#336: Closing Digital Finance Capability Gaps with Himashi Soriano

#336: Closing Digital Finance Capability Gaps with Himashi Soriano

Our Guest Mentor: 

HIMASHI SORIANO is the Managing Director, APAC at Association for Financial Professionals (AFP), where she oversees operations, builds customer relationships and develops partnerships within the Asia-Pacific region. Her focus is on helping organisations transform the way they engage and train their finance and treasury staff.   

Key Quotes from the Episode: 

[On digital finance skills] “Essentially, you have to know the right questions to ask, where to find the answers and understand the nuances, as well, because as we know, not everything is black or white.” [9:47] 

[On finance education] “Education, it’s a continuous journey. And finance leaders should really cultivate the environment where that’s expected. One way to do that is providing a finance training program for their teams.” [11:25] 

[On creating an environment for growth] “In other ways, our finance leaders could create an environment for growth. Good leaders ask a lot of questions to their teams, creating the expectation that questions are encouraged.” [11:58] 

[On upskilling] “So at the end of the day, when organizations encourage their teams to upskill, and more importantly, make upskill part of advancement, they open the door to more innovation, collaboration. They give their teams more purpose and get far more productivity than they would by just giving them orders to execute, all important factors in the transformation journey.” [13:08] 

[On professional growth] “You may have crossed the ocean to get to land but once you’re on land, that boat is no longer useful. So what new tools and skills do you need to reflect and use to your new destination?” [16:56] 

Key Points from the Episode: 

  • The importance of upskilling and education 
  • The objectives of the Association for Financial Professionals (AFP) 
  • The advantages of an FP&A certification and training 
  • The key capability gaps in digital finance  
  • The role of a finance professional in the digital age 

Stamped Show Notes 

[01:19] Himashi shares where she started in her career and how she got to where she is right now. 

[05:45] Himashi elaborates further on the FP&A Certification and how AFP helps organizations transform the way they engage and train their staff. 

[08:07] Himashi talks about digitalization as a key capability gap. 

[11:11] Himashi tells us how AFP supports the profession in closing digital finance capability gaps. 

[14:26] Himashi explains from a business value creation perspective how a successful accounting and finance transformation can better support business stakeholders from customers to partners. 

[16:35] Himashi talks about the book that helped her grow professionally. 

[17:42] What success looks like for Himashi and the people that come to mind when talking about success. 

[18:52] Himashi mentions her contact details. 

Resources Mentioned: 

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful, February 22, 2007 by Marshall Goldsmith (Author), Mark Reiter (Author) 

Connect with today’s guest: 

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/himashi-soriano-mba-b8500a8/   

E-mail: hksoriano@afponline.org  

Complete transcript: 

#336: Closing Digital Finance Capability Gaps with Himashi Soriano 

[00:00:30]Wei Chien: [00:00:30] Himashi Soriano is the managing director at Association for Financial Professionals, the AFP here in Asia Pacific. AFP is committed to advancing the success of corporate finance and treasury professionals worldwide. Himashi is tasked to help organization in the Asia Pacific region transform the way they engage and train the finance and treasury staff. 

[00:00:56] She moved to Singapore in 2019. AFP and our Strength In The Numbers shows share consistent perspective on the need of change to the traditional accounting and finance function. Therefore, we are very happy to have Himashi joining us today on the show on what AFP is doing in this space in terms of driving some of the changes and helping to close some of the capability gaps that we are noticing across the profession here in Asia Pacific as well. So welcome, Himashi.  

[00:01:29] Himashi: [00:01:29] Thank you so much. It’s so great to be here and thank you so much for the opportunity.  

[00:01:33]Wei Chien: [00:01:33] It is a pleasure to have you here, Himashi.  Maybe as a start, our audience like to get to know a little bit more about your story. 

[00:01:41] Where did you start your career and how did you get to where you are right now? And in Singapore?  

[00:01:46] Himashi: [00:01:46] Yeah, sure. So I started my career in corporate marketing and then moved over to the association, not-for-profit space. I stayed in marketing for many years because it was what I knew. It felt safe. And there was not many opportunities to advance so I did what many people in my position do and that was get more education.  

[00:02:07] So I earned an MBA from Johns Hopkins University, and I think my biggest takeaway from that experience was learning to step out of my comfort zone. The MBA did a lot of that. 

[00:02:19]There was a lot of public speaking which I was never really comfortable with. A lot of projects that required working in teams and collaborating. And I gained a great deal of technical knowledge but the program made it safe to take risks and develop soft skills and confidence that I really needed to move forward in my career. 

