Empowering employees in digital transformation

At the Finance Transformation Asia conference in Hong Kong, finance and business leaders shared how organisations can improve the transition to new technologies and processes.
 Empowering employees in digital transformation

While digital transformation has become a buzzword and is often linked to new technologies, it is a process that requires CFOs and senior finance executives to take actions that show their care for employees.

At a panel titled "Disruptor or Disrupted? Which One Are You?" in the recent Finance Transformation Asia conference organised by the AICPA and CIMA in Hong Kong, speakers suggested ways that help empower employees during transformation.

Adopt a different mindset when it comes to success and failure. Organisations need to create a safe environment for employees, said Nigel Adams, former general manager for group services at ANZ and former dean of operations management at National Australia Bank.

"If something goes wrong, don't blame the individual. It's because you've created an environment that allows individuals to fail," he said. "So, when things go right, you praise the team. When things go wrong, you blame yourself. That's a different mindset."

Give employees freedom and space. Leaders need to learn to stay out of employees' way to create a culture of continuous improvement.

"So many leaders want to meddle and get into details they don't have day-to-day experience with," Adams noted. "Set a framework, provide the tools, and just get out of the way."

Giving people freedom and space would allow them to show their potential and make an extraordinary difference to their organisations, he explained.

Let people do the things that you are doing. Staying out of the way also means letting employees do some of the things leaders are doing, according to Hugo Walkinshaw, FCMA, CGMA, OBE, and chief partnership officer at AntWorks, a global artificial intelligence and intelligent automation company.

By allowing employees to take part in executive presentations or participate in panels, managers give them the opportunities to practise and grow their skills, he said.

In addition, letting people do some of these tasks also requires leaders to be comfortable with things not being quite right sometimes, he added.

Break down hierarchy. Leaders need to acknowledge and reward younger employees who do well, according to Walkinshaw.

"It's not so much about money but about giving them a platform that lets them shine and come through," he said. "Don't get hung up on your organisation's structure and hierarchy — recognise the talent and really push it."

Besides empowerment, panellists suggested other ways to make digital transformation a better journey for employees.

Give employees a purpose. Strategy is the focus when it comes to digital transformation, but purpose is more crucial to employees.

While having a strategy remains important, an organisation needs to complement that with a purpose because the latter gives people a sense of meaning and inspiration, Walkinshaw said.

"People come to work for a purpose rather than a strategy," he noted. "A purpose drives behaviours and values."

Communicate strategy effectively. According to Adams, communicating a strategy effectively means to make it pertinent to employees.

Leaders at different levels need to be able to translate and simplify complex messages related to a strategy into something relevant to employees and their jobs, he said.

"In Australia for example, a top-down approach won't work. You can't tell people to do something because the CEO says so. You need to explain why," he noted. "Leaders need to make strategies pertinent to individuals and their roles."

Listen and support. Leaders need to listen to employees, said Nina Muhleisen, founder and CEO of Australia-based consultancy Three6.

In addition, organisations have to provide training and support to develop people's skills, capabilities, and attributes that allow them to do things in which they are interested.

Support also means getting to know how people follow through their initiatives, she added. This gives them the encouragement and motivation to keep learning and trying new things.

Seeing finance as a capability

While the finance function continues to transform and automation takes away transactional jobs, organisations need to change how they see finance as well.

Instead of thinking of finance as a function, organisations can see it as a discipline or a capability, Walkinshaw pointed out, adding that finance leaders have a role in their organisation to develop people not only for finance positions but also for roles elsewhere in the organisation.

He added that creating such horizontal opportunities for employees is possible in shared service or global business service hubs where employees can be qualified for finance roles but given the opportunity to explore other roles as well.

"Some will take [up] roles in finance and some will do other things. You're bringing in mobility. … You actually create a very different structure, a different vibe," Walkinshaw said. "And it's a very positive thing."

Teresa Leung is a freelance writer based in Hong Kong. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Alexis See Tho, an FM magazine associate editor, at