Workday: CFO / CIO Partnership for Business Agility

Successful relationships between Chief Financial Officers and Chief Information Officers can drive business transformation, innovation, and agility. To learn more, we spoke with the CIO and CFO of cloud computing leader, Workday, to explore their relationship and role.


Dec 04, 2020

Successful relationships between Chief Financial Officers and Chief Information Officers can drive business transformation, innovation, and agility. To learn more, we spoke with the CIO and CFO of cloud computing leader, Workday, to explore their relationship and role.

Robynne Sisco is President and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) at Workday and oversees the company’s finance, investor relations, legal, and procurement organizations.

Sheri Rhodes is Workday’s Chief Information Officer (CIO), where she oversees the company’s global information technology organization, with responsibility for the internal deployment of Workday products.

This conversation included these topics:


Michael Krigsman: We're talking about the relationship between the chief information officer and the chief financial officer. Robynne Sisco is the chief financial officer at Workday and her counterpart is Sheri Rhodes, who is the chief information officer at Workday. Robynne, it's great to see you again.

Robynne Sisco: It's great to see you too, Michael. Thanks for having us today.

Michael Krigsman: Robynne, you're CFO at Workday. Tell us about your role and the scope of your activities and responsibilities.

Robynne Sisco: As CFO, I'm responsible for all of the accounting, FP&A, tax, treasury, internal audit, procurement, as well as the legal function here at Workday.

Michael Krigsman: Sheri, it's great to meet you. Tell us about your role as CIO.

Sheri Rhodes: Nice meeting you as well. At Workday, I actually lead the global business technology function, which includes managing internal Workday solutions for our business as well as leading architecture, transformational efforts, and really driving a better and amazing Workday experience.

CIO / CFO collaboration

Michael Krigsman: Robynne, this relationship between the CIO and CFO has become extremely important. Why is it so important and, also, how has it changed and evolved over time?

Robynne Sisco: At the very base level, it's about the finance and IT organizations coming together to support the strategic objectives of the company, and so a strong relationship between the CFO and the CIO will actually build the foundation for companies to innovate and to grow. That becomes critically important, particularly in a world that's changing as fast as it is today. We are seeing that relationship continuously evolve.

On top of that, Sheri and I are each other's customers internally. I rely on her to run the finance organization. When business is moving at a faster pace and you have to react faster, then that relationship becomes even more important than it ever has been.

Sheri Rhodes: I think, historically, in the past, it was probably more of a supporting, more of a static role, but we're in a much different situation with technology evolving, with the accessibility of data. With data being so prevalent and so available, things move quickly. Robynne and I, on a continuous basis, are exchanging ideas, working on new initiatives, and so it's just a much more collaborative, ongoing, iterative exchange.

Michael Krigsman: When you talk about collaboration, can you give us an example of how that might work, bringing in both the IT side and the CFO side?

Robynne Sisco: I'll give you a quick example of something that we worked on right when the COVID crisis hit. Sheri's team was able to support my team by writing, very quickly, a new report that allowed us to look at our accounts receivable by customer industry.

As all of you know, the impact of COVID has really varied on different companies based on what industry they're in. What that allowed us to do is really proactively manage our risk on our AR balance by taking a different approach to our collections based on the industry of the customer.

Michael Krigsman: I'm wondering. Where does, again, the relationship between CIO and CFO come into play to make that kind of rapid and, hopefully, seamless transition work?

Sheri Rhodes: I would say, in terms of just how often and how we meet as a company, we're always aligning our strategic objectives to make sure that we're centered on the right priorities. Robynne and I frequently, to make sure we make the right tradeoffs, are always aligning those decisions that we have against those broader objectives.

Aligning CFO activities with business processes and requirements

Michael Krigsman: Robynne, how do you engage with the rest of the business so that what you do aligns with what the business requires?