[00:02:39]Around 2014 or so, I approached a senior member of my organization and expressed my interest in other opportunities outside of marketing. I wanted to do something different. I didn’t really want to leave the organization in order to do it so that’s when I made the jump from marketing to business development and sales. 

[00:02:56] And I have to say that upskilling, getting my MBA really gave me the confidence and definitely the credibility to not only bring us up to a top executive but also take on new responsibilities of leading, and building a new business development team as well. So not only was I building the team, I was also a part of the team developing the entire strategy for our newly formed sales division and how we would grow the FP&A certification and training in the US and eventually globally. 

[00:03:29] So the part of your question that asked how I got to where I am,  I’ve already answered. First, I got an education that aligned with where I wanted to go. I acquire the skills I needed to advance. Second, I took risks and I also had a boss and team that really believed in me. 

[00:03:45] And third, I have a really supportive family. My children were born in 2012 and 2015, and my husband stayed home with them so I can move forward in my career. By the way, my husband and I earned our MBAs together, so it was definitely not an easy choice for our family.  

[00:04:02]To explain how I moved to Asia from the US a few years back, I approached my manager about the next step in my career, and the issue of travel and be more client-facing came up as a path for advancement. My manager didn’t really want to push that on me knowing that I had two young children at home. So when I talked to my husband about it, he said now is the perfect time since he was home with our girls, and once he returned to work, our schedules might not allow for that flexibility. 

[00:04:30] So I went back to my manager and said I was in. Both my husband and I thought that travel would mean regional travel in the US but my first trip was Hong Kong. And from that moment, 18 months of travel, I never took a trip that was not in Asia. So not soon after I returned from the initial Hong Kong trip, that the idea of opening an office in Asia came up, and I stepped forward to do it. 

[00:04:56] And so here we are. If he opened our APAC office in Singapore in 2019, and I have not looked back. So that is my story.  

[00:05:08] Wei Chien: [00:05:08] Wow, a fascinating story.  Some of the key message that I get from your journey on stepping out from your comfort zone, taking risks, up-skilling yourself. These are some of the elements that the finance professional definitely needs at this juncture as well to be future ready. Very good advice in terms of how do you progress and how do you take charge as well in terms of your career. You actually proactively plan for the whole thing, as much as it may not. 

[00:05:41] Himashi: [00:05:41] Some of it was luck. Some of it was. Yeah.  

[00:05:46] Wei Chien: [00:05:46] Yeah. It’s a combination of both. You definitely need that. . So AFP, you talk about Hong Kong, you talk about the new office that’s been set up in 2019, so very exciting.  

[00:05:56] And, if you can describe to us, how does AFP helps organizations transform the way they engage and train their staff, especially the finance and accounting staff especially on the FP&A skills? And you talk about certification as well. If you can elaborate that a little further.  

[00:06:12] Himashi: [00:06:12] Yeah, absolutely. FP&A is a big part of the future of finance. AFP has been sounding this alarm since we developed the FP&A certification in 2014 called the Certified Corporate FP&A Professional, a FPAC.  

[00:06:27] First, automation and AI. We’re going to start replacing traditional accounting functions. We’re already seeing professionals in these traditional roles being asked to perform FP&A functions and they’re keen on getting the training they need to be successful. And these skills and FP&A are really helping to build resilience in the wake of automation.  

[00:06:49] Second, FP&A is uniquely situated to handle the digital world we find ourselves in such as the technical issues of analytics and risks and just presenting numbers, but really being able to analyze and understand data to drive better data-driven decision-making. 

[00:07:08] So AFP’s objectives are really to help organizations accomplish two things. First, it’s to help groom future leaders and specialists by up-skilling and re-skilling finance professionals by offering education and training to help them succeed. And second, we really want to help organizations unleash all the potential in their  FP&A teams.   

[00:07:30] FP&A professionals, they’re comfortable with ambiguity and seeing the big picture. And this really leads to having critical roles in business partnering.  FP&A professionals can have a seat at the table in any strategic conversation with any department in the operations of the company, from marketing to sales, to logistics, to project, product development. So it’s really a function that joins the best in data and AI with human ingenuity, experience, and intuition. 

[00:08:03]Wei Chien: [00:08:03] Okay with what you described definitely sounds like it is very much in demand in Asia-Pac for the profession. So at where you are, with your interaction with the profession, what are some of the key capabilities gaps that you have seen to get to what you were talking about earlier, to be a profession that combined data analytics with the human intuition and ingenuity in terms of having a seat on the table and driving the decision making process. 

