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Episode Summary

Now CFO of affiliate marketing network Awin, Virpy Richter has never been the kind of finance professional who prefers to hide in a corner with her spreadsheets. Not only has she worked all over Europe, for startups and big companies, she’s also held positions in human resources and legal departments.

This varied career has given Virpy valuable experiences she might otherwise never have had — experiences that shape how she operates today.

For example, when German native Virpy was sent to work in her then-employer’s Netherlands branch, she had to polish her international diplomacy. The manager she was sent to help saw her as a spy rather than an aide. Virpy’s strategy of being direct with her team, and her commitment to learning fluent Dutch (with some “funny mistakes” in the beginning), proved that she was there to support and empower them, not to take over.

Diving into a different culture also showed Virpy the importance of local knowledge, especially in companies with a global reach. Understanding the similarities and differences between how things work in other countries underscored for her the value of adapting to an environment, while also standardizing frameworks and processes for the sake of efficiency.

Far from stymying her financial career, these international insights into workplace culture make Virpy more qualified to hold the CFO spot. As she argues, CFOs today need to think more like business partners than number-crunchers if they want to claim a seat in the C-suite.

On this episode of The CFO Playbook, Virpy explains the challenges and benefits of parachuting into a foreign workplace, why CFOs need to embrace technology for the sake of their employees and how Awin is rethinking its approach to work-life balance.

Guest Analysis

Name: Virpy Richter

What she does: Virpy is CFO at global affiliate marketing network Awin. She’s worked across Europe throughout her career, spending time in the Netherlands, France and Russia. In addition to financial roles, Virpy has worked in legal, human resources and international expansion.

Key Quote: “I’ve always had a broader view than perhaps you classically would have defined for a CFO 20 years ago, when a CFO was limited to accounting, controlling, taxes and didn’t dare to speak about anything else. This has never been my role.”              

Where to find Virpy: LinkedIn

From Virpy’s Playbook

Balance local needs with the efficiency of standardization.

Working in multiple countries means developing an appreciation of the differences between cultures. At the same time, you still need to standardize some aspects. For example, from the finance point of view, you must make sure everyone is using the same definitions when determining KPIs. Otherwise, you’ll waste time every meeting digging through exactly what this particular set of figures means — and you won’t be able to quickly and easily compare results across regions.

Embrace technology for the sake of efficiency and your workers’ happiness.

Piling your workers’ to-do lists with menial tasks draws their attention and productivity from work that could directly contribute to the business — and it probably doesn’t fill them with joyful anticipation on Monday mornings! Find tools that can be used across the organization (for the sake of standardization), and which streamline processes that are distracting your workforce from their real jobs. For example, project management tools like Asana (Virpy’s recommendation) make assigning and tracking tasks easy, no matter where your employees are.

Today’s best CFOs operate as business partners.

An affinity for numbers and tax codes is no longer enough to score a CFO position. Virpy says that today, the best CFOs are the ones who go beyond reporting the figures, providing analysis on what they mean on the business end, and recommendations to go with it. For example, as many industries shift toward digitalization, CFOs should recommend updated financial KPIs that better suit those changes, and research tools that can deliver the required data.

COVID has accelerated the need for better work-life balance.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the boundaries between work and home for many people, Awin was looking at improving its employees’ work/life balance. The pandemic accelerated that plan. Now, employees can work remotely with flexible hours that suit them. Over the last year, Awin also introduced the four-and-a-half-day work week (without reducing pay), and it’s working on moving to four days. To help employees make the change, they invested in ways to make work more efficient, including technical tools but also more simplistic methods such as reviewing meeting structures. Virpy says that it’s still a work in progress, but from the finance point of view, productivity is the same or better.

Episode Highlights

Discovering in translation

“I have the chance to speak some other languages with different colleagues in different teams, and it’s always the icebreaker. Even if it’s not fluent, you made some effort, and that helps to get into a completely different level in the conversation. Then it’s trying to understand more of the background. Why is the business developing in a certain direction? It’s a different way of approaching people. I would totally agree that analytically is one [way to do it] but you also need to take the different setups into consideration, as well as the different perception of the business and different procedures.”

