Talent Management: The Three Lims of Finance

A happy finance team is a team that sticks with the boss and each other. And a team whose members stick together long term usually works cohesively for the organization’s benefit. So how does a CFO make sure he or she is building such a team?
 
Part of the answer, says Angie Lim, CFO for Asia Pacific at global property management firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), lies in the ability to “spot a square peg in a round hole.” She does not force a reshaping of the square pegs nor does she automatically dismiss them. Her approach is to negate the less than desirable circumstances by, for example, looking for square holes into which the square pegs can fit.
 
It seems to be working. Lim, who was honored with the Excellence in Talent Management award at the CFO Innovation Awards 2013 in November, oversees a large team that includes eight direct reports from around the region, whose average length of service spans nine years.
 
Two of them are also surnamed Lim – a coincidence, says a laughing Angie. Neither Agnes Lim, APAC head of regional finance, nor Jessie Lim, regional finance director for corporate solutions, is related to the CFO or to each other.
 
But all three, along with the rest of JLL’s 221-strong Asia Pacific finance team (including 84 in the Finance Shared Service Center), strive to work harmoniously and effectively. Last year, they helped power total segment fee revenue in the region to US$847.7 million, up 8% in US dollar terms and 14% in local currency terms from 2012. Operating income was  US$77.3 million, up 18% in USD terms.
 
Drawing the line
With a career that spans multiple industries over more than 30 years, Angie Lim, like many industry veterans, has gained experience and skills in technology, supervisory, operational and controllership. Managing and maintaining morale in a team to retain talent, however, extends beyond these accomplishments.
 
For her, the core of talent retention lies in staying away from anyone with a pessimistic attitude and in understanding the motivations of each and every team member. “Not everyone wants to be number one and earn plenty of money,” says the CFO. “In the same vein, some may not like being client-facing and be content to do background work.”
 
Over the course of her career, Lim has encountered finance professionals who are content to remain in their current roles, but also others who crave to be exposed to different facets of finance. It tends to be the more junior staff who feel reluctant to leave their comfort zones, says Lim. In her experience, this trait is less common among the more senior staff members.
 
Her preference is to coax staff into trying new areas of finance, particularly since the expectations of finance continue to evolve to include analytics, risk management, strategy, business partnering and other fields. When it is clear that staff is not interested, however, Lim leaves them alone: “Not everyone should be moving [around] in the organization; you need a balance of stability and movement.”
 
At least for that moment. “People have different wishes at different stages in life,” she says. “Some aspire toward new opportunities while others may just want more time with the family. The CFO needs to pick up on what drives team members in the course of working with them.”
 
Where she draws the line is when individuals refuse to learn new things even if they are left alone in their chosen area of finance, and when it is clear that money is their sole motivation. No CFO can retain an individual who is solely motivated by money, Lim believes. “While remuneration is important, we come to work with an understanding that we also have to enjoy what we do,” she says.
 
Different roles
Agnes Lim, the head of regional finance, belongs to the breed of finance professionals who desire to take on new roles. “Angie knows I like new things, so she suggested I try a shared services role a few years ago,” she recounts.  “She persuades us to try different roles so we can become more [in-the-round] finance people.” Agnes is now involved in M&A in her current assignment.
 
Describing Agnes Lim as a survivor, Angie Lim says, “You have to assess whether someone can minimally perform a role before allocating it to them. I could sense Agnes would succeed even if placed in the toughest situation.” Conversely, placing a weak person in a difficult role would only result in the person resigning, says Angie Lim.
 
Jessie Lim, the regional finance director for corporate solutions, also welcomes different roles. But it took a while for the CFO to find the optimum role for her in JLL. Angie had interviewed Jessie at least three times in the past.
 
During the first interview for a role with the Project & Development Services unit several years back, the CFO took Jessie Lim around the office to assess if the latter was a cultural fit for the position. “I didn’t think the role suited her, although she thought otherwise,” recalls Angie Lim. She was concerned that the cultural change might be too drastic, because the PDS team was smaller than what Jessie Lim was used to in her previous job.
 
In the end, Jessie Lim joined another organization. Some two years passed before Angie called her again for another interview, this time for a role in a different business line. “I felt this new and bigger role would fit her better,” the CFO recalls. “I particularly took into account the fact that her style would complement that of the business leader she would be supporting.”
 
Rapport with the business
Jessie Lim agrees. “Being the finance head of a business unit means we spend a lot more time with our business leaders than with Angie,” she says. “We can’t survive in the organization even if we had good chemistry with Angie – but not our business leaders.”
 
That’s another lesson Angie Lim has learned in her years as CFO. Having rapport with the business side, not just within finance, is the “make or break” factor for job success, she says. “Most people who interview for a job here [in JLL] already have good careers that they don’t wish to jeopardize. A [finance position] that doesn’t quite fit has the potential to do that.”
 
For the CFO, an intuition into fit and rapport is important. But she is the first to admit that she has made hiring mistakes. “Everyone has a degree and fanciful experience listed on paper, but a person’s abilities can only truly be assessed after someone has started the job,” says Angie Lim. “You can go through rounds of interviews, but still arrive at the wrong hiring decision.”
 
Once, a candidate who had a good resume carried herself well during interviews with the finance team, human resources and senior business leaders. However, the candidate in question proved unable to perform as expected and exited the company a few months later – a mutual decision.
 
Conversely, an “imperfect” candidate can turn out to be a good fit. Early in her career, Angie interviewed for a finance job, but was not sure of the answer to a particular test question, and said so. She got the job anyway. The head of finance later told her she was hired because of her honesty.
 
No ‘yes’ people
The CFO may have assembled a team that he or she is happy with; the challenge is to make sure everyone works together in harmony. But differences in opinion are natural in every finance team. What matters is how a team’s leader and its members handle such conflicts.
 
In Angie Lim’s words, her team comprises anything but ‘yes’ people. Conference calls sometimes involve raised voices on the part of several parties. A cohesive culture is chief to resolving differences, says the CFO. According to Angie Lim, the views of any member of her team will be considered and discussed, regardless of job level.
 
Underneath all differences is the simple fact that finance practitioners generally have the interests of the firm at heart, states Jessie Lim. “When conflicts occur, we have a discussion, make a joint decision and move on. Of course, the issue is not always resolved in a manner that pleases everyone, but people agree to disagree and progress to the next issue.”
 
“We don’t come to work to make enemies,” says Angie Lim. “There are bound to be differences, but the team always comes to the table to discuss the problem in good faith.”
 
About the Author

Melissa Chua is a Contributing Editor at CFO Innovation based in Singapore. 

 

Photo credit: Shutterstock

 

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