[00:08:34] Himashi: [00:08:34] Yeah. That’s a great question. We have seen reports and surveys from global entities, like The World Economic Forum, reports very specific to Singapore recently done by NTUC LearningHub, and we’ve done our own surveys and research. And all of these reports the same conclusion. 

[00:08:51]The biggest gap is the digital finance skills. That can include data analysis, data visualization, forecasting, visual storytelling. These skills are really been top of mind for CFOs for a long time, so AFP does a benchmarking survey every year. 

[00:09:07] And our benchmarking report showed that for the past 10 years, FP&A professionals spent about the same percentage of their time preparing and gathering data. And it’s about 75%. That leaves a small percentage of time for the real value-added activities. We know the amount of data out there to sift through has grown exponentially and the data that companies have access to continue to grow. And the speed of analysis that is demanded by organizations will set expectations on finance to really be faster and better. What does this mean? It requires new tools to automate to help support that insight driven finance. The digital age, it’s here. The future is here and there’s no going back. 

[00:10:00] So the big question is, do organizations know what to do with all this data? It’s one thing to have the data, but where do you begin? How do you leverage it? What data is critical to make decisions? How can this help other areas of the business? Essentially, you have to know the right questions to ask, where to find the answers and understand the nuances, as well, because as we know, not everything is black or white. 

[00:10:26] So leveraging data can be a real significant advantage for organizations and being a data-driven organization can help better understand not only opportunities, but where are its blind spots, so they can eventually target the path forward and the right path forward.  

[00:10:46]Wei Chien: [00:10:46] Thank you for sharing that benchmarking studies as well. 

[00:10:48]So from those, in terms of the gap that you’re seeing in the profession, is it safe to say that digitalization would be one of the key gaps that AFP is seeing, not just in Asia, but across the world as well?  

[00:11:04] Himashi: [00:11:04] Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.  We talk to leaders all over the world and we hear the same thing. 

[00:11:10]My team can analyze data but what they can’t do is interpret that data and draw insights from that data to help with better decision-making. So it’s really, you have the power of data, but are you using it to your best of your ability.  

[00:11:24] Wei Chien: [00:11:24] So how do you see AFP then steps into support the profession in terms of closing this digital finance capabilities or this insight driven finance, which I really liked the way you put it. How do you derive the insights out from data?  

[00:11:39]Himashi: [00:11:39] Business cultures around the world see, cause I think it comes down to professional development, and business cultures around the world see one part of it is professional development and professional development is really a key component to this transformation. 

[00:11:52]Education, it’s a continuous journey. And finance leaders should really cultivate the environment where that’s expected. One way to do that is providing a finance training program for their teams.   

[00:12:04]When we think of work, there functional corrections that must get done, but it also includes opportunities to explore new ways of doing business. And that is really the importance of keeping your team’s skills up to date. Challenge and really engage. And when it comes to uncertainty and unprecedented times, like we just have experienced or continue to experience with the pandemic. 

[00:12:26]In other ways, our finance leaders could create an environment for growth. Good leaders ask a lot of questions to their teams, creating the expectation that questions are encouraged. One example of this could be projects that are in smaller scale also make for good educational opportunities, as experience is the best teacher, right? So the process of discovery, the effort required to implement and the education of using the new system or process can really move the team forward. 

[00:12:55] The learning really happens in the search for answers and finding the expertise. And this can be even more valuable at that requires reaching out to experts from other teams, which helps with developing relationships, building trust, and eventually becoming that trusted business partner. 

[00:13:11]FP&A professionals need to be creative, curious, and motivated to take it upon themselves, to learn and develop, like earning the AFP FP&A certification, as I mentioned. This certification really signifies a benchmark of competency within the profession, and it is the only certification in the marketplace that really helps to build skill sets specifically to FP&A. 

[00:13:36]So at the end of the day, when organizations encourage their teams to upskill, and more importantly, make upskill part of advancement, they open the door to more innovation, collaboration. They give their teams more purpose and get far more productivity than they would by just giving them orders to execute all important factors in the transformation journey. 

[00:14:01] Wei Chien: [00:14:01] Okay, definitely very good and practical advice that you’ve given, Himashi. Thank you so much for that. From professional development, from how do you put together that culture or nurture that culture of growth, creativity, motivating the employees and that continued learning and education, especially through the certification program of AFP as well. That would be a structure program to support the profession in terms of future ready.  

[00:14:29] Himashi: [00:14:29] Absolutely.  

[00:14:30] Wei Chien: [00:14:30] All right. Now, from a business value creation perspective, how do you see a successful accounting and finance transformation can better support business stakeholders from customers to partners.  You spoke a little earlier about some of the CFO and finance leader that you spoke with in the profession. 

