#350: Giving guidance beyond the “black and white” with Louise Miller

Our Guest Mentor: 

Louise Miller is currently VP Finance, Tradeteam at DHL supporting the NHS Supply Chain. Louise is a commercially focused senior financial professional with a proven track record demonstrating consistently strong results in dynamic organisations particularly in Logistics. Louise also has strong people and communication skills and is able to develop and build strong business relationships. Her specialties include commercial acumen, team building, motivation, communication, and change. 

Louise holds an ACMA designation and is based out of Northampton, England 

Key Quotes from the Episode: 

[On career path] “I do think finance offers a great routine for apprentices. If you can balance and study, flexibly these days, for all of those big institutes that you mentioned, CIMA and the like, then you can get your professional qualification whilst you are working.” [05:21] 

[On digitalization] “So the more that we can release time from those, yet maintaining that strong governance, the more time we get for the finance team to add more value through the analysis of the data.” [06:39] 

[On having an opinion in finance] “One of the things that we’re trying to instil with our finance team as well is don’t just analyse the data, have an opinion on it. So I think finance typically might come up with the answer. And it’s sometimes going to be black and white. Quite often it’s black and white. But you as an individual have an opinion.” [10:24] 

[On forward-looking] “Asking open questions is really important. We quite often hide the answer in the question. So we’re leading somebody with our questions. So really asking why and what and who, and how, all of those things. Why do you think that’s a good idea? How do you think that I’ll achieve a result? What do you think the risks are? What other things have you thought about? Who’s been engaged? You know, just all of those very short, quick questions. Similar to coaching questions, really. They get the individual thinking about the answer in more detail.” [12:37] 

[On investments] “And so if you adopt the same criteria that you’ve always adopted, your answer might be no, but the reality is you have to almost, again, look at the bigger picture, flex your mindset and say, you know what, if we don’t do this, then actually we might not be competitive in the future.” [14:19] 

Key Points from the Episode: 

  • Importance of both on the job experience and certifications in the finance career 
  • On having an opinion when analysing data 
  • Importance of a forward-looking perspective 
  • On digitalization and investments  

Time Stamped Show Notes 

[03:32] Louise takes us through a quick journey of her career so far, particularly bypassing the graduate route by going straight into training as a management accountant. 

[04:38] Louise gives her opinion on apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs in finance 

[06:20] Louise shares what’s fascinating and exciting her most about her work in finance  

[07:39] Louise talks about the guidance aspect of finance 

[10:22] Louise shares how she handles the trade-off between being ‘black and white’ and having an opinion on the data 

[12:38] How Louise managed the transition from a backward-looking analysis to a more forward-looking one 

[16:13] Louise talks about the challenges she has dealt with the past 15 months 

[19:25] Louise mentions the best advice she has ever received 

[20:02] Louise gives details about the resources she recommends 

[21:02] Louise mentions where to connect with her and discusses their organization’s graduate program 

[22:31] Louise gives her parting thoughts for the audience 

Resources Mentioned: 

Connect with today’s guest: 

LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/louise-miller-342a1b14/  

Full transcript: 

#350: Giving guidance beyond the “black and white” with Louise Miller 

[00:00:00]  

[00:00:30] Andrew: Hi everyone. And welcome to this week, strength in the numbers, really looking forward to sharing with you the conversation had recently with Louise Miller and Louise’s today’s guest mentor. She’s the VP of finance at trade team at DHL. And as you can probably imagine, it’s been very turbulent. Time and logistics over the last couple of years. 

[00:00:52] She’s been very busy, so it was great to bring her on the show and share some of the insights she’s gained over that period. But also I think where we start the conversation around her career, it was great for Louise to share her perspective on actually coming straight out of school and into an accounting career. 

[00:01:08] Not necessarily going down the university or a graduate route I really admire her sharing that her experiences the importance of actually on the job experience, as well as the certifications we pick up throughout the career, we explore those in our conversation together. And then most of the rest of our conversation has really been around getting the most out of our careers and actually focusing on helping organizations make better decisions. 

[00:01:35] So we emphasize the importance on the guidance aspect of finance, understanding the trade-offs between being black and white versus perhaps having our own opinions on the data rather than leading people when requesting them, which is quite sometimes easy to do when you jump to conclusions is actually coaching them towards drawing the answers out from themselves, rather than putting our own stamp on it. 

