This article was written by Gainsight CFO Alka Tandan and originally published in Forbes.
Once, finance leaders had a simple mandate: Keep the books up to date, make sure the numbers add up, and track where the money flows. That changed over time, and finance now anchors every aspect of the organization in actionable analytics. By necessity, financial leaders have evolved into “strategic CFOs,” using new data tools to guide growth.
Today, financial leadership is transforming once again. Amid an economic slowdown and renewed emphasis on profitability, it’s become apparent that companies need not just strategic solutions but also new ways of managing and supporting people. This is an area where CFOs can play a vital role.
Gainsight CEO Nick Mehta champions a concept known as “human-first leadership.” As he explains it, the key to winning in business is simply to be human, communicate openly, and treat those around you with compassion and respect.
In recent months, I’ve realized that to overcome the challenges we now face, we need a new evolution in financial leadership: the rise of the human-first CFO.
Put People First
First things first: What is human-first leadership? It means recognizing that a company is an ecosystem, not a machine. The people around you aren’t interchangeable cogs: They’re human beings, with perspectives and priorities, and problems that are uniquely their own.
The human-first CFO recognizes that while numbers matter, it’s also vital to optimize for emotional intelligence, culture, and collaboration. Treat those around you—employees, customers, peers, bosses—as mere automatons, and they’ll never become more than the sum of their parts. Treat them with empathy, respect, and trust, and you’ll help drive better results for everyone.
Here are six things I’ve learned about how CFOs can implement human-first leadership:
1. Look in the mirror.
The journey starts with understanding where you are right now. Does the team take into account both the numbers and people’s livelihoods? Is empathy seen as a sign of strength?
There’s a way to look at the company and its employees as a whole organism instead of just parts. New leaders can bring an outside perspective to position their team on this track. And established leaders can also hit the reset button—using self-reflection to push for change.
2. Lead by example.
I’ll never forget taking a one-on-one walking meeting with our CEO where we were discussing strategy. I was having a rough day and had a lot on my mind in my personal life. He asked me several questions, and I finally looked at him and said: “I’m sorry. It’s been quite a day. Do you mind if we continue this later?” Gracious as ever, he obliged. I came home and sent him a text thanking him but also letting him know I felt bad. I’ll never forget his text back to me. It simply said, “The human part of you is the best part of you.”
He gave me a lot that day. He accepted my moment of vulnerability. In turn, I’ve been able to use his example to do the same and encourage emotional bravery. And the whole team is better for it.
3. Give more to get more.
Human-first leadership starts with recognizing that leadership isn’t a zero-sum game. Your goal isn’t to grind the most possible out of your employees; it’s to drive success by helping them achieve their potential in ways that are sustainable and rewarding for them.
We try to implement policies that recognize human needs: For instance, kids are always welcome on our Zoom calls as many of us work from home, and C-level leaders regularly hold casual ask-me-anything drop-ins. Remember: The more you give, the more you’ll get back.
4. Keep talking.
As human-first leaders, we need to lean into our role as communicators, especially in the current climate where there’s so much uncertainty and confusion.
This might mean setting up workshops to educate your employees about the current economic environment or making yourself available to listen to people’s concerns and fears. Either way, the goal is to actively engage with people around you and use your expertise to support their needs.
5. Find win-win solutions.
Human-first leadership means listening to those around you, valuing their perspectives, and seeking paths to win-win solutions. That might sound strange to CFOs used to thinking in terms of profit-and-loss calculations, but it’s almost always possible to look beyond zero-sum scenarios and find ways that respect everyone’s needs.
At our company, we created a “Deal Desk Council” to bring Sales teams around the table with Marketing, Product, Customer Success, and Finance leaders, and build consensus around key decisions. We achieve alignment because purposeful communication allows us to grasp how any given decision impacts other teams across the organization. And the increased empathy fuels teamwork across the company.
6. Don’t try to make everyone happy.
We listen to everyone, but we know we won’t be able to say yes to everyone. Your core responsibility is to balance the books while guiding growth, and the Human-First approach doesn’t change that. It just gives you a fresh perspective and a new toolkit to drive durable growth.
In these economic times where every dollar counts, we know we won’t be able to please every one of our employees—but we can be honest, transparent, and upfront about where we are as a business. And we can show we care about employees in cost-effective ways.
A Mission-Critical Capability
The more we lean into our roles as strategic financial leaders, the more we also need to cultivate our ability to understand, compassionately communicate with, and inspire the people whose performance determines whether our companies succeed or fail.
After all, the numbers ultimately represent work done by real human beings. If our teams aren’t happy and productive, we’ll see that reflected in KPIs and business outcomes—and we’ll struggle to show our CEOs, Directors, and Investors the bottom-line results we’re tasked with delivering.
For today’s CFOs, Human-First leadership is no longer optional. Putting people first is a must-have as we work to drive strategic growth and enduring success—for ourselves, our employees, and our organizations.
Ready to embrace a Human-First approach to business, and enjoy moments of childlike joy while you’re at it? Hear more from Gainsight Executives and customer success industry leaders at our one-of-a-kind conference Pulse San Francisco.