This article is part of an ongoing project to profile the stories, struggles and victories of bold leaders who are redefining Corporate Finance from the frontlines of business. You can listen to the podcast, which has also been turned into a readable format here.
“I am probably the biggest fan of using technology in business specifically for the finance function. I am a huge cheerleader for that. I think it makes a massive difference to automate a lot of the functions that allow you to run with a lean team and operate a business really efficiently. But you still need people, because people bring the brain power and they really bring the team approach to running a business but adding technology just makes everything run smoother.”
The financial crisis in 2008 froze entire sectors of consumer credit, and global markets clamped shut. The lack of availability and mortgages caused an issue of a ‘credit crunch’ – which caused the explosion of fintech, breaking down the barriers of the financial services industry. But that was not the only change – from a micro level, the entire finance function began to shift, as CFOs now need to evolve with managing regulations around finance, labor and contracts, tax laws, and risk management.
This shift is particularly difficult with the evolution of the CFO role from traditional revenue tracking and controlling associated with accounting and finance, to more enterprise-wide strategic planning and management – focused on increasing business value and growth. But not for Lindsey Head, the tech-savvy and forward-thinking CFO of J Public Relations.
“There’s still a lot of companies out there that are lagging with introducing technology into the process. They see the solution as adding more people and more labor overhead, which is fine too. I just think that when you can add technology and support the people who are there and continuing to grow the team with technology, I think you really can speed up and simplify a lot of the growth of the company.”
Lindsey Head did not start her career in finance. In fact, as a graduate from Santa Barbara University, she was simply interested in how to foster innovation and growth in companies. With a background in Operations and Management Information Systems, she was mostly interested in improving efficiencies in companies using technology. As a matter of fact, she had an initial dislike for accounting and spreadsheets. However, after given an opportunity by a valued mentor to launch and grow a capital management firm in 2004, her whole perspective took a 180-degree turn.
“I had an opportunity out of college to help a mentor of mine that I worked for during college, helped them launch a business – a money management firm. I wasn’t the biggest fan of accounting, believe it or not- it was pretty funny, I don’t know of all these scenarios, the financing and it’s only because I hadn’t been immersed in an entire business function from the ground up. The minute I was helping launch a money management firm or re-manage hedge funds and find out what individuals invest in an account, I realize how important it was to understand every little detail of finance and accounting.
So, I was immersed in it that’s when I realized that I actually do enjoy this because everything impacts something else, and every little part of the business is operating, relates to the money. That’s why it really was a switch for me, I think that was back in 2004. So it’s being a long time where I finally realized that I actually do enjoy this because it just plays to everything that I had an interest in.”
Lindsey finally understood – everything in a business relates to the money, which includes revenue and corporate spend. And in order to manage that more efficiently, she needed to see the bigger picture. Not just from a finance or accounting perspective, but from a more holistic view. In order to solve the problems in a company and to truly strive for growth, she had to think big.
“I think it’s really important to know the big picture and have experience in a lot of different realms and a lot of different parts of a business to be an effective CFO. I never saw myself as an accountant, I just never did, I think I saw myself as a financial operations leader or something like that. I think launching straight into that as part of my career was help me to set up a company from the ground up was a really great learning experience.”
Lindsey first joined J Public Relations as a controller in the October of 2010, after a fruitful career of consulting, leading the growth of a capital management firm, and working in operations as a hedge fund manager. However, the PR industry is not so straightforward, as revenues are unpredictable, and spend is even harder to manage. Although the perks of running a PR firm means that you don’t have to deal with product development costs and shipping costs, there are other challenges that Lindsey faces.
“Labor cost is our number one expense item – we have to constantly keep that in line with our revenue or tracking as of revenue to make sure we’re not out of line. And then on top of that, it’s just the overhead and the basic spend to run the offices, and also travel because we are travelling between offices. Right now we operate four different offices – we are in San Diego, Santa Monica, New York City and the UK.”
But the biggest challenge is the uncertain nature of the business – some of the costs cannot be predicted until it occurs, along with the clients that come and go.