[00:01:59] Louise also talks about her own transition from moving from maybe looking at the data probably more rear view mirror or backward looking way to one that’s more proactive, more with foresight 

[00:02:10] and we could deconstruct that for look and perspective together on how we can go and adopt that in a better way, as well as the digitalization agenda and where perhaps the investment. Need to be made to get the most out of these new digital capabilities. And as always, if you do want to find out more about it, Louise and the conversation we had together, you can find that and more@sitandshow.com. There’s detailed timestamp show notes, key quotes, how to connect with threes. And you can also find us on all the major podcasts platforms, iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, YouTube, Spotify, and Amazon. As always, really appreciate you tuning in today and particularly when you recommend the show to friends and colleagues, and that’s enough for me for now. So without further ado, over to Louise and the show. Louise, welcome to the show. 

[00:03:03] Louise: Thank you. 

[00:03:04] Andrew: Thank you for making it. I know your diary is absolutely crazy manic. 

[00:03:08] Some of our audience actually might’ve probably heard your voice in one of our previous podcasts because you were on one of our panels, right at the start of the craziness that happened these last 15 months and so on. But for some of those not familiar with your background, would you mind taking us through a quick journey of your career so far?  

[00:03:24] Louise: Yeah, certainly. So currently I’m the VP for Finance for a large logistics organization. I’ve worked for this organization for over 30 years. Believe it or not, I started in finance when I was 17. So straight from school, I did what’s referred to now as an apprentice scheme. So I was selected to work in finance and do my financial studies whilst on the job. So picked for finance, studied finance ever since. Worked in lots of different roles, but for the past 30 years, it’s been entirely about supply chain and logistics. 

[00:04:01] Andrew: That’s an interesting route, Louise. In my mind I don’t hear much about that now. It seems the traditional route nowadays is actually going to a degree and then do a course like a CIMA or an ACCA or ACA, do some time and audit, and then go into industry.  

[00:04:15] Now I just sort of look back on finance and accounting as more like an apprenticeship. Sort of learned an awful lot on the job. In your mind, is finance a lot like an apprenticeship for you? Is it still an appropriate path to get into? Do people really need to go to college first or do you learn a lot on the job? 

[00:04:29] Louise: It is a balance. If you want to go really far in finance, then you do need your on-the-job training to be supported by a professional qualification. Because we’ve got rules to follow and concepts to understand, international financial statements to adhere to, et cetera. So you need the formal training, but actually it’s so much easier if you get into some of that practical experience on-the-job alongside your learning, because to learn about double-entry bookkeeping, which is one of the first things you learn in any sort of accountancy qualification. To do that without really understanding a business or the transactions involved is really quite difficult. When you’re in a job and processing some of those transactions, it becomes a lot clearer. I do think finance offers a great routine for apprentices. If you can balance and study, flexibly these days, for all of those big institutes that you mentioned, CIMA and the like, then you can get your professional qualification whilst you are working.  

[00:05:28] Andrew: Yeah. it’s very interesting that those qualifications definitely do stand the test of time. It’s a good supplementation to the on-the-job stuff.  

[00:05:35] Actually, you know what you reminded me of my son. He just qualified as an apprentice toolmaker. He’s just finished his qualification and it’s just amazing that I find a lot of parallels in finance. You go and work in different areas and you get different little tools of the craft, you know?  

[00:05:47] And nowadays we even got new ones developing dashboards and visualizations of analytics, robotics, yeah, of our processes. He learned toolmaking your way, which was very manual tools. Whereas, now there’s a lot of robotic machines that he has to program, so some of us are doing programming now. If you look at the current world of work, what’s fascinating and exciting you most about your work in finance at the moment?  

[00:06:11] Louise: I guess it’s digitalization. It’s got to be, the application of simple tools and techniques, programs if you like, that take away or minimize the amount of time the whole team spend on back-office tasks, repetitive, really important, but repetitive activities. So the more that we can release time from those, yet maintaining that strong governance, the more time we get for the finance team to add more value through the analysis of the data. 

[00:06:42] So we’re actually starting to look at what is our business data telling us. Are there opportunities for growth? Are there opportunities that we’re missing because that data is telling us something that perhaps we’re not seeing at the moment, because we’re so entrenched in making sure all of the basics work. 

[00:07:00] So that’s what’s exciting me at the moment. Finance really being able to add more value. 

[00:07:06] Andrew: I just thinking about that, because you touched on two keywords there. Governance you mentioned, right? Which it seems to be like that is our quality standard. That’s what we’ve been known for, historically. And then you mentioned looking at the data, trying to see things that we might not have seen before. 

[00:07:18] For me, that seems more of a recent thing, this guidance aspect to our work. I mean, where did the need for that come from? Was that something that just a well-intended finance person said, oh, we should be doing this, or did it come from the business or another source? 

