How controllers can optimize change management

By Mia Maki
Mar 6, 2024
How controllers can optimize change management
Photo credit: Worawee Meepian/iStock/Getty Images

In this podcast episode, Mia Maki, FCPA, FCMA, shares her expertise on how CPAs can lead change management, including what to consider when creating an internal communications plan. Part of our Coffee Chats with CPABC podcast series.

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CPAs who work as controllers are expected to be the financial expert in their organization. They’re relied upon to produce, analyze, and interpret the financial data that will be used by the executive team to make key financial decisions – so to be proficient, they need to continuously demonstrate leading-edge knowledge and keen business acumen. Here are some strategies and insight that controllers can use to operate at their best when it comes to change management, because when change is well managed, it helps controllers to perform their many responsibilities effectively.

Why change management is such an important skill for controllers

Early in our careers, we often assume that what we think and perceive is similar to what others think and perceive. However, one of the most important things to understand about working as a controller, or in any middle management role where you’re interacting with people at all levels of the organization, is that we’re not the same. Everyone responds differently to the challenges of change. Change management is an important topic because as a controller, you’ll often be leading or supporting change in your organization. As you do, it’s important to examine not only how you perceive, adapt to, and lead change, but also what it’s like to bring a group of people along with you.

Projects that commonly require change management skills

Most commonly, controllers will use change management skills when rolling out accounting software updates or ERP software updates; other areas might include restructuring initiatives for payroll and compensation. Regardless of the project, if you’re good at leading change, managers and executive leadership will see this and you may find yourself with additional projects that require change management skills.

Tools and activities to help develop change management skills

In the Controller’s Operational Skills Program, there are a number of different resources wrapped around the Harvard simulation that we do in the program; this is the heart of the knowledge and skills development. In this simulation there are different scenarios, so participants get to manage under different change management scenarios that are easier and harder. There are different levers in the simulation, which are tactics or things that you can do regarding your change management initiative. Participants explore the right levers to use, when to use them, as well as ways to bring an entire organization along with you on the journey.

Important activities to execute when creating a change management plan

One of the things that gets short-circuited, especially if you’ve been in an organization for a while and you think you know everybody, is neglecting to talk to people one-on-one to get their frank observations on whether they support the upcoming change, what their fears are about it, and risks they see as a result. We might think we know how everyone feels, but this is not the case. Anybody leading change needs to sit down with the people who are involved and spend some time finding out their perspectives.

Mapping out an internal communications plan for the change is also important; this is probably something new for most controllers. The plan should address:

  • How do you have those initial conversations with everybody?
  • How do you keep people aware of and engaged with what you’re doing, considering how noisy the world is?
  • How do you bring the whole organization along with you in terms of communication?
  • What are your tools in your toolkit for communications?

We all go through four stages when it comes to change: awareness (we’re making a change), interest (finding out more, learning about how the change might impact us), trialing (when we try out the change) and adoption. Each individual will take a different length of time to move through each of those stages, so your plan also has to reflect that not everyone can move as fast as everyone else.

A common pain point

One of the most important things when you’re leading change is making sure that you maintain a reasonable level of credibility. The last moment of any change, when it becomes institutionalized, is a very painful one. For example, with a software implementation, it’s the moment when the old software is turned off, or when implementing a bonus system, it’s the reality that some people will win and some will lose. This often has a negative impact on the credibility of the person leading the change. It’s unfair, but it’s very human. This is a leadership moment where you typically will lose credibility, not because you deserve to, but because human beings are human beings and it’s a moment of frustration.

How controllers can safeguard their credibility during change

Having a project champion - an advocate at a senior level who will go to bat for you - is helpful. If your credibility is being negatively impacted, this person can stand up for you and help you repair your credibility, for example, by bringing people together to have a conversation, or whatever is required.

Another important strategy is the judicious use of power. For example, you might be sending an email that you know is not going to be well received. For example, you’re going through a new system implementation, and for a week staff won’t have the reports that they normally have, which will cause some to be frustrated. Rather than you sending the email, you might ask your advocate to send it on your behalf and say, “By the way, so-and-so is leading this project. Here’s what’s going to happen. If you have any problems, you come to me.” That is a lot less likely to get pushback, and frustration in others might also be minimized. People are more likely to be more accepting of the communication because of who it came from, and that benefits you.

Change can be difficult, but along with the strategies mentioned, this is another tool in the toolbox that controllers can use to make change more manageable for themselves and for others.

Mia Maki, FCPA, FCMA, is the associate dean, external and outreach and associate teaching professor at the University of Victoria and a consultant at Quimper Consulting. Mia leads CPABC’s Controllers Operational Skills Program.

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