much I don't like not having the answers. Okay, cool. What does that look like? And then other people, like, I don't know, I never thought about it. Which suggests to me that maybe they're just doing some drifting, drifting isn't necessarily bad, but if you don't know where you're going, right. You're not going to have as easy a time getting there. Well maybe I guess we don't know where you're going anywhere will work, right, so correct that. But, anyway, so back to my thought about ambiguity, if they've given some thought to how well do I thrive in an environment where I don't have all the answers, they've given some thought to that and they say I'm really not comfortable in that. Then I wouldn't suggest they work for a startup. For example, I really want to know what my day to day is going to look like. I think there's some jobs where they might be more comfortable. Finance and accounting in a corporate setting, whether it's a public company or pre-revenue company, the unknowns every single day are pretty great. So how comfortable would you be in this role? I think that's really what I'm, what I'm looking for. Right? How comfortable are they in not having all the answers? It's even not all the answers. It's how comfortable are you not having all of the data, right? Because I don't have all of the answers and I've been doing this for a lot longer. I hope that helps you kind of explain my thoughts on ambiguity.
No, I think so. Being willing to admit, you know, I don't know everything and that's okay, but I'm willing to find the answer and it shows a willingness to kind of step outside the box and be vulnerable.
Right. And I don't know of a single CEO or board member or probably President of the United States or any other country for that matter, who hasn't found himself or herself in a position of ambiguity. Right? Well, the question is, how much do you trust yourself and the people around you to help get some clarity, such that you can take action.
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