Robynne Sisco: We have OKRs, or objectives and key results, that we set on a company-wide basis. We make sure that everything we're doing ties into those OKRs. But it's really a continual conversation. We have lots of collaboration at the executive level and all the way down through the chain to make sure that we are making the right investments.

We need to be able to pivot quickly now because the future is so uncertain and we're not sure what's going to happen. The communication between my team, Sheri's team, and all the other business leaders is even more important now than ever because we don't want to make these decisions in a vacuum and information is changing really quickly. We have really strengthened those bonds with the business so that we can make sure we know what's going on as the priorities shift, as they invariably will, particularly during times like this, so that we can adjust very, very quickly to continue to support the business in the way that they need.

Business agility and the CIO

Michael Krigsman: Sheri, I think that this translates into this notion of agility that we were talking about earlier. What is the role of IT in enabling this?

Sheri Rhodes: Agility is core. If we're not agile at our practices and our organization, then the business can't be agile either. We don't want to be an impediment, making sure that we can reach our business goals.

If we look at COVID and the situation in terms of we were in, just an example, we moved to a virtual close. We're fortunate because most of our ecosystem is in the cloud.

It really enabled that, but there were still other activities that we wanted to enable for the finance team, certain tools so that they could access them more quickly. We've put together a hyper-care team to make sure that if there are any issues that arose. We did that within hours and days to make sure that we had the right support structure in place.

Michael Krigsman: Do you think explicitly, inside IT, about this notion of agility and being really responsive really quickly?

Sheri Rhodes: We do. It's a cornerstone in terms of how we need to operate, the velocity that we need to provide, just how we turn things around. The tools and people are so dependent on their technology today that if we don't think that way, we could definitely a be a roadblock, so we want to make sure that we're keeping pace with the business.

Michael Krigsman: Sheri, when products begin, they may be technology projects or maybe not technology projects. At what point is IT brought in?

Sheri Rhodes: Yeah, so IT is brought in on a project from the beginning because, especially in terms of understanding the business context, what problems we're solving for, what challenges, that we can really iterate the solution set around the problem statement. We're really good as a team in terms of bringing the right people to the table to have different perspectives.

A lot of times, the technology can be a quick advancer and can advance something much faster than maybe waiting until full requirements are written. We try to be much more iterative in terms of how we engage.

Financial planning and business agility

Michael Krigsman: The need for planning, the need to be responsive to internal customers, the need to be responsive to your customers and other stakeholders translates to this expectation, I think we could say, that you are going to be fast, namely agile and responsive. How has this changing environment that we're in had an impact on how you do planning and how you think about that agility and responsiveness?

Robynne Sisco: It's had a significant impact on the way we do planning. Interestingly enough, one of the things we're facing right now is that the past is no longer a good predictor of the future and the future is uncertain. What we're finding is, we have to model a wider range of scenarios using a lot more variables than we've ever had to do before because the range of outcomes is wider than it's ever been. It's really important that we understand those ranges and what are the things that will impact the outcomes that we're looking for.

Additionally, we're doing continuous planning now. It was something that we had aspired to do before but we had never really gotten there. Now, we're continuously planning, so we don't just wait for a month to close. We update numbers. We update the forecast. We are taking every single piece of real-time information and pumping that back into the forecast so we have a continuous cycle of forecasting going on throughout the business and we have all of the inputs that we need on a continuous basis.

The last thing that we're doing is we're planning over a longer time horizon because decisions that we make this year may actually not impact us this year but they may impact us next year or the year after. We want to make sure that we understand the long-term implications of any decision that we're making. To do all this, you need real-time data and you need the right tools.

Michael Krigsman: Sheri, it sounds like you work with Robynne's team when it comes to the financial and investment planning aspects of IT operations.

Sheri Rhodes: That's right. A good example of that, we kicked off a big digital initiative which is around our customer journey, all of the digital touchpoints, and how can we really improve that experience. Robynne's team was involved more than just, do we have the right ROI. But as we looked at the project and kind of broke apart how we could deliver value continuously throughout the lifecycle, her team was helping us to articulate that value, which is really important in terms of, are we making the right decisions and the right priorities as a company.