[00:07:31] Louise: You know what? That’s a really good question. From our perspective, I think it’s been the business and the finance team hand in hand. Maybe there’s been a bit more pull from the business. So when there’s a particular challenge, they pull finance in to start to understand the bigger picture. And I think as finance individuals understand the bigger picture, then they can use their knowledge to pose more questions. And those questions typically then lead to, Ah, what if we have a look at this? What if we have a look at that? And then in my world, typically if someone wants to look at data, the last two teams to do it, either it’s IT or finance. 

[00:08:11] So think it’s been a bit of an evolution, but then finance, particularly in my world, we have said, you know what, there’s four main areas that we operate in. And the top two are all about getting the basics right. And the other two are around adding value, having an opinion, providing insights so that we can make great decisions for the business. 

[00:08:33] So it’s an evolution. Yeah. 

[00:08:35] Andrew: I love the way you described it. I’m glad you thrown in getting the basics right. We can do that sort of newer guidance stuff. I’d help the business with our decision-making. If we haven’t got good foundations, good basics, making sure that the data and numbers are right, can be used. I don’t need to be perfect. With all the data out there now, there’s just so much, but it just needs to be good enough to use. 

[00:08:55] Louise: Yeah, absolutely. And I guess the bit around digitalization releasing time, typically you want your finance team in the various levels, to do a bit of all of those activities. So the more that you can automate, but making sure that processes are robust, the more you get everybody doing a little bit more of the big picture and understanding the business and add in their own amount of value to it.  

[00:09:20] Andrew: I’m delighted you said about the big picture as well, because for me in finance and accounting, we have a number of assets and one of them is just that ability to see a bit more broadly because again, whether we’re working with say an entrepreneur in a small business or in a larger business, a business unit leader, they’re fairly focused on their areas. Very laser-focused. I don’t wanna use the word siloed because I don’t want to pigeonhole them either, but they’ve got a job to do, and they’re very focused on doing that job. We can maybe connect the dots a bit better because of that broader visibility with the training that comes from our experience and qualifications, breaking down things the right way, access to those decision-makers, access to the data, as you said, like it’s finance and IT, there’s a tremendous value proposition. Also, I forgot about the independence that, being in finance, we’re just there to make sure that the business is sustainable, can stay as a going concern. 

[00:10:06] So with all that wrapped in, it’s quite a powerful value proposition to remain relevant during this period of digitalization. What do you think?  

[00:10:14] Louise: Yeah. I definitely agree. One of the things that we’re trying to instill with our finance team as well is don’t just analyze the data, have an opinion on it. So I think finance typically might come up with the answer. And it’s sometimes going to be black and white. Quite often it’s black and white. But you as an individual have an opinion. And if you are seeing the big picture and understand your business, then your opinion doesn’t have to be a financial one. So again, in all of that change in world, if you like, we’re trying to get our teams to share that. And for the business also to hear it because they are used to finance presenting the numbers and not necessarily, really having an opinion on them.  

[00:10:59] Andrew: I always thought there was a pressure to be right about everything, but in this age of uncertainty, I found that best guidance actually comes from asking better questions and not maybe knowing the answers or maybe assigning probabilities to various different opinions or outcomes that we’re seeing. 

[00:11:14] How have you handled that trade-off between being black and white about it, but also giving an opinion or asking questions that help lead to ultimately better decisions. Is there a good way of doing this? 

[00:11:26] Louise: Ooh. I think it’s probably an art and I think the more you practice, the better you get at it. Some tips that I’d been given were almost let everybody have their say. So if you think you’ve got a really good point to make a really good observation, let everyone get theirs out and then make the suggestion. And quite often I find that creates additional dialogue and perhaps a change of direction towards the end of the debate. But I’ve lost the plot now on the questions. 

[00:11:55] Andrew: Yeah, no, it was a really tough question because I was bouncing around in a number of directions. But really is there like any good tips how we can bridge that gap from being right about what the numbers are, so the numbers we use are correct, that sort of backward-look into more forward-looking realm, where there’s a lot more uncertainty and perhaps it’s difficult to be right about what’s going to happen. And we need to, rather than trying to be right all the time, maybe offer an opinion on how right we are or ask special questions so we can choose a better path forward with the business.  

[00:12:26] Have you got sort of any tips on how best to manage that transition? 

