By creating a strong link between corporate strategy and the finance function, COWI’s CFO Natalie Shaverdian Riise-Knudsen has secured a much broader playing field for her team. It is a natural progression at a time where many companies move from financial steering to value steering – and where talented individuals want to make an impact.
“Very involved”. Natalie Shaverdian Riise-Knudsen puts the emphasis on “very” when she is asked about her involvement with the talent agenda at COWI, the company she joined in September of 2021 as CFO. Since then, COWI has progressed its sustainability programme with the launch of its FUTURE-NOW strategy, an ambitious plan that will eventually see the company abandon projects that rely on fossil fuel and focus instead on green solutions. For COWI’s finance organisation, this new strategy creates a unique opportunity to broaden the scope of its involvement from simply financial steering to value steering, because – as Natalie Shaverdian Riise-Knudsen puts it – who is better and more disciplined with data than Finance?
“If you look at the previous strategy,” she says, “our main aspiration in Finance was to be a trusted partner. That aspiration has not changed; however the scope of our work is now much broader, because we are working not just with financial data, but also with CO2 data and other ESG data. In fact, we are now involved across our business, as a connector, who based on solid data insights safeguard that we create value, both financial and non-financial value. This development is exciting for people in our finance team who want to be part of that journey. They want to work in a company with striking development opportunities and a strong sense of purpose. Our involvement with sustainability is much more than just taking on a new set of tasks, and it is now a prerequisite for attracting talent."
When Natalie Shaverdian Riise-Knudsen and her team were building the new finance strategy, she started focusing on the ‘why’: finding the shared purpose, but also making sure that people could see their own personal journey within it:
“The thing that really enabled us to build a strong finance ambition,” she says, “was taking our time to speak about the ‘why’ before the ‘what’ and ‘how’. We wanted to show people the impact of our efforts, and we wanted us to connect the dots to FUTURE-NOW. It is not only about communication; it is also about leadership, because people follow good leaders. I want all my leaders to walk the talk, and lead with authenticity and determination.”
Fishing in the same pool
Being a ‘people business’, attracting and retaining employees with the right skills – and ensuring that each of us is the best version of ourselves – is essential to COWI and a top strategic priority across the company. Today, however, even well-known companies have to step up their game to attract and develop talent. According to Natalie Shaverdian Riise-Knudsen:
“When I started my career, people felt lucky if they got an interview with a well-known company. Today, that has totally changed. We are now the ones who have to be on our toes, because we are all fishing for talent in the same pool. As a company, it forces us to differentiate ourselves, have a meaningful purpose, give people opportunities and flexibility – and create an environment where they want to stay. That is actually a good development! It is a people’s market, and I love it.”
Attracting talent is one thing; developing individuals is another, and Natalie Shaverdian Riise-Knudsen is well aware that COWI’s finance organisation has to be a place where people can build their careers:
“Developing talent is much more than performing a yearly review. It has to be a part of our daily work. One of the things we have done at COWI is to challenge ourselves constantly when positions are open: do we already have someone who is ready for the job? Someone who is looking for a career opportunity? Are there some who might not tick all the boxes, but who are willing to learn and have the right growth mindset? This dialogue has to happen all the time, so we keep our employees curious and engaged.”
And it is not just about catering to a new generation, as Natalie Shaverdian Riise-Knudsen points out. Older people have the same desire for flexibility and new ways of working, even if they were once used to something else:
“Young talent might demand flexibility, but experienced employees also want to leave traditional nine-to-five jobs. They do not want to work with the same things year after year: they want to have a life outside work, and they want to work with something that is meaningful. What is more, they expect that we, as leaders, are open to new ways for delivering work. An example of this happens when some of our colleagues ask to work remotely from other countries. That I am a big fan of this, and each year we allow about 50 people in COWI to do this.”
CFOs need to step up
Are Danish CFOs in general good enough at making the finance function attractive as a career, and thus winning the race for talent? Some are, says Natalie Shaverdian Riise-Knudsen, but many could do better at showing the full spectrum of opportunities in Finance:
“In general, I think we as CFOs could be much better at communicating the broad scope of finance, not just what people think of as the traditional finance function. Luckily, I see that many CFOs are now building a much stronger connection with the CHRO to boost the people agenda in Finance and to find new ways of nurturing talent.”
And new talent is needed if you want to build a modern, sustainability-focused and purpose-driven finance organisation. According to Natalie Shaverdian Riise-Knudsen:
“Just within the last 18 months in COWI, we have welcomed many new employees in Finance with completely different skillsets and backgrounds. Of course we are still focusing on hard core finance skills and traditional finance tasks, but bringing in new people has certainly helped us to expand our horizons. Remember, we have just done our first ever integrated financial and ESG report, which is something that requires a huge amount of collaboration and transparency – with Finance as the ‘connector’ and proponent of data integrity and accuracy.”
Looking ahead, Natalie Shaverdian Riise-Knudsen still wants to promote the talent agenda in her finance organisation in COWI, especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion:
“In many ways, I think we have become a much more diverse company in terms of both background and capabilities, but we need to speed up the inclusion part, because if you are not including different mind-sets in your decision-making processes and decision forums, you are not getting the full value from diversity. To me, the inclusion part is where the rubber hits the road, and where you prove to your employees that you are in fact willing to listen and challenge yourself by embracing people’s differences. That is something we in the executive leadership team are already working on – and we will do much more in the years to come.”
Three pieces of advice from Natalie Shaverdian Riise-Knudsen
- Do not underestimate the power of communicating passionately the ‘why’, and what is in it for your people. And when you do communicate, be authentic, show people that you believe in your own vision.
- Spend more time on leadership development, and make sure that your leaders have both the right capabilities and the personality to create followership among your employees.
- Enjoy the process, not just the end result. Everyone wants to have fun and celebrate milestones. As a CFO you are part of creating an engaging, inspiring and purposeful culture in Finance.
Kim Hendil Tegner
Partner and CFO Programme Leader
+45 30 93 64 46