Navigating international relations

“Coming from the headquarters and being sent to a local company — let’s say I wasn’t welcomed by the manager there. He felt like, ‘There’s the spy entering.’ My introduction was not, ‘This is your new commercial director.’ It was more like, ‘She’s coming over from Berlin: Be nice to her, invite her to dinner, and then she might go away quickly.’ It was not the perfect setup you could have for your first leadership role. … Nowadays I perhaps might tackle that differently, but at that time I went for a very straightforward conversation, trying to liaise with the people, … [telling them:] ‘Even though there might be a different setup in place right now, this is what we need to do, and we should align on a common perspective.’”

Embrace cultural differences but standardize where you can

“There should be a standard report, standard KPIs. They should follow the same definitions, and then you could have a different interpretation or background on them. But it needs to be standardized, for different reasons. It wouldn’t be very efficient to use different tools everywhere. As a global business, we like to compare developments and numbers, and therefore you need to rely on the same definitions of KPIs, for instance. … There has been a huge effort we have put into standardizing. That’s very important, but still giving the room in certain ends where it needs to have the local understanding.”

The four-day work week experiment

“In April 2020, we started to introduce the four-and-a-half-day week to respond to the double challenge of homeschooling or taking care of any elderly people of the family. We had a great experience with this first trial period. All our clients were totally happy. We had team members who were quite happy about that change. In terms of our productivity KPIs, we haven’t seen anything fall behind. So we are now in our six-month pilot phase of the introduction of our four-day week.”

Winning over the skeptics through best case examples

“It would not be honest to say that we only have people who jumped on board with everything. But we’ve worked a lot with best cases —  with colleagues who shared their successes and how they approached it. As we’ve heard these, the ones who might’ve been a little more skeptical in the beginning felt, ‘Perhaps I should also look at this from a different perspective.’”

Should that meeting have been an email?

“We’ve looked into how to organize, reviewing meeting policy. Is it really necessary to have everyone in there? Virtually it’s so easy: you just add people, they don’t need to travel: but is that really efficient? Is one hour the right meeting time? Our CEO has cut every meeting down to 30 minutes. He said that if you’re not able to put your message into 30 minutes, you need to rethink. Everyone needs to find what’s the right calibration.”

Make your humans happy by having a machine do boring work

“As a human being, it’s great if you can build something new, if you can add value to something, and not be kept to a repetitive task. If you can, have some smarter ways of working and get that done by a computer or an algorithm, whatever it is, and spend your time really delivering value to the business, to your customer, to the process, to your internal customer, no matter who it is. I think that’s always much more fulfilling, which also ties into am I happy with my job? It’s a well-being aspect.”

Agility training in the finance department

“One of our focus areas is the agile methodology. … Let’s get a better understanding within our finance culture: Let’s understand where it makes sense. I don’t think the point is to use it for the sake of using it, but finding the right application fields or projects. How can we learn from that? How can we take elements, like doing a post-mortem on a project, and stuff like that? So we are trying to pick the right elements for us, and trying to bring that into the finance world.”

Top quotes:

“I always found the combination of a business view and translating that into numbers to be fascinating.”

“As a CFO looking at the numbers [from the four-day work week trial], everything we’ve seen so far in our pilot run is pointing in the right direction. We see the same or even increased productivity. … And we’re really happy that the team has come with us with that same enthusiasm.”

“We’ve looked at how we can automate, how we can be more efficient in meetings, in order to support the employees from one end. It’s also a change of mindset. Change can be a difficult animal, so we felt that there was some support needed there.”

“Work-life balance has always been a huge focus within our culture, so we already had a team that was ready for that. And with a global setup, we were much more used to virtual work, and not being able to have everyone physically present. So that might have been a beneficial starting point, if you compare that to other companies.”

“CFOs need an entrepreneurial way of thinking, which is really adding value to the business from an analytical numbers perspective.”

“The picture of the CFO 20 years ago might’ve been someone number-crunching, not very talkative, somewhere in the corner. Being a CFO, I’m allowed to say that! This has changed nowadays.”