Ep. 79: Chris Wymbs - Innovation and Change with Strong Leadership
Chris Wymbs, Executive Vice President & Chief Accounting Officer at AMC Networks, joins Count Me In to talk about leadership, values, and trust through innovation, continuous improvement, and working in unprecedented times. Chris is a C-suite finance executive with a proven record of success at Fortune 50 companies with an extensive background in all aspects of finance. He considers himself a collaborative business partner motivated by organizational success and an inspiring leader with a focus on building strong teams, developing talent and promoting excellence. In this episode, Chris shares the story of his career, talks about what leadership characteristics are most important to him, and changes he's seen in his organization--from the changes in the profession to the changes he's implemented and the changes caused by recent events. Download and listen now!
FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
Welcome back for episode 79 of Count Me In IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host, Mitch Roshong and today we will be hearing from Chris Wymbs, the Executive Vice President of Finance and Chief Accounting Officer for AMC networks. Chris has significant leadership experience at a Fortune 50 company and as a finance executive with a proven record of success and extensive background in all aspects of finance. In this episode, he speaks with my cohost Adam about the leadership qualities needed to succeed in your career and how one can effectively lead change and innovation in their organization. Keep listening to hear an insightful episode about leadership, innovation and business transformation.
So, Chris, can you tell us a little bit about your career journey and how you got where you are?
Yeah, sure Adam, be happy to. So, it has definitely been a journey it's a good way to depict it. So if I think of the start foundationally, it was early days at Ernst and Young progressing up through the ranks there. Was in the audit realm as well as a support in the advisory services side, worked in a lot of different industries, and I deem that to be foundational to my, as I mentioned to my career progression. From there, I moved on to a little company known as GE at the time, and to an internal audit role, in their corporate audit group, which was exciting and fun and leverage the skills I had from my audit baseline, if you will, or foundation. And then moved into a, at the time a controller role, a global controller role of one of their, financial services businesses, GE Consumer Finance. And there, I really kind of cut my teeth if you will in the operational expertise realm. We were very inquisitive. We had a lot of deals internationally and I got to travel quite a bit, see different cultures, even though I was based domestically and really built out, I'd say kind of the foundation of my leadership skills and more of the executive level, as well as just some financial skills that I really hadn't gotten involved in in my days at Ernst and Young and really owning aspects of the finance organization and building out a team which was exciting and fun. And from there, I progressed into a company, American Express, and took a controller role there. And soon thereafter, less than a year, I moved into more of an operational role. So I was in the FP&A role for a few years. I was in various segment CFO roles over the years, three or four of them. And as I progressed in those roles, it gave me an opportunity to, to steepen and the realms of operational finance, not only from a controllership perspective, but from an FP&A perspective, a corporate finance perspective, and really just continue to build out my financial tool set. And then that brings me to the current role as I'm EVP of finance and chief accounting officer at AMC networks. And I operate in both the controllership realm as well as the operational finance realm and have a myriad of responsibilities. And as I think of the journey I've gone through, it really has set me up to, to excel in the role I'm in today. And it's, it's comprehensive and it's wide ranging across the finance spectrum. And, and I lead a reasonably sized team and I enjoy that and I am an extrovert by nature. So, being in the leadership role is exciting and fun to me, and it does get me out of bed in the morning, although these days getting out of the bed means just walking downstairs and not getting on a train. So that's kind of in a nutshell, hopefully that covers the question.
So thinking about that journey, could you describe what leadership characteristics have enabled you to get where you are today?
Yeah, another great question. So leadership, it could mean different things to different people and means different things in different cultures and different companies. And as I mentioned, I've worked in a few different companies, but to me, leadership, there's just some foundational things that are absolutely, you know, core given definitions of what leadership is. And for me, it starts with kind of consistent values, and some of those, if I were to just dispel some of those fundamental values, first and foremost, it's integrity. And, everything I do and everything in the bedrock of my leadership is integrity. So my actions will match the words I speak. I, you know, I will always take the higher road whether, you know, whatever issues it might create. And, you know, if you don't have your integrity, then it's really questionable as to what leader you are. And I don't think you can have the right fabrics of a leader without the key bedrock of integrity. And then from there, it kind of builds out and you can kind of go different ways. And for me, if I were to think about the feedback I've gotten over the years from people who've worked for me, they talk about me being an empowering leader. So giving them the ability to go out and do things on their own without my direct oversight, but still providing them enough oversight and guidance to help them succeed. So that's hard as a leader to balance empowering people, but at the same time supporting people. And I think that's foundational to my leadership approach. And then around that, it's how do you develop people? And that's giving people an empowerment, but also how do you continue to develop them and build their skillset and give them confidence and create a safety net around them at some level, although you do need to let people fail at times, and that's how we often learn the best, but, you know, just giving them an ability to continue to develop and supporting them in that development, whether it be getting additional training, having conversations with them in tough areas, and as they develop and progress and become leaders of people, that's a whole different dynamic there's leadership in the entity, as far as driving things forward, but then there's leadership of your team and those mean different things and helping people develop skill sets and both project and people leadership, you know, it takes some effort and some support to do.