CIO and IT alignment with business needs

Michael Krigsman: Sheri, we addressed this a little bit with Robynne earlier, but how do you ensure that your IT planning, your IT investments, you're looking out into the future is fully aligned with what the company needs today?

Sheri Rhodes: I think we all have cautious optimism and we want to make sure we still fund the big bets. As Robynne mentioned, we have the key objectives, key results that we align to as a company.

I make sure that we're aligned from a planning perspective, from an initiative standpoint, to those key objectives, and that it's helping us to progress. Some things we might slow down, some things we might stop, but some things we accelerate because it makes sense given the current situation, the current global economy.

Michael Krigsman: You have a set of broader corporate agenda items and then you each align your organization to those objectives.

Sheri Rhodes: Exactly.

Michael Krigsman: Robynne, what kind of planning tools and techniques do you use in finance?

Robynne Sisco: Currently, we use Workday Adaptive Planning, which is a great modeling tool for us. It allows us to capture all of the different scenarios within a single system. Then we can report off them together.

We also use Workday Financials for our GL and other financial systems. We have a single system, really, that captures both the actuals and the plan, which allows us to do that really quick iteration of planning I was talking about before in taking the real-time actuals that continuously update every minute of every day based on what's happening and push those into the planning process so that we get early warning signs, frankly, if something is going wrong. It's really critical to have the right tools because, in a world that's changing this fast, spreadsheets just aren't going to do it for you.

Challenges to iterative and dynamic financial planning

Michael Krigsman: Are there obstacles or challenges, especially today, that inhibit your ability to do iterative planning, dynamic planning right now?

Robynne Sisco: I think, for most companies, it really comes down to having real-time data and having the right modeling tools to be able to do that continuous forecasting. One of the things we're seeing, actually, is an increased interest from companies in investing in the right tools in this area. A lot of companies who are stuck on old technology and not able to respond as quickly, they are starting to look at what it means for them to shift to modern technologies so that they can make faster, better decisions and understand the range of outcomes.

Michael Krigsman: Very briefly, just drill down into that. Give us an example of where modern technology just makes it easier to do this kind of planning.

Robynne Sisco: We have a system that can deliver real-time data. Any minute of any day, we can see exactly what's going on in the company. If you compare that to an older legacy system where you can't get any information until you get to the end of the month and you close the books, then you spend a week or sometimes more getting that information out into the business and into the hands of the people that need to make decisions about their plan and about their budget. By the time they actually get that information, it's stale and they're making bad decisions.

If you can have the tools that capture the real-time data and you can deliver it to the business leaders right within the technology, then finance no longer becomes a bottleneck. When that happens, you can focus your financial resources on analysis, on providing insights, on really understanding all of the key things that impact your business and what those likely outcomes are.

CFO / CIO partnership for innovation

Michael Krigsman: Let's shift gears and talk about innovation. How can IT and finance work together to support the innovation goals of the company, in this case, Workday?

Sheri Rhodes: For us, it's really about building the processes and the practices to allow that. To me, for technology, it's around building a nimble architecture, one that can pivot, can react, and we can build things quickly. Really having that flexibility in the architecture to be able to respond faster, to demonstrate value faster, all have to be top of mind.

Robynne Sisco: One of the things that finance can do to help innovation as well, in addition to that is, if we make our back-office processes really easy for our employees, then they can spend less time doing administrative work and more time actually innovating and doing the things that we hired them to do. Having really good systems that have easy processes attached to them for our employees to be able to change a payroll election, get expense reimbursement, or request time off in seconds, then they have more time to innovate. Part of our goal, Sheri and I share these goals, is to make the rest of the company more efficient and to have the rest of the company spend less time worrying about things like IT and financial processes.