[00:12:29] Louise: Asking open questions is really important. We quite often hide the answer in the question. So we’re leading somebody with our questions. So really asking why and what and who, and how all of those things. Why do you think that’s a good idea? How do you think that I’ll achieve a result? What do you think the risks are? What other things have you thought about? Who’s been engaged? You know, just all of those very short, quick questions. Similar to coaching questions, really. They get the individual thinking about the answer in more detail. So short questions not leading was really good. 

[00:13:10] And one thing as well that we’ve been training ourselves to do is as accountants quite often we have a natural tendency to be risk averse. So we’re trying to train ourselves to recognize that. So if you’re looking at an investment opportunity, we’re almost teaching ourselves to flex our mindset. 

[00:13:30] So know where you are, whether you’re risk averse, or actually you are up for challenge and always have that in mind when you’re critiquing or challenging a particular opportunity because where you sit on that matrix in terms of your risk preference will definitely interfere with your decision-making. And if you think about digitalization opportunities, and robotics, for instance, if you were looking at about a robotics investment, the cost of implementation might actually be really high and the payback might actually be longer and then you would typically have us your guidance in your business. And so if you adopt the same criteria that you’ve always adopted, your answer might be no, but the reality is you have to almost, again, look at the bigger picture, flex your mindset and say, you know what, if we don’t do this, then actually we might not be competitive in the future. Or let’s look at our investment criteria. And let’s look at how we score these things because environmental, social, or governance type investments would probably again be high upfront cost in the short term, but long-term gain. So you’ve got to evaluate them differently so flex your mindset. 

[00:14:48] Andrew: I like that mindset you just touched on there, that trade off between short and long term. That is a very key value proposition of finance professionals that sometimes business leaders need that help with. They can’t get something over the line because the payback may not be very good in the short term, but when you start bringing in those other variables, maybe they’re more difficult to quantify, maybe not, but the least we’re bringing them into the conversation and saying like, what would have to happen for this to have happened, and things like that. Just help them flesh those out, we might actually get the data over the line. This only sort of occurred to me recently, there’s two elements to accounting and finance. Accounting is more like governance based and finance, like how do we make things happen? How do we finance those decisions? What needs to happen? Where can we help? Where can we flesh out the details? Like the coaching you were saying to go and get the right things done and get things over the line, that are the right things to the business. 

[00:15:35] I loved your point about the digitalization, as well. Robotics. There’s been a lot of people chasing these opportunities. It’s just, oh we should do them because everyone’s doing them. But it’s gotta make sense. It’s gotta be evaluated on the right criteria. 

[00:15:46] So a really refreshing point there. Now a lot has changed since we last spoke in terms of things just went fairly manic, because it was the start of this worldwide pandemic. You mentioned the word opportunities and challenges as well. What have been the main challenges you had to deal with since we last spoke, maybe last 12, 15 months. What sort of things did you have to deal with it? And how did things go for you? 

[00:16:05] Louise: In the hospitality business, it’s been an absolute roller coaster, delivering beers, wines, and spirits. That’s our main business. And of course, the pubs and restaurants and everything have closed and then partially reopened and then we’ve had regional lockdowns and then we’ve had national lockdowns and now we’re just starting to reopen again. During that whole period of time, most people at home have created themselves a bar and I’ve got quite to sitting in their their back garden or whatever. And we’re not entirely sure that hospitality is going to be exactly as it was going forward.  

[00:16:41] So the challenge is for us, of course, have been using the furlough scheme. That has been a godsend for most of our people and for our business. So the government support that’s been available. We’ve had to mothball sites so we’ve closed things down. We’ve had to keep them secure. We’ve had to find out a way of keeping connected with all of our people, whether they’re the office workers or the colleagues driving the vehicles or in the warehouses. How do we keep connected with all of those people? Making sure they’re okay from a wellbeing perspective. They’re not worried about their jobs. They’re kept up to date. So I guess the challenges have been communication. It’s been new tools for all of us officespace people who were suddenly working from home because although of course some of the trucks and the sheds might stop working to some extent, there’s still a requirement for all of the other stuff to carry on. 

[00:17:32] So there’s accounts still to be produced regardless of what they say. There’s financial opportunities to be looked at. A lot of the functional teams we’re a hundred percent deployed, but remotely. So we then had the challenge of Zoom. Everyone knows Zoom these days. Every other video platform, how do we do a whiteboard? Which tool do we use? How can we all dabble on it together? It’s not quite the same as being in an office. But it’s all of that. And then all of the extra wellbeing support that the teams needed, which our HR team have provided fabulously and just connecting more on an emotional level with the teams. 