So what counts as innovation in your organization? How would you define it, and what does innovation mean to your employees?
Yeah, innovation, a tough question. Not unlike leadership. How do you define it? It's defined quite different people define it different ways. The way I think about innovation is kind of through a three-pronged definition, if you will, firstly, there's technological innovation, that's we all know what that is, right? It's the next generation of the, whether it be the app or, you know, the platform where using the next generation of, you know, Oracle so on, so forth or SAP for that matter. There's also process innovations. So that to me could be evolving and driving more efficiency and effectiveness in a process, technology unchanged. And then thirdly there's, and this is where I think most people define innovation. It's the new thing. It's the new app that didn't exist before. It's the, you know, it's the Uber, it's the, you know, however you want to define it as the Priceline if you go way back that just didn't exist previously in the travel realm. It's the ideation of something that didn't exist and that at its core is kind of foundationally innovation, but for finance organizations, it's kind of hard to focus and operate in the ideation realm of innovation. So where I tend to hone my team and more is how do we drive innovation from a tools and platform perspective and a process perspective. And as I mentioned, part of my career journey was spending time at GE, and one of the things that was incredibly pervasive at GE is six Sigma and that's around process improvement and optimization. And it started really in their industrial businesses in aircraft parts and engines, and their industrial businesses for power generation, where they were eliminating defects in a production manufacturing process, but GE was genius and they started to apply that to their business processes, and it was a big deal for many years there. It also has its cons because it can get you really kind of wrapped up in process and not see the bigger picture at times, but, you know, so that's an area where I really think there's a lot of opportunity. And we often, you know, I challenged my team to innovate and not just do the job day to day, but to step back at times and think about how can I do it differently and more effectively. And that's, to me, innovation on the process side, and then there's technological innovation and that's reading and talking with your peers and understand what's going on in the industry. And what's the great new tool and the next, the next version of the platform and, and being zealous about bringing that in house and leveraging it more. And there's many people who are afraid of the next generation of technology, and we've all gone through system migrations in there. They have their warts and their pain points, but at the end of the day, when you typically come out the back end and you're on the next generation of the platform, there's a lot more efficiency to be gained. So, so it's multifaceted. And I think for me, I really hone in on the process aspect of it, as well as the tool or platform or technology aspect of it.
As you were talking through that, it almost seems like the technology aspect helps build the build to the better process. So if you get the technology, it becomes a better process and then it leads to new things that happen.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely, but at the same time, you can have the same platform, the same tool, but improve the process dramatically because, you know, there's just oftentimes a lot of human, integration or intervention and automated processes. So you can keep the platform or the tool the same, but you know, have process improvement and that it's harder to do, but it is attainable.
Definitely. So it was different kinds of, are there different kinds of innovations that you've adopted to make your business more effective?
Yeah, I think it gets back to, I think we've been pretty adept in my current organization at identifying the new platform of their new tool, and I've been very zealous in implementing and identifying and implementing that. So there's reconciliation tools that we've increased utilization of that make things easier, although harder at times in the short term, but ultimately easier. You know, we've standardized a lot of our ledger globally, which is kind of foundational, but it wasn't when I first started. So there's aspects of the platform, aspects of new tools that we've implemented and, you know, we're succeeding, but I'd like us to be better at the process improvement. And that's a cultural change because it's changing people's mindset of just coming in and yes, this is the way I do it and it works and it's controlled. And my SOX documentation is all in place and everything's great, but maybe I can do something inhalf the time, if I think about doing it a different way. It takes effort to, and outside the normal day to day to step back and look at a look at something and look at something holistically and not just your piece of the process, but as we used to call it a GE the wing to wing aspect of the process, which goes back to the aircraft. Or the end to end from start to finish and things that I don't necessarily own, but occur in the process. And can I do things differently or have other people do things differently to help me do my job more efficiently? And it's the taking that bigger view and that's hard to do, and it takes time and we're endeavoring, but it's, you know, it's a journey it's surely not, we're not at the destination yet.
Do you have any advice for people who have, or having trouble with their employees, seeing the bigger picture? Cause sometimes it's easier when you're at the top to see the big picture, but how do you help the person who is doing that one little process to see the big picture to understand that this is why I'm changing your process?