[00:14:49]So from that value creation perspective, how does this actually play a part?  

[00:14:53]Himashi: [00:14:53] I talked about it earlier how FP&A professionals are critical business partners. When I was in marketing, business partnering was critical. We were part of product development, operations, understanding every aspect of the product, and who and what it touched in the organization. We also had to understand the entire customer experience from creation and targeting to conversion. 

[00:15:16] FP&A professionals can do the same thing and much more. Their specialized skillset of understanding the data from multiple points of view adds so much value and they can help any department ask the right questions and see the issues that only understanding data could allow. 

[00:15:34]They can foresee challenges as well as opportunities and mitigate risks and help bind and create competitive advantages. So the biggest value-add is really being able to see how it all fits throughout the entire organization. And it helps to break down the silos and get everyone rowing in the same direction.  

[00:15:54]I don’t think there’s anything better for a business and being able to get everyone on the same page. And that’s what that we feel FP&A teams can do for their organizations.  

[00:16:03]Wei Chien: [00:16:03] To be the person that connect the dots and bring the entire organization together. 

[00:16:09] Yes, that’s indeed powerful. I like the customer experience.  I think in your marketing background, definitely something the traditional accountants need,  that customer perspective. Everybody’s customers.  

[00:16:20]Himashi: [00:16:20] And just to add to that, like long are the days where kind of finances working in their silos. They’re working across different departments, different business units. So that importance of being an effective business partner is critical in their success.  

[00:16:36] Wei Chien: [00:16:36] Yeah, absolutely. And thank you so much for all this very practical advice and also sharing with our audience about what AFP can potentially offer and help them in terms of re-skill and up-skill so to be future ready. 

[00:16:50] I wanted to switch gears to something  lighter for our audience to get to know you a little more. So maybe that’s the start with a book. If you could recommend one book to our listeners, what would that book be and why? 

[00:17:03]Himashi: [00:17:03] Let’s see. One book that helped me grow professionally is called “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” by Marshall Goldsmith. So this book offers a lot of practical thinking for growing and improving and also addressing the need to change your perspective to reflect the new place you want to go. You may have crossed the ocean to get to land but once you’re on land, that boat is no longer useful. So what new tools and skills do you need to reflect and use to your new destination? So I definitely would recommend that book. 

[00:17:37]Wei Chien: [00:17:37] I’ve not read the book, but I’m for sure going to check it out. I liked the analogy. Once you cross the ocean, when you get to land, what are some of the new tools and skills that you need? It’s the same for the accounting and finance profession as well in a digital world. What are some of the new tools and skills that we all need to have. 

[00:17:57]Himashi: [00:17:57] On every aspect of your life. So yeah, it’s very practical book.  

[00:18:00]Wei Chien: [00:18:00] Yep. All right, now when you think about the word successful, who is the first person that come to your mind and why is that considered successful?   

[00:18:09] Himashi: [00:18:09] There are probably two people that immediately come to mind. 

[00:18:12]My first, so personally, it would be my father. He was born in a small rice farming village in Sri Lanka. He worked hard and earn everything he had. He took big risks and him and my mother immigrated to the U S in the late 1960s. And he gave our family a life full of opportunities, so definitely my father. 

[00:18:31]Professionally, I think of Michelle Obama. I feel like she handles everything with with grace, with class. And I really love that she’s just like tough as nails. 

[00:18:43]Wei Chien: [00:18:43] Thank you for that. Michelle Obama, I definitely agree. And from what you described of your father, I think you’ve definitely has taken some of the attributes when your dad into taking risks and be adventurous as well in terms of getting to where you are right now as the MD for AFP, for Asia.  

[00:18:59] Again, very excited to have you here in Asia and Singapore as well. Now I am very sure that our audience, a lot of them will love to continue to have a conversation with you, and also to understand and learn more about AFP. 

[00:19:14] So beyond this show, what is the best way for them to continue to have that conversation with you?  

[00:19:20]Himashi: [00:19:20] So you can connect with me on LinkedIn. I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. Also feel free to email me. I can share my email address. It’s H K Soriano, H K S O R I A N O at AFP online dot org. And I look forward to connecting with you and really helping finance professionals here in Asia Pacific reach their goals and be successful. 

[00:19:45] Wei Chien: [00:19:45] Thank you, Himashi, so much for joining us today. I’m sure we’ll continue the conversation beyond the show. So all the very best in Singapore and Asia and take care.  

[00:19:55] Himashi: [00:19:55] Thank you so much. Thanks again for the opportunity. 

[00:19:58] Wei Chien: [00:19:58] Thank you. 

[00:19:59]  

[00:20:51] 

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