See the strategic big picture while managing complexity

Finance executive James Miln, ACMA, CGMA, shares the key skills that finance professionals need and the importance of conveying information on complex topics.

Editor’s note: This article is part of the “Top Finance Skills” series, featuring insights from finance leaders across industries on skills finance professionals need to have to be competitive in the future. To receive weekly updates on this series, sign up for our CGMA Advantage newsletter.

James Miln

James Miln, ACMA, CGMA, started his career at Unilever in the UK before moving to Silicon Valley in the San Francisco area in the US and working for Yahoo!, followed by eBay, and now Yelp as senior vice-president of finance and investor relations. Throughout his career, understanding the realm of digital data has grown in importance. Yet Miln majored in classics at university, and he says that has helped him understand the importance of “connecting the dots and seeing the bigger picture” — linking all that information to strategic business decision-making.

Here’s a conversation with Miln on the skills that are important today, for him and for people he hires.

If you were just starting out in management accounting, which skills or aspects of finance would you be focusing on to get a competitive edge?

Miln: I’m going to say two very contrasting things: manage the complexity of data but keep an eye on the strategic bigger picture. First, I think data skills seem increasingly important when we’re clearly in a very data-driven world now. My career started at Unilever, went to Yahoo!, eBay, I’m at Yelp. Even for Unilever, I’m sure they’re seeing more commerce online, more engagement with their consumers online. They’re tracking more than I used to be able to do when we were trying to run marketing mixed models and find out which form of marketing would have the best ROI.

You can imagine at Yahoo!, eBay, and Yelp everything is like that. When I did my CIMA back in the ’90s, IT or technology was one of the modules. It was sort of like, “What’s this?”, and it seemed very boring. Now, in my career, the ability to understand concepts around the governance and application of digital data as a young analyst, to have the skills to be able to manipulate and analyse alongside data scientists and analyse other functions, I think is really important.

Second, what finance often can bring is an understanding of the bigger picture and the linkage to strategy. You do that best when you’re very intellectually curious about how the world works, how the organisation you’re going to be part of plays a role in that.

If you want to stand out, you’ve got to be that person who can connect the dots and see the bigger picture.

Are there professional skills you’ve learned recently and, if yes, how did you learn them and how are they useful in your current role with Yelp?

Miln: One thing I’ve really enjoyed over the last several years is getting into the investor relations role and that side of finance. What that has given me is the ability to interact much more closely with people on the board, the executive team, investors. I think it really helps on two levels. One is that outside-in bigger-picture perspective that you get to what you’re doing operationally, internally to the business. Second, one of the key things I’ve had to reflect on and consciously think about it is how to communicate information in that environment very clearly. It can be a challenge to communicate complex aspects around strategy or around the performance of the business to people who are either senior or very important, like your investors who don’t have a lot of time to go into all the detail.

I think early in your career and even at the midpoint of your career, again coming back to this very data-rich world, I think it’s increasingly easy to be sort of a little too siloed and too narrow, I see this in analysts and managers and even directors today. … You’re very much amongst the trees, but you’re not always looking at the forest. So my career in finance has generally been what you could call the business partnering, FP&A, management accounting side. I have sought out opportunities to take on responsibilities of related areas like investor relations or to manage business projects, and this has enabled me to demonstrate my ability and my leadership potential. It has also been very fulfilling to take a broader leadership role in the business. So if you look for those opportunities, they help accelerate your career.

How does Yelp support finance team members in their professional growth?

Miln: This is something I’m very passionate about, with our CFO, David Schwarzbach.

At Yelp, we’re recently a billion-dollar revenue company. Our finance team is about 100, maybe a little over. So only in the last couple of years since I’ve been there and with CFO David and our leadership team have we started putting together some of these more formal development building blocks. What really helps a finance team gel and better develop is to have a clear vision of our role. Where do we add value to the business, what are some principles around which we want to develop our role that’s in line with the culture with the broader company but is specific to finance? Then, we do work to translate this into clear functional goals and also development goals, and work with a set of competencies to develop those.

We’ve used some of the terms of the CGMA Competency Framework. We’re not following them exactly, but we’re thinking about what’s most relevant to our organisation so that we can help our team build a career map so they know, “OK, if I’m on this journey of developing in these areas, here are some things that I should be good at to be more successful.” At Yelp, we’ve put in a reimbursement policy for education, and we’ve put in a process around ensuring that development goals are an ongoing conversation.

What does the finance executive of today need to know about artificial intelligence and machine learning?

Miln: A few thoughts there. In my role in FP&A and in finance, at Yahoo!, eBay, and at Yelp, my team and I work with our data scientists. There are experts on those teams who work on machine learning. We use it to on the product side to develop our products and run tests, and to analyse the results from those tests.

