Almost three months into calendar 2021 and around a year since India first imposed a lockdown, amidst the raging Coronavirus pandemic, life and businesses seem to be stabilizing at a new normal. Individuals and corporates have adapted and adjusted to it and the vaccination drive has emerged as a light at the end of the tunnel.
To review the transformation that companies have undergone during the tumultuous year gone by and how the role of finance professionals had evolved, Forbes India CFO Dialogues, in partnership with the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) hosted a virtual workshop. Moderated by Manu Balachandran from Forbes India, it showcased a dynamic, all-women panel of finance leaders, who have helped their organisations thrive in unprecedented times by skilfully navigating the challenges posed by the Covid19 crisis.
The illustrious panellists comprised Sandhya Sriram, Vice President, Global Head of Audit and Risks, Wipro Enterprises; Jyotsna Sharma, CFO, Bridgestone India Private Limited; Megha Chopra, Country Business Head, Global Commercial Services, American Express, India; Ritu Rekha, Partner & Leader, Finance Transformation, PwC and Hanadi Khalife, Senior Director - MEA and India Operations, Institute of Management Accountants. These women of substance came together to share their insights and experiences while also addressing the paradigms of talent gap, women at work and other.
The discussion began with Sandhya Sriram pointing out, “None of us thought that we'll be celebrating the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. It has taught us how to conserve cash and identify which tools to use while digitizing our businesses. The entire landscape of risk management changed and our approach to it became dynamic. Agility has become the keyword and while CFOs never has a choice between cost and growth, post-pandemic, they have evolved into CVOs - Chief Value Officers.”
Agreeing that agility has become crucial, Jyotsna Sharma added that acceptance and adaptability have become important attributes too. “Last year fast tracked the importance of agility, cost conservation, being alert and transition of businesses. We had to let go of old practices and accept new ones. In fact, the role of the CFO and finance professionals has become more visible during the pandemic,” she observed.
The panel agreed that beyond CFOs, the entire C-suites of organisations began to find ways to be digital-first, keeping data analytics and automation at the forefront. Businesses became agile and adapting to new customer preferences became the key. “We saw huge pivots from survival to sustenance to revival in businesses. All these changes have brought data and analytics to the fore for all CXOs. As short-term fixes did not work for organisations during the pandemic, people and organisations have seen value in fundamentally changing how they operate,” said Megha Chopra.
More specifically, Ritu Rekha observed that the sense of purpose of both individuals and businesses were aligning and this would drive the agility of organisations. “People have to be inspired and motivated to use technologies to get the desired outcomes,” she said. “As technology and capability go together, people are finding ways to collaborate to use it and that’s driving its importance. Digital strategy is no longer only for efficiency but also to create resilience.” At the same time, Sandhya Sriram pointed out that while technology is key, it is only a tool to solve a problem. Agility comes from knowing the right way to use tech to solve the right problems.
Capturing the big picture, Hanadi Khalife added, “Being data driven will be important for businesses. We have seen a shift in consumer behaviour and in ways of doing business. We have learned that we can operate in leaner and faster ways. We might be creatures of habit, but we also want to adapt.” Nevertheless, while there is a huge amount of pragmatism, there was also impatience to see quick transformations.
Being an all-women panel, the theme of diversity at the workplace and the impact of the crisis on working women found a prominent place in the discussions. Jyotsna Sharma set the tone by noting that women bring unique perspective and new thought processes to the workplace. She added, “Organisations have started taking steps for inclusion, but we have a long way to go to see women adequately represented in leadership positions.” Megha Chopra opined that it was the personal responsibility of women leaders, like those on the panel, to build a more balanced gender diversity construct. Sandhya Sriram went a step further to say, “Diversity is not just about bringing in more women. It's about bringing more people from different ethnicities, flexibilities, academic backgrounds and more, together at the workplace. That is what will make an organisation truly flexible and resilient.” Ritu Rekha agreed that diversity is no longer a discussion, saying, “Diversity and inclusion should be a big agenda for all companies that want to move forward.”
During the pandemic, women were the most hurt and being primary caregivers at home, many of them had to drop out of the workforce. Hanadi Khalife suggested that there needs to be a conscious effort by the government and companies to bring women back. “Upskilling, reskilling, having business acumen and a mentor are necessary for women entrepreneurs,” she said.
On the theme of people-first, Jyotsna Sharma expressed that people safety is a prime concern and a real shift has taken place with care, concern and empathy towards people. At the same time, Sandhya Sriram ventured that while people safety was her company’s first priority, it has also focused on using data to make operations more dynamic. Megha Chopra shared that her team had instituted an ‘each one - teach one’ policy to empower and reskill everyone, so that the entire team could move ahead together.
The panelists observed that the pandemic had removed the stigma and concerns around working from home and made everyone realise that it was possible. The option of hybrid workplaces, comprising a mix of working from home and from the office, would depend on the organisational role of every individual.
The discussion went on to cover the learnings from the past year and observations on trends that had emerged. Megha Chopra affirmed that it had been a golden era in terms of leadership and transformation and organisations and people must learn from it. “Everyone is marching out stronger from the pandemic. We can add a couple of years to our resumes since we have tackled new changes in the last year,” she said. “We were challenged to test our ability and that's been keeping us on our feet and younger,” said Jyotsna Sharma. Ritu Rekha talked about how the sheer scale and speed of the crisis increased organisations’ appetite for experiments and observed that the quality of conversations improved to include sustainable development, energy conservation and climate change. The need for businesses to have coherent strategy also got highlighted. Hanadi Khalife cautioned, however, that while there is light at the end of the tunnel, we are still far from full recovery and we still need to operate on crisis and post-crisis mode.
All in all, with respect to the finance domain of corporates, it emerged that in the light of the uncertainty that was experienced, the focus of finance professionals and other business leaders shifted to funding, liquidity, cashflow and balance sheet resilience. Every member of the senior management realised the need to understand finance and see how best they could improve their contribution to it; it was no longer the role of just the CFO to drive financials. The CFO's agenda too had changed to 3Ps - People, Planet, and Profit and while companies and individuals continued to spend carefully, even after the peak of the crisis has passed, whether this would be sustained over the long term was a question that still remained to be answered unanimously.
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