[00:18:06] Those have been the changes that we’ve had to adapt to because you’re not in an office anymore with those people. And sometimes, if you’re just talking on the phone, you can’t see how they truly are. So all of those different challenges, the business ones have been an absolute roller coaster, I have to say. The people ones, too. But I think we’re in a good place now. We’re getting a balance of what we can keep longer term and we’re certainly in the space of we probably won’t go back completely to how we were, which was five days in the office. So yeah, that could be a positive out of this long journey. 

[00:18:39] Andrew: I’m glad you were looking for the positives as well out of it, like hopefully we emerge more resilient. And that wellbeing one, I think you mentioned it a couple of times. I hope more people are appreciating the importance of wellbeing. It’s given us an opportunity to reflect.  

[00:18:52] But just off-air, before we started to share with our audience, we were having a conversation about recent times and transitions. And it’s funny that the conversations we’re having now they’re actually still around how to manage. No one has all the answers yet, but I think if we keep sharing tips and ideas like this podcast and so on, we’ll help each other through it. 

[00:19:09] Louise: Absolutely. 

[00:19:10] Andrew: Louise, you’ve given us fantastic advice, but I’m always curious to know what’s been the best advice you’ve ever received. 

[00:19:16] Louise: So I guess it was, don’t sweat the small stuff and try and get a work-life balance. That applies both, to personal and private life. Obviously, governance aside, so if it’s a compliance-related matter, then do sweat the small stuff, but generally sweat the small stuff. Focus on what is really important. 

[00:19:37] Andrew: That’s great. Love to hear that. Easier said than done. Yeah. 

[00:19:41] Louise: Definitely. Yeah. 

[00:19:43] Andrew: Thanks for that. Yeah. Louise, I suppose, in terms of resources, are there any sort of good books, documentaries, podcasts, you try and watch now and again, or listening to now and again? 

[00:19:54] Louise: To be honest, this is one of those questions where I have virtually no advice.  

[00:19:59] Andrew: That’s fine. That’s fine. 

[00:20:01] Louise: I guess I flick through, I flick through LinkedIn. So that’s one of the things. Podcasts. If I’m honest, if I’m doing a podcast, it’s a story.  

[00:20:10] Andrew: It’s just, yeah.  

[00:20:11] Louise: as opposed to 

[00:20:12] Andrew: Escapism. 

[00:20:13] Louise: Yeah, it is. It definitely is. And the resources that I used to be honest, I can’t think of the technical names. It’s something that DHL stands up, but I don’t know whether it’s a platform that’s available externally. It’s almost like a five minute synopsis of a particular topic. It’s that sort of stuff, but yeah, I haven’t got any great advice on that, I’m afraid. 

[00:20:35] Andrew: That’s great. No. And then I’ll see what we can do when editing this. 

[00:20:38] Louise: Yeah. 

[00:20:40] Andrew: Try it together. If not, we just delete the section before we move on. That’s the joys of not being live. So look I really appreciate our conversation. If our audience wished to continue with it, where’s the best place to connect with you at? 

[00:20:54] Louise: It probably is on LinkedIn, to be honest. Yeah, probably on LinkedIn. Can I just tell you something really exciting we’re doing at the moment?  

[00:21:02] Andrew: Yeah, definitely. 

[00:21:02] Louise: I talked about my career starting as an apprentice. So what we’re doing in our organization at the moment we’ve had for years and years, a really well-established graduate program. 

[00:21:13] So we take graduates, and we put them through their accountancy exam, whilst they’re doing on the job training. But this year for the first time, we’re starting up an apprentice scheme. So in September, we’re taking on alongside our graduates, we’re taking on a dozen straight from college, 17, 18 year olds who have got A levels of a B. Tech. in something, who are going to embark on their finance study. So they’ll start with something like AAT, or they’ll start with CIMA, dependent on their qualifications. But that’s going to be the first time for us. So for me, I’m really excited about what that’s going to bring in terms of future resourcing and pipelines. And I’m excited as well because that’s how I started my journey. 

[00:21:59] And so I’m looking forward to some youngsters joining the business and seeing how it goes. 

[00:22:05] Andrew: That’s absolutely awesome. That’s how it used to be done. So that’s great to see and completely get the value there. That’s fantastic.  

[00:22:12] Thanks again for your time. You’ve been a great guest, but before you go, I just to make sure that we get full value from you. Do you have any parting thoughts for our audience before we leave? 

[00:22:23] Louise: See the big picture, flex your mindset, and don’t be afraid to have your opinion. 

[00:22:28] Andrew: Three great takeaways. Awesome. Louise, thank you so much for coming in to Strength in The Numbers and for being our guest today. 

[00:22:34] Louise: You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me. 

[00:22:36]  

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