This month, I have been speaking with the CFOs of software companies to gain a better sense of how the finance function operates in this industry, as well as the benefits that these CFOs’ companies’ products offer to finance professionals across other sectors. For the second part of this series, I spoke with Sue Savage, CFO of Blue Yonder, whose software specializes in supply chain management, manufacturing planning, retail planning and operations. In addition to delving into Blue Yonder’s market position and how software is impacting the finance field, I also asked Savage about how increased automation has transformed the role of the finance professional, and what this has meant for her as it related to business strategy. I also asked about the challenges she has faced as a female CFO, and how these challenges serve as a catalyst for rethinking the way organizations operate.
Jeff Thomson: One of the biggest challenges for global companies this year has been the disruption of supply chains. As the CFO of a leading company in the supply chain software space, how do you think software can be used by finance leaders to manage disruptions? What does real-time data mean for improved supply chain management?
Sue Savage: Having the right partner is key to mitigating supply chain disruptions. As software moves to the cloud, SaaS solutions enable artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) capabilities that are not possible with on-premise software. Finance leaders need to make the commitment to move their company to the new digital offerings, which have tremendous long-term benefits [for] customer experience and the bottom line. AI and ML, combined with real-time data, allow companies to assess a situation, incorporate essential information and make real-time changes to address potential disruptions, ensuring on-time delivery of the right goods and services.
Blue Yonder is committed to helping companies build more resilient supply chains. At the onset of Covid-19, Blue Yonder expanded its offerings to help customers minimize the impacts of the pandemic on their global supply chains, while ensuring critical supplies got to the people who needed them the most. One popular offering was the Covid-19 Supply Chain Risk Response. With little historical data on the virus, Blue Yonder’s data science team fed data into the AI-driven control tower to help predict current and future impacts of coronavirus. The solution connected to the CDC’s live feed to receive daily data on Covid-19 and then layered customer demand, supply and inventory information over it, enabling real-time visibility and impacts [on] the customer’s supply chain to identify areas where decisions needed to be made. Customers who utilized this solution were able to keep their supply chains moving during a time when consumers were depending on them.
Thomson: Blue Yonder focuses on supply chain management, but software more broadly has driven digital transformation across every area of business. How have you and the finance function played a role in your company’s digital transformation? How should CFOs in other companies view their roles in the integration of software into business processes?
Savage: The digital transformation is a generational change in the way business is conducted. SaaS and cloud solutions allow companies to truly transform to reach new customers, enable omnichannel sales and enhance productivity. CFOs need to take a leadership role in their company’s digital transformation by aligning strategic direction with digital capabilities, building the business case for strong return on investment and then ensuring adoption. As a CFO, my imperative is to lead the business to incorporate digitization to improve customer experience, enhance productivity and reduce risk. In addition, the use of clear metrics to assess return on investment can drive accountability and ensure success. Before making any investment, CFOs should work with their internal and external partners to ensure the metrics meet the company’s needs and are measurable.
Thomson: A consequence of the digital revolution has been the emergence of the finance professional as a strategic business partner, as routine and time-consuming tasks have been increasingly automated. This enables the finance professional to spend more time on value-added tasks. How have you seen the role of the finance professional transformed over the course of your career? Do you think this requires a rethink of how finance professionals are educated and trained, with an eye toward enhancing technology skills and proficiency? What about “soft skills” like communication and leadership?
Savage: The days of limiting finance to the realm of bookkeeping are gone, if they ever truly existed. Transactional tasks were digitized long ago. AI and ML are automating reporting and analysis. In addition to functional capabilities, finance professionals now need leadership, strategic vision, influencing skills and strong technology capabilities to be successful. Business schools incorporate business strategy, technology capabilities, communications and leadership skills, and interpersonal dynamics into their curriculum. Many companies also provide on-the-job training to enhance development in these areas, such as courses on situational leadership or influencing others. At Blue Yonder, our Finance team has developed technology assessments to use as additional data in our hiring decisions, as well as to provide recommended learning paths for current associates. Ultimately, developing and refining these skills is a lifelong process, requiring awareness and focus.
Thomson: Before joining Blue Yonder, you worked with software company Autodesk and led or participated in two major initiatives: the switch from a perpetual license to a subscription-based business model and redesigning sales compensation and partner incentive plans. Could you discuss how finance professionals can bring unique perspectives to business model transformation initiatives? What insights do you have for CFOs and other finance professionals as they are called upon to contribute to these high-level initiatives?
Savage: Understanding the business strategy and objectives is key to adding value to any project. While our views as finance professionals may differ from other parts of the company, they are equally valuable. We bring unique questions, perspective and background to every project. I remember my first meeting at Autodesk on sales compensation. I felt like I had been dropped into a new world with a totally different language. By focusing on the objectives of the compensation plan and how it aligned with company strategy, I was able to dig in, ask questions and bring value right away. My business partner at the time appreciated my orthogonal view.
Having a strong network is also helpful to tap into for benchmarking and keeping a pulse on developments in the industry. Solid external relationships allow you to ask questions and gain insights, as well as lessons learned, from those who may have implemented similar initiatives. Leaning on this network can be very helpful when implementing high-level initiatives.
Thomson: Women are typically under-represented in the finance function. What challenges did you face as a female finance professional and what helped you overcome those obstacles to succeed in becoming a CFO? What can organizations and leaders do to help other women do the same?
Savage: I feel very lucky because I don’t think I have been treated differently for being a woman. In fact, I had very strong female role models and mentors in my career including the two female CEOs for whom I worked: Carol Bartz and Ruann Ernst. The biggest challenge I faced was trying to manage a growing career while raising my daughter. People talk about balancing their work and home lives, but for me flexibility was key. Balance implies some perfect split of time and attention, and life isn’t like that. Flexibility allowed me to focus on what was most important in the moment. This included working from home when I needed to or stepping out in the middle of the day for a few hours for a school performance, sporting event or doctor appointment, and then working from home after everyone was in bed to catch up. Having flexibility allowed me to support my daughter and do my job on my schedule. Now I encourage this flexibility in my workplace as a tool to increase engagement and retention. Companies should consider how flexibility ultimately increases their ability to attract and retain more diverse talent.
This article has been edited and condensed.