Risk & Economy » Diversity » Centrica field operations FD on building a diverse approach

When it comes to building excellence in a business, having the right people in place is vital.

Emma Connell recognises that good decision-making comes from a broad set of opinions and ideas, which only a diverse-minded team can bring.

As the finance director of Centrica’s field operations, transforming a business that encompasses 12,000 staff working for British Gas, social housing energy group PH Jones and drains specialist Dyno-Rod, she needs good decision-making to ensure delivery on some big targets.

They include stripping out costs as Centrica seeks to save £1.7bn by 2021, and developing a team of finance business partners to deliver greater efficiency, especially through harnessing better technology.

Inclusivity-minded

Coming from consumer goods giant Unilever where she spent almost 20 years building up an expertise in finance across various areas of the group- apart from a three-year stint at joint venture Pepsi-Lipton International in Geneva- Connell has been schooled in the importance of inclusivity.

At Centrica, where she has been 18 months, the urgency of driving efficiency is aligned with developing a diverse culture because that is the best way of developing new ideas that can drive value, she says.

“One thing I really appreciated about Unilever was the diversity of thought,” says Connell. “We were really encouraged to look at very different ways of working, being very good at listening to others’ thoughts,” she adds.

Centrica’s field operations are very much on a journey in developing that ethos, says Connell, reflecting its legacy as a one-time public utility. “We have some good plans in place, regarding finance transformation,” she says.

She says it’s crucial for finance, especially the partnering role that straddles finance and the business functions, to be able to develop a diverse mindset in order to capture value. “It means you’re open to new ideas, so you’re not so set in your ways,” she says. “Especially regarding technology, it’s just getting people to think in a different way, regarding new ideas and techniques,” she says.

One way of installing a more diverse mindset is actively encouraging a wider set of people to become finance business partners, says Connell. “When I go back to the talent development pipeline, what I’ve been trying to work on is making sure I’ve got a team that is broad and diverse, so that I can find a way of involving stakeholders in different creative ideas,” she explains.

“The big objective at the moment is transforming the business, and taking out a lot of cost savings, so we are going through a big transformation in the field itself.  Whether its pensions, ways of working, terms and conditions of our engineers.

“One of the things I have taken with me from Unilever, that I haven’t done here yet, is the zero-based budgeting mindset- so if you were a start-up, how would you go about doing it rather than taking 20% of the headcount out. It’s trying to add a different way of thinking to cost-cutting,” she says.

Within the services business, which has total revenues of around there are three arms to the finance function. Financial partnering- a relatively new area- forms one leg of finance, another is specialist functions that includes operations such as M&A and Investor Relations, a third leg is financial operations that includes FP&A and financial control.

Raising the bar

Connell says she has been developing a learning and development programme for finance partners, in areas such as communications with stakeholders and decision support analysis. “Those are skills we need to upgrade finance business partners with, as they need to interact with the business, and that requires very different soft skills, to develop constructive conversations,” she says.

Ultimately, there is a need to finesse the technical skills of finance business partners so that they are able to deploy analytics to gain powerful insights about what is happening across field operations. “We’ve started using Microsoft tools like Power BI and Sway, but we’ve only done a few months of that. We’re going to start pushing forward on some of the technology and moving to more dynamic reporting,” she says.

“What I’m after in my team is people who are prepared to put their hands up to try some of these new digital tools. There could even be some AI working with data scientists, for some deep dive analytics.

“They don’t need to be experts, but they do need to be able to understand the power of the tools and what can come out of it, so I need people who are really up for learning some of these new ways. I need to give them the confidence to do that, and the time to learn,” says Connell.

One way of gaining buy-in from the team is through staff recognising they are being equipped with skills that will keep them relevant and vital in a changing work environment. “It’s looking at areas such as the ability to hold others to account, especially as we’re outsourcing things and working in smaller teams.

“If you depend on a data scientist to give you deep dive analytics, one of the skills needed is how do you agree ways of working and can then hold that party to account on it. I think it’s quite important in a finance partnering role to have that mentality, to be intuitive. That’s what I’m working on with teams,” she says.

Ultimately the talent recruitment process needs to reflect these aims, says Connell.  Although she’ll always look internally for someone with potential and develop that, when looking outside the group to fill finance partnering roles, Connell says she needs to be careful in order to capture a diverse set of candidates.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that you have to show benefits such as flexible working, to make sure job specs are attractive to a diverse population. Another thing I have learned is to be a bit harder on the recruiter, to get more diversity,” she adds.

Emma Connell is participating in a panel discussion on diversity and talent acquisition at this year’s CFO Agenda.

For Finance, 2019 marks the start of a new world where the proactive leaders will be at the helm, navigating their businesses safely through the changes. Join us at this year’s CFO Agenda on 7th May in London to network with 200+ CFOs, FDs, and Heads of Finance to drive growth and meet the future with confidence and certainty. To learn more and register, please, visit: https://www.thecfoagenda.com/