“[The challenge is] the unknown, because within one month we may have a really big trip that we help coordinate on behalf of a client that just hasn’t being on the radar. We don’t know the number of media that would be attending, things like that, so you can’t always know what that going to look like month over month.”
With the media industry on its decline, Lindsey has noticed that some of their clients has cut their PR budgets, although business has been going strong. The determined Lindsey is unphased – confident that with a proactive team culture and a mind for innovation that the firm will continue to succeed, and that means giving her team the responsibility to spend wisely. This meant entrusting them with their own company credit card.
“[It is up to the] employees to take it upon themselves to spend and use their card with integrity, I think that is the biggest thing that happens when I would see card users in our company. It’s just making sure that you are using them properly.
But that [in itself] is a big challenge and I know it’s a big challenge with fast running companies is controlling the spending, keeping their internal controls in place and have it be efficient.”
Lindsey has figured out her way to financially manage an efficient and lean PR agency. Rather than asserting controls or pushing a budget onto the operations itself, Lindsey truly believes that giving her employees the power to make decisions from the bottom up is the culture she wants to promote as a CFO – a proactive spend culture. It’s instilling the trust within the team members so if something does happen, they will own up to it, rather than having the finance department assert the controls.
“It’s empowering our employees to be responsible for their spending and treat it like their own. That’s the biggest thing we tell them is ‘look this is your card, treat it as your own and if there are expenses on there that you incur them and they are inaccurate, come to us and we would expect you to come to us’. So we really trying to empower them and instil in them that use it like it’s your company and if you’re not using it that way, it’s technically taking from the company and we can’t have that.
So everyone has done a really good job and they come to us more in fear of spending too much most at a time or they feel terrible if they accidentally charge something. Uber seems to be a big one, they put their cards on there, it’s automatic and so they click the card and it goes straight to default. And we run into that a couple times, they’ll come to us be proactive, say, ‘oh my gosh, I’m so sorry’, but I think we’ve instilled in our culture that you’re responsible for your spending, this is your card, you have to treat it that way, like it’s your own.”
But to complement the human side of things, Lindsey also believes in transforming the way companies operate using technology, and not just using a system to manage, but choosing the right tools to fit the business. Often times, the finance team is the one to make reactive decisions and behemoth enterprise tools such as ERPs are catered to the finance and accounting functions, giving little to no visibility to employees from other functions. To Lindsey, a good system is not just about the features, but also being adopted properly. In addition, it needs to evolve with the needs of the business.
“It’s going to be shit show, maybe a lot of challenges. Using all this technology has to work properly and it has to be reviewed consistently on a regular basis to make sure its really serving the company. I know there are different things that we’ve taken on and signed up for that really served us at one point, but now it’s being like not used properly.
With technology, it just has to be adopted and then used constantly, and if it’s not serving, you have to make a quick change. When the company is growing, more technology comes on board, so picking the right one and then getting rid of the right one when it’s not serving you anymore [is important], so it doesn’t become this crazy cluster of all these platforms that are not serving the company.”
What is remarkable about Lindsey’s way of thought is that she is not just truly refining the role of finance from the front lines – but she is humanizing the function as a whole. Her bold style of leadership and cultivating personal growth and culture stands out from the rest of her peers, away from the traditional form of management that is slowly being phased out with the new rise of a leaner, more fast-paced mentality.
Perhaps it’s her roots of being involved as a growth catalyst for a growing business, or perhaps it is her love for the startup mentality. However, even with the successful growth of J Public Relations and her own role as the CFO, Lindsey realizes that this form of thinking is still hard to grasp for others.
“I think it’s really important to flip everything upside down. There’s no right way I think – you just have to constantly have to look at what’s not working and if something is not working, make a change quickly if you can.
And also I always say that something is going wrong and it’s not going right, what’s the consistent factor? Typically yourself, so if you have something to do with it, you’ll probably look at yourself first and then figure out how you can change your approach or things are going, how you are addressing it, that would be the number one way. But to preserve the culture, I think it’s going to be constantly evolving so you have to constantly look at it and evaluate it and see what’s working.”
Have an interesting story to share? We’re all ears. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we could host you on the next episode of the Spend Culture Podcast.