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Model of instruction: Building a finance team

FOUR YEARS AGO, the Sky finance team set itself the ambition to be the best finance team in Britain. This was not meant to be functional vanity; rather it was a clear statement of intent. Four years later we are more efficient and effective. Not the best in Britain, but on the right path.

Sky prides itself on breaking new ground. It’s a consumer business in a tough economy, operating in a regulated industry and competing in a market where technology and innovation converge. As well as established competitors, we are competing with multinationals, so we know nothing stays the same for long. Sky needs a finance team that can help support decisions while keeping the focus of the business on the customer.

The finance leadership team got together to answer three questions about the finance function at Sky: where are we now; where are we trying to get to; and how will we get there?

The starting point was an external benchmark of our finance organisation, which helped us understand what we did and how we did it. Everyone has their own view of a function’s performance, influenced by their own experiences, so establishing facts on which we all agreed was a vital first step. Defining that view based on standard definitions to allow a comparison was even better. The benchmark gave us a shared understanding of our finance function: what we did well, and what were the opportunities to improve. How did we compare to both typical companies and top performers, both on individual performance metrics and overall.

It was clear our business needed us to be the best we could be. It was also clear from the benchmark that, while there were things we could do differently to improve, there was nothing unique about our business that meant we couldn’t aim high. We wanted to set an ambition that would be engaging for everyone in finance. There is nothing better than best, and so our ambition to be the best finance team in Britain was conceived.

In terms of our approach to improving finance, we looked to the world of cycling for inspiration. As principal partner of British Cycling, Sky has witnessed Britain’s first ever Tour de France victory, as well as the triumph of TeamGB at last year’s Olympic Games. David Brailsford, the performance director of British Cycling, speaks eloquently about the role that accumulating marginal gains has played in that success. Put simply, rather than searching for the silver bullet that will solve all the problems, the focus is on looking for small improvements in every part.

For finance, that meant mapping out our processes and identifying the little things that would make a difference. It also meant we needed to get everyone involved. I’m proud that everybody in the 500-strong team can point to something they have done to make our performance even better. Some got involved full-time, most part-time. We have a team of enthusiastic people doing everything from closing statutory entities, to automating journal entries, upgrading MSExcel, streamlining processes, giving each other better feedback, and so on. We’ve engaged their professional curiosity, and given them opportunities to learn and shine.

Good communication is vital – both informing people of what is going on and celebrating success. We have also needed to ensure our prioritisation is clear, and we remain well aligned.

When plans have not gone as we had hoped, it is typically because we have strayed from our principles. For example, if we have not agreed the facts up front, we have found it harder to see the impact. If we have not been clear on the benefit, engagement tends to fall. If we don’t keep communicating, people lose that sense of a shared endeavour.

We are not the best finance team in Britain yet, but we will continue to believe we could be better and unleash our team of volunteers on the accumulation of marginal gains.

Rob Collie, is director of finance delivery and performance at Sky. Sky has been working with The Hackett Group to achieve its world class status

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