January 31, 2023

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Business is my step

How Finance Pros Shape Strategy And Culture

7 min read

The finance profession has evolved from a singular focus on financial reporting to a strategic role in helping advance core business goals and reacting to seismic challenges. The Covid-19 crisis has illustrated and arguably accelerated this trend, especially as it concerns risk mitigation, supply chain management and radically re-orienting corporate strategy amidst one of the biggest global crises of our time. I recently spoke with Jennifer Wolfenbarger, VP, CFO Global Quality & Business Operations, at Stryker, a global medical technology company, on how the past year impacted her role and that of the finance function more broadly. Wolfenbarger, who managed supply chain disruption during the pandemic and amid rising trade protectionism before that, had vital insights to share on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I), corporate culture, and how finance professionals can constructively and continuously upskill.

Jeff Thomson: The role of the CFO has undergone a profound transformation in recent decades – from being the chief bookkeeper to more of a strategic and operational leader. In your current role and throughout your career, you have combined the roles of finance chief and operations leader, reflecting a broader trend toward the CFO and COO positions overlapping and, in many cases, merging. How do you think overseeing a company’s global operations gives additional insight into managing the finance function, and vice versa? Do you feel that finance professionals in general should get “out of the office and onto the shop floor” more often?

Jennifer Wolfenbarger: Over the last ten years there has been a dramatic shift in the role of the CFO from reporting the numbers to driving strategy and results. Expectations of stakeholders have also increased dramatically in the space of levered earnings, particularly in the med tech space. As finance professionals we have an up-close and personal appreciation of not just earnings and market growth but also a knowledge of the levers we have to pull, as well as the degree of impact that each of those levers drive. Having hands-on exposure to all elements of the supply chain, including manufacturing, sourcing and distribution, gives me the insight to guide the business through transformation and continuous improvement.

It is also the expectation of my finance team that they are partners first and scorekeepers last. This is particularly important amid driving critical cost transformation, while ensuring we never miss a beat in terms of the supply needs of our customers. It is critical that finance professionals get out of their office and work side by side with our supply chain partners. Not only does this build our knowledge and credibility, but it also gives us front-line insight to the challenges and opportunities, making us better partners through the transformation. Strong business partnership has opened doors for finance professionals to gain access to cross-functional assignments throughout the supply chain, providing tremendous development opportunity.  

Thomson: You have spent your career working in manufacturing enterprises with global supply chains, including General Motors, Caterpillar and now Stryker. Globalization made global supply chains more efficient and desirable, but there have also been recent headwinds in the form of trade protectionism and the Covid-19 pandemic. How do you help manage the risks inherent to your company and address sudden, unpredictable events? What insights would you have for other finance professionals working in global manufacturing enterprises?

Wolfenbarger: Operating in a global market brings its challenges as government administrations evolve across the globe, as regulations evolve in med tech and as other socioeconomic events transpire around the world. What we have learned with increased trade protectionism as well as with Covid is the criticality of being agile with regards to our supply chain, in addition to investing in strong supply partners.

Flexibility in our supply base has allowed us to pivot between supply locations as trade impediments kicked in. Additionally, we were very successful working with our key suppliers to push out shipments of raw materials to avoid inventory stock piling as elective surgeries came to a halt. We maintain flexibility in our supply chain on our critical processes like sterilization, which allows us to shift our processes around the world and avoid disruption in supply to the customer. My advice to financial professionals working in global manufacturing enterprises is to thoroughly understand your business risk environment, refresh your risk assessment regularly and make contingency planning a priority on your critical processes.

It is also critically important to invest time in the development of your external partners, whether they be suppliers of components and services that are critical to your business or whether they are distribution providers that deliver the last mile to your critical customers. These investments will pay dividends when faced with headwinds like Covid. 

Thomson: The issue of gender representation has become more important to the finance profession, as organizations seek to become more gender balanced. How can companies promote greater gender equity and inclusion while building up a pipeline of female candidates for leadership roles? How has your own experiences as a female CFO influenced your thinking on this topic?

Wolfenbarger: As a financial-minded individual, I immediately go to the financial benefits of having a more diverse and inclusive talent force. A McKinsey study found that companies with diversity are 70% more likely to capture a new market and take market share. Companies with the highest number of women in top management had the best performance, with a 43% higher return on equity than average. A Deloitte LLP study found that organizations with inclusive leaders are two times more likely to meet or exceed financial targets and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.

Achieving gender and ethnic equity and inclusion begins with casting a wide net to ensure diverse recruiting slates. It also requires diverse interview panels. We cannot attract diverse talent if our interview panels do not reflect the diversity that we want to attract. And it doesn’t end with recruiting; we must put equal focus on making an inclusive environment part of our culture as we onboard and develop great talent. This cannot be created overnight and needs to be a priority not just for leadership but all parts of the organization. An inclusive environment is one full of curiosity and awareness of unconscious bias. We need all hands-on deck to make inclusion our mode of operation.

Lastly, I am also a firm believer in the importance of strong female role models in an organization. I attribute much of my career advancement to the strong female role models who encouraged me to take the seat at the table, to go after that stretch role and to raise my voice. Those very positive experiences of inclusion are the high points of my career and when I felt most driven. As a result of my experiences, I am very passionate about giving my best to creating and maintaining an inclusive culture as well as mentoring and sponsoring female talent.

Thomson: You have a BA in Accounting in addition to an MBA degree and a CMA (Certified Management Accountant) certification. How has your academic background equipped you for the role you hold now? What advice would you give undergraduate accounting students who aspire to the role of CFO?

Wolfenbarger: The CMA certification and MBA were game changers for me in terms of my personal business leadership. Both were integral in making a shift from a finance professional to a business growth and strategy leader. As I think about my own team and the skill sets that are required in my team to drive the business forward, technical skills are no doubt important for those overseeing statutory requirements. In addition, I am looking for demonstrated experience in business partnership, strategy and transformation. The advice I provide to incoming graduates and aspiring leaders is to seek out the CMA certification and seek opportunities to put your CMA to work by gaining experience working with the business to drive strategic growth and transformation. This type of experience has been incredibly enriching for me. I am constantly learning and working with my partners to drive the business forward. There is nothing more satisfying than navigating obstacles and crossing a major milestone on a strategic priority as a team. 

Thomson: Stryker is a Fortune 500 company with a well-recognized, high-performance culture. What do you do to reinforce that culture among the people you lead? How important is professional development and upskilling in that environment?

Wolfenbarger: Stryker’s high-performance culture is born from our mission and values, “Together with our customers, we make healthcare better.” Our mission is central to everything that my team touches, whether it be driving results in any one of our divisions, cultivating lean transformation in our manufacturing operations, ensuring financial compliance or identifying synergies on a prospective acquisition. Our mission is the nucleus. Helping each and every one of my team members find their individual connection to the mission is a critical part of my role as a leader and an important element to maintaining our high-performance culture. 

Professional development and upskilling are incredibly important in a high-performance culture. It’s important to ensure that my team has the necessary skills to be successful in their current role and to be equipped for progression. We move incredibly fast at Stryker. Stretching and growing into new assignments is the norm, thus ensuring that we continuously develop team members to take on additional challenges, to think critically and to drive innovation and growth is very important. Our development strategy consists of a mixture of formal development programs, stretch project assignments, on the job training and coaching and mentoring.   

This article has been edited and condensed.

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