We work with key partners there who can also help us project out some of the key drivers of our business, and we can use that to inform our models — particularly around giving us projections for key user and engagement metrics on our platforms. We can use that as an input into our forecasting process.

So that’s a very tangible example of working with them. I think more broadly, it’s clearly the language today of this complex, data-rich digital environment. Going back, even for Unilever, which makes physical consumer goods, they will be very data-rich in what people are saying on Twitter or on social networks about their latest advertising campaign or how it’s being engaged with. So there your marketing teams can use these techniques to get really good insight into what is happening out there, and maybe these are important signals for how the success of a particular product is going to be.

In the internet space at Yelp we have hundreds of millions of interactions on our platform, so you need to apply these tools in order to be able to make sense of it. There are algorithms to personalise the experience on Yelp so that if we know you like pizza or we know you like East Coast pizza, we can make sure that when you search for pizza, East Coast pizza is higher up as opposed to Chicago pizza or something.

So, that’s the sort of thing we do to personalise the experience on Yelp. As a finance business partner, we want to help make better decisions. So we need to understand the tools that are being used to give us the insight and the signals that then tell us whether our product, or our product launch, or a feature launch could be more or less successful. Then we’re going to integrate that into our models and our decisions as to whether to invest or not in a particular initiative or a go/no-go decision on a project.

If we don’t understand the tools, we could take the signals and not ask any questions. But if we don’t know how the machine learning works, it’s a black box. When you have a black box, you’re not adding a lot of value to that process. I think by understanding how it works, there are opportunities to directly use these techniques in finance as I talked about with forecasting. I also think increasingly, and from where I sit, it’s more about being able to ask good questions about decision-making and understanding how these tools can help us — or maybe sometimes hinder us because we’re looking for more accuracy or more predictability than is real.

How can finance executives be better at promoting collaboration and business partnering across the company, the organisation?

Miln: The first part is leading by example. Be seen as not just the finance person who talks about finance things but is able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our CEO, chief people officer, our diversity and inclusion officer and talk about things that are important to the total business and to our role within the community as well.

Yelp’s a very mission-driven company. We’re about connecting people with great local businesses. Through the pandemic, we had to make decisions that had financial implications, such as providing relief. We chose to take a hit to our revenue, but it was the right thing to do to help others maintain their business and maintain our relationship by supporting those businesses. On the other side of the pandemic, hopefully we’ve been able to continue a relationship with them.

It’s important when you go through these decisions to not always focus on the short-term financials. It’s about the long-term journey of the company. When you can present that long-term view, you’re seen as a key partner to that executive team.

This perspective drives how my team does business partnering to drive and accelerate decision-making, with a purpose behind it.

It’s very compelling. It’s a key competency for us, so we measure people on it. We assess ourselves against it. We hold ourselves accountable to demonstrating what it means to be a successful business partner and the success we link very much to the quality of decision-making in the business and the trust that they have in our team to be that go-to person when it comes to those types of decisions.

What do you consider your number one professional challenge?

Miln: People. Talent. I was very fortunate that I could join a company like Unilever and they had a programme for people to develop within the company and rotate. I think that’s few and far between; there’s not that much of that today. For people early in their career, it’s too easy to move around from job to job. That’s not the same as growing with an organisation over some period of time and going a bit deeper, then building up a really great skillset.

So, nothing against moving around, but we have to try harder to help people understand their development journey — this is coming back to the competencies. We have to try harder to help people earlier in their career realise that moving from job to job to an extra pay raise quickly is not necessarily the best path to developing your long-term career.

At the most senior level, it is definitely a challenge just making sure that you’ve got the talent that you need on the team, with the succession planning in place so you feel ready. That’s a little harder in finance because we try to run a quite lean team. We tend to try to lead by example of what we tell everybody else to do and be efficient. I think we have to make sure we’re creating some space within our teams so that we have a little bit of duplication so we have people ready to succeed into new roles and that our teams are not too burned out and too overstretched by always leaning in to being super efficient.

What’s the most important action finance professionals should take to advance their careers?

Miln: I’m a big proponent of individual development plans. You look at the short term, which is probably in the year, you look at the medium term, which is maybe 18 months to two years or maybe next role, then you’re looking at the longer term. It doesn’t mean that you’ve got every role set out for the next 15 years. Focus on “What do I enjoy? What do I not enjoy? What do I want to do more of from a soft or hard skill point of view? What would I want to do less of from a soft or a hard set of skill?”

Be honest with yourself about that and be transparent with your manager and maybe find a mentor to be able to discuss this with. I’ve done that in my career. I’ve achieved some version of what I listed as my long-term goals, but I wouldn’t say what I wrote is what I exactly did. But I would say it has given me a great sense of purpose which has helped me get the most out of the present. I think if you can get the most out of what you do today, it has the biggest impact on where you can be tomorrow.

I think that is a really valid, important exercise.

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— Neil Amato ( is an FM magazine senior editor.