Measurement and metrics for innovation

Michael Krigsman: Sheri, how do you think about measuring the business impact of the investments in innovation?

Sheri Rhodes: I think it's really important to think past what maybe historically it's not just about delivering the innovation. It's about how the innovation is going to be adopted, how quickly can it be consumed.

To me, the metrics are really important in terms of driving a different view. It could be efficiency metrics if it's innovation around how we do our jobs better, kind of the small innovation that funds the big innovation.

If we go back to the example I gave around the work on the customer journey and how we change those digital touchpoints, we want it to be frictionless or as frictionless as possible so that we have happier customers that result in better retention. It all flows together.

Michael Krigsman: Are there metrics that are shared across both IT and finance? Usually, we think of these two as being so separate.

Robynne Sisco: Some of the metrics that Sheri and I share really tie to how we support the whole organization. When I talked about efficiency metrics becoming more important, it's not just her team's efficiency or my team's efficiency. It's how her and my teams are enabling the rest of the business to become more efficient so that we can do more with the headcount that we have today.

IT as a strategic innovation partner

Michael Krigsman: How much of this has to do with the culture inside the company accepting IT as that strategic innovation partner role?

Sheri Rhodes: Workday is known for its culture and really that collaboration, inviting all of the key stakeholders, including IT, to the table to come up with the best solution, put our best foot forward so that we can make the employees happy, we can make our customers happy, we can make our shareholders happy.

Robynne Sisco: I think one of the interesting dynamics here at Workday that you don't necessarily get at every company is, because we're running on our own systems, finance who operates and does their jobs on those systems, Sheri's team that supports those systems, we become more strategic to the business than in a lot of other types of companies. That really lends us a seat at the table.

We both actually work closer with our development and product organization. We get feedback on our products. We help design new features and help test new features. We've got a really special relationship here at Workday because of the nature of what we do.

Advice for building the CIO / CFO relationship

Michael Krigsman: I'm sure there are people who are watching this who are saying, "Yeah, this is pretty interesting, the CIO and CFO working so closely together." What advice do you have for folks who want to have this kind of really highly collaborative relationship?

Sheri Rhodes: I think it starts from thinking like a general manager. You're responsible for all facets of success of a particular organization or function. If you have that broad mindset and you're thinking about different perspectives, different ways to evaluate or view the problem, so you come to a more effective solution for all.

Robynne Sisco: I would just add to that. Take the time to understand each other's business. Take the time. If you're in finance, take the time to understand IT, what challenges they're facing. IT, take the time to understand finance and that organization. Then come up with shared goals because, if you have shared goals and shared metrics, that's really going to drive a very deep level of collaboration.

Michael Krigsman: Workday is a very customer-focused company and so, to what extent are your shared goals related to customer satisfaction, customer delight, external oriented, outside-in focus points?

Robynne Sisco: Sheri and I engage in sales cycles with prospects. We engage with existing customers. We try new things on our own products that a lot of companies wouldn't necessarily try. Sometimes they work great. We pass that along to our customers. Sometimes we learn from them. We pass that along too. We have a level of engagement outside of the company that's fairly unusual for finance and IT.

Michael Krigsman: Given everything that we've talked about and everything that you both know in your lives, [laughter] what is the kind of tweet-sized summary of advice that you would give to business leaders who are saying, "Yeah, we need to work together in this way," and also acknowledging the challenges that come up?

Sheri Rhodes: Robynne said earlier, you've got to be able to understand the business context, live in that person's shoes, kind of understand the blind spots, and you have to really be able to be ready to soak that in and help solve the problems.

Robynne Sisco: I would point to shared goals because any time you have shared goals and shared metrics, it's going to force that collaboration and bring the two teams closer together.

Michael Krigsman: Robynne Sisco and Sheri Rhodes, thank you both so much.

Robynne Sisco: Thank you, Michael.

Sheri Rhodes: Thank you.

Published Date: Dec 04, 2020

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 682