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I Started a New Controller Role During a Global Pandemic and Found Silver Linings

After years at a private equity-backed technology company in Seattle, I had an opportunity to take on a new role as controller at CorneaGen, a mission-driven organization devoted to transforming cornea care and eliminating corneal blindness worldwide by 2040. This role blended two passions: my love of accounting and a childhood love of medicine. The opportunity was irresistible, but it was June 2020, much of the country was sheltering in place, and there were many unknowns.

How would I navigate the professional and business challenges of a new job with the added complications of the coronavirus? How would I understand office dynamics or company culture without ever meeting my team face to face? Was I crazy to take on a vital new role in this unprecedented time?

Several months later, we are still working remotely, and the business challenges COVID presents keep coming. From revenue and supply chain issues to managing cash and liquidity positions, I’ve been tested in more ways than ever before. But I also have some key learnings and silver linings to share.

Seek data and increase transparency

COVID-19 changed the way our business operates and our processes needed to adapt and allow for quick decision making in this rapidly changing environment.

To shorten our financial close process, I focused on controlling what I could—and understanding that remote work called for increased transparency. I first tried to understand what the leadership of our business needed from our monthly reports. I asked questions like: Why is this information important to you? What decisions does this information help you make? Understanding how the information is used allowed me to distill the numbers in new ways and feed critical data back to management in a format that both informs and is easy to consume.

Recognizing how the information we produce is used became the foundation of conversations with my new team, and our regular Zoom meetings frequently focused on these high-level perspectives. I relayed to the group what information was getting presented to management and how it was utilized. They began to see how the individual pieces they supply fit into the larger picture.

Surface the stories behind the numbers

Today, with a new understanding of how the information is used, we are changing the way we report information—for example, providing keener insights to where revenue opportunities are greatest, allowing us to accelerate achieving our mission. We have started connecting business activity drivers to our close process and have a much better understanding of our cost structure and what impact COVID has had across the organization. Sharing this information and how it trends allows our operations teams to make better decisions.

Giving the accounting team insights into how the numbers they generate are used by leadership has had an additional benefit: my team now routinely asks questions and looks beyond the numbers to help our team present information in new ways. I have to think we now have a more excited, curious, and engaged workforce that will benefit us far beyond the pandemic.

Automate wherever possible

I am lucky that I joined an organization that has invested in best-in-class technology. I found that the pandemic provides an opportunity to leverage those investments and automate processes even further. Automation gives us the ability to spend less time booking entries and more time looking into the stories behind those numbers.

One downfall of having great technology is that teams expect it to solve all issues. Unfortunately, systems are only as good as the processes that go into them. One of the advantages to working remotely is that we now have more uninterrupted time to get to the root cause of problems. We can step back and ask ourselves: Is this truly a system issue or is there a process that needs to change? We have recently finalized an end-to-end analysis of procure-to-pay and identified changes that will be useful not just for accounting but for the business as a whole. By identifying efficiencies, we are giving time back to the organization.

Reviewing our processes also helped us realize we were still sending paper invoices to customers and paying vendors with manual checks during a time when few people, if any, were in offices to receive them. Focusing on automating these processes has improved our cash flow, and our customers and vendors were more amenable to these changes now than they might otherwise have been.

Though the challenges of starting a new position during a pandemic have been myriad, I wouldn’t change a thing. Adapting the way I work has enabled me to get up-to-speed faster, understand how my team can become more efficient and build a useful, complete picture of our business. This approach of engaging the finance team, even when implemented remotely, allows the company as a whole to become more successful.

The world is changing faster than ever now, with COVID driving some of these changes. Still, we as finance leaders can leverage data to make meaningful changes in advance of oncoming craters or take advantage of the highs of a post-pandemic world.

About the author:

Annie Thompson is controller at CorneaGen, a mission-driven organization devoted to transforming cornea care and eliminating corneal blindness worldwide by 2040.