Financial Acumen Now a 'Must Have' for Consultants

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Feb 15, 2012
There has been some buzz recently about CFOs infiltrating the realm of HR—and with good reason. Particularly in tough economic times and a service-driven economy, staffing costs and productivity move to the forefront of executive concerns. The perspective that a CFO might bring to HR issues can help identify ROI and boost HR professionals’ chances for getting that coveted seat at the table. For HR consultants without a financial degree or CFO experience, this shift can represent opportunity or risk.

There is no question that financial acumen and understanding are critical for HR consultants, said Rose Gailey, a senior consultant with Gagen MacDonald, a consulting firm in Chicago.

The importance of high-performance cultures has “really hit a crescendo in the last three to five years with the economic crisis in the United States and abroad,” she said. “This is really driving home the significant critical asset that the human element is to corporate success and bottom-line results.” While 10 years ago it might have been necessary to build a case for such a claim, she said the case is well built today.

HR consultants, said Gailey, need to articulate the business results that they can impact. They need to be able to demonstrate “how they can move the needle in strategic and tactical ways.” There are, she said, three key roles that HR consultants (and, in truth, HR practitioners in general) must play in today’s business climate:

  • The role of business driver. “We’ve got to be well-steeped in the finances of the business. We’ve got to be curious and consistent in maintaining an understanding of the financial metrics and where the business stands today. That’s expected of all of us in this field.”
  • The role of strategic partner. “We need to talk about the business objectives and what is going to be required, from an HR perspective, to bring forward those organizational culture and talent opportunities in order to deliver on those.”
  • The role of trusted advisor. “Culture, leadership and talent are bottom-line-based elements of organizational success. I think herein lies our biggest opportunities to help the organization think through the implications.”

Added Gailey: “Delivering our value is really going to require us to up our game; there’s no question about it.”

The good news for HR consultants is that they don’t have to have a background, or degree, in finance to deliver on these three roles, said Pamela Wasley, CEO of Cerius Interim Executive Solutions in Irvine, Calif.

A Matter of Perspective

HR consultants without a background or experience in finance are not necessarily left out to sea when it comes to being able to deliver value to their clients.

“HR consultants do not need to have a financial background to work closely with the CFO, but they must have an understanding of how the finances of a company work,” said Wasley. “They need to know how to speak the language of the CFO as it all comes down to metrics, numbers, goals and ROI.”

It’s more about perspective than degrees. It requires, at the most basic level, the ability to translate traditional HR-related objectives (such as reducing turnover) into quantitative, bottom-line results (such as reducing the costs of recruitment and decreased productivity related to turnover).

Brenda VanderMeulen, SPHR, is an HR consultant with River Hills Consulting in Holland, Mich., who worked in finance for five years before moving into HR. “I believe that HR folks enhance their credibility immensely by having a good understanding of the financial aspects of an organization,” she said. “Having these skills and knowing how to use them in conversations with managers adds credibility because it demonstrates that you understand the business and are proposing solutions to organizations’ problems—not ‘fluff’ that ‘just makes people feel good,’ ” she said.

Taking a “soft skill” perspective will not serve HR consultants well, agreed Wasley. Organizations do not have the luxury or interest in doing things because they’re nice to do. They want to know, in quantifiable ways, how these things will have an impact on key business drivers.

Unfortunately, supply has not kept up with demand in this area. Wasley estimated that only about 25 percent of the applications she sees from HR professionals demonstrate financial acumen.

VanderMeulen agreed that the numbers are low. “I teach HR at the University of Phoenix and it’s a consistent issue I see in my classes, even among people who are working in HR and trying to get a master’s,” she said. “They want to avoid the numbers. The reality is that we need to get to that place where we understand the language of finance.”

Getting Up to Speed

Wasley suggested that every HR consultant, at a minimum, take a course such as finance for nonfinancial people to provide a foundation of understanding.

In addition to taking courses in finance, which VanderMeulen agrees is a good step, seeking opportunities to broaden exposure through experience can be extremely valuable. Looking back at her career, VanderMeulen noted that “working in finance was an amazing gift for me.”

Seeking connections with those who do have experience in this area can also be helpful, she suggested, and is possible through involvement in small-business organizations and the chamber of commerce.

VanderMeulen pointed out that the need for financial acumen has always been there for HR professionals. It is only the awareness of the need that has been lacking. “I think the need for this is becoming more recognized,” she said. “People in HR are becoming more aware that this is something they need to know about.”

After all, every business person must speak in the language of their customers. HR is no different. For HR consultants hoping to stand out, be competitive and make an impact, speaking the language of bottom-line results is a must.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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