Yeah, it's really a really insightful question because like I stated, we get in our day to day and this is what I come in and what I do and how I do it. And, you know, unless you, well, firstly, you need to create the opportunity for folks to have relationships so they're engaging with others across the process. In some instances they might not have any interaction with others that are working within the same process. So that's kind of foundational, and then you get to creating, it's a cultural change and getting pink people to think about, you know, what could I, what could I inquire of my peer who is doing certain things to understand the overall process better and work collaboratively to say, Hey, if you do X or Y a certain way, it'll make my job easier or what can I do to help make your job easier? Maybe I don't need the 20 data sets that you send me or the 20 aspects of the data that you send me. Maybe I only need 12 of the 20, and just driving that communication and that conversation is that's innovation at some level. And, you know, it takes effort and focus and a cultural dynamic to make that occur, which otherwise just goes a bit unsaid and never gets unearthed.
What changes have you noticed in your responsibilities and expectations during these unprecedented times that we are living in, right?
Yeah. Yeah. great question. Unprecedented times. So when you say that, I think of two things, I think of, you know, the world of the pandemic that we've been living for the last, well, at least six months, maybe longer, in the area I live in the Metro New York area, we've been in a shelter in place since early March, mid-March if you will. And then there's a second aspect to it and it's more recent and it's the social injustice and the causes around that, that have evolved in recent weeks. And, you know, it saddens me to see some of the things that have occurred, both from a societal perspective geared towards, different aspects of our society, but also the, the physical damage that's occurred in many of our cities and towns and working in New York and seeing the things that occurred it just really saddened me outside of the videos of the injustices that have played out. It's just, it's just completely wrong. So, you know, I can go on and on about that. But if I come back to the question in this unprecedented time from a COVID perspective, there's a few things, right? It's just, we're all working remotely or working from home and when doing so there's a couple of things that I've kind of tweaked in my approach. First and foremost, it's around just significant increase in communication. And I stay close with my teams. I have one on ones with my direct reports weekly. I have leadership team meetings monthly, but I've accelerated that where I'm touching base with my leadership team weekly. I have broad town hall meetings more frequently, ideally once a month. We've had two thus far. There needs to be a better sense of community because people feel a bit disjointed today. So being more engaged in communication and, and just driving more engagement across the organization is critical. So that's one. I think, secondly, it's around, you know, how to, how do you tweak your leadership style a bit and, and how do you continue to work on projects and the business as usual, but do it in a more virtual environment. And again, I think that that comes back to a lot more communication, but a lot more frequency and interaction on projects that are special projects, but also the day to day and the business as usual. And, part of it's just leveraging technology more. And gosh, video conferencing, I never realized how important that technology would become, but it's kind of the mainstay of how I communicate today. And for me being an extrovert, as I mentioned, it's, it's a bit taxing. I need the personal interaction and to be in my home, isolated quote unquote and not being in a conference room meeting with people. It's definitely, it definitely wears on me. So for my own self personally, it's important for me to have engagement with the team. And I imagine many folks on my team feel the same way. So, from a COVID perspective, you know, we're managing the processes, we have the right technologies in place. We've realized that we can do things very effectively outside of the office, but there's the sense of community and the engagement across the teams that are critical, and we need to focus on and continue to support. So that's, that's from a COVID perspective, from a social injustice perspective, you know, I felt like, and I, when I look at my organization, I feel like as I'm on a zoom call and I've got the Brady bunch blocks up on the screen, as I look at my team, or if it's in the conference room pre COVID, I look around the room and I view that then they are being, they are representative of the environment we live in. So from a gender diversity perspective from an ethnicity and racial, diversity perspective, the room is very diverse and that's great. And it's, exciting to me and I'm proud of it, but I felt like I needed to take a moment in these times, and create a bit of a safe space or a safe place for the team to have open conversations about just how we were feeling about things that were playing out in the world, whether it be the physical damages that were occurring in cities or the horrific videos of terrible things that were happening to people, more than more than one instance. And it was a great thing to do because it just opened up the floor. And I felt, I, I espoused how I felt, how often we were talking about it at the dinner table and how I didn't have the answers for my children, I have three. and I got a lot of feedback saying it was great because it just set a bit of ease and that there is no perfect answer. We have to start through talking about these things and it's just the beginning is the conversation. And then where do we take it from here? And the question is, where do we take it? And it's just a bit unclear, but the bottom line is we need, we all need to step up and make change in today's world. And you know, the younger folks and it's great. I've seen it on TV, the younger folks, standing in front of the demonstrators in between as a shield between the other protesters and a diverse slate of folks who are standing in that front line. It's not just one race. It's, across many it's multi-racial, it's, you know, it's across both genders, it's young and old. It's just great to see that I think there is a difference in today's world and, you know, I can go on and on about this and I'm passionate about it. But I do think in the workplace, we do need to create a bit more of ease to have the tougher conversations, and that's where it starts.
This has been Count Me In IMA's podcast, providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like what you heard. And you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.