As part of the Meet the Controller/CFO series, the Controllers Council recently interviewed Mike Polaha, SVP Finance at BlackLine.
Mike’s background includes current role of senior vice president of finance solutions and technology at BlackLine, and formally SVP Finance Technology at Fortune 500 corporation Johnson and Johnson.
His 17-year career path at J&J included starting as a project manager and elevating to controller, which of course is near and dear to us, and later senior finance director before he became SVP finance. Mike earned a Bachelor’s in Finance and an MBA from Lehigh University. He was also involved with men’s basketball there and captain of the basketball team for three years. He is a certified management accountant from the Institute of Management Accountants and on the Finance Technology Subcommittee of our friends over at Financial Executives International or FEI.
Following are some questions from moderator Neil Brown, and answers from Mike Polaha. If you are interested in learning more, view the full interview video archive here.
Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in corporate finance?
A: You alluded to the fact that I played college basketball, and once I determined that a professional career was not in the making, I quickly doubled down on where my passions really were worn in corporate finance. I think, like many college graduates, you have to grapple with the question around, “Do I want to go into investment banking, public accounting, or more, I would say, traditional corporate finance?”
From my perspective, I always enjoyed the analytical side of things of my studies, whether it be in the space of finance or accounting. I chose to apply my trade within that specific sphere. I very much enjoy the notion of our profession and how it supports a business. That corporate finance and accounting function, I think, allow for a very broad aperture to deploy that level of skill set.
Q: Please share with us your most significant keys to success?
A: From a key to success perspective, I would say table stakes would be accounting and finance proficiency. I think making sure, as a professional, you come with a deep understanding, as evidenced by your academic career and additional certifications, that you fully understand the construction of the balance sheet, the construction of the P and L, how information flows into the financial statements to inform business opportunities and business results.
To me, again, table stakes. The areas of differentiation are in a couple of areas. One is within the area of interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, leadership. I would say within the softer skills, no different than probably many professions, the ability to work with people to drive change; whether they would be in the area of corporate accounting at the level of the corporate offices, or whether you were in more of a traditional business partnering role as a finance professional supporting a business partner.
I think the way at which you can define a problem statement, work collaboratively across multiple stakeholder communities to drive solutions forward becomes paramount to your success. That starts to allow for you as a professional to build a personal brand within the organization that you are engaged wherein you start to build the reputation of someone that people want to work with due to the collaborative way that you would approach a given business challenge or business circumstance. That’s evidenced by, especially in our field, the ability to be transparent because there’s a code of conduct that, as a finance professional, we ascribe to, and oftentimes it puts us in a situation where we prospectively have to raise challenging situations; either internally to our CFO or to our business partners; where we have to bring to light that we might need to take specific actions on accruals that we think might be under reserved that could have negative consequence short term to our P and L.
All of that, coalesces into ways of working, how we influence, how we communicate within our roles that is so very important. I would suggest to our membership, in addition to the technical acumen that you might bring, that would be table stakes. That element in how we influence, communicate, collaborate, I would double down on that. That is how we drive our organizations forward.
Secondarily to those two elements; one being the technical proficiency, the human or softer side of the role; I think the ability going forward, Neil, to be able to understand how technology can be smartly applied to the roles that we’re playing within the organization is another game changer.
Over the durational portion of my career, I’ve seen technology play a deeper and more substantive role within the office of the CFO, the office of controller, chief accounting officer, and any other roles where our business partners, both internally and… are looking to us to understand, “How might we apply that technology in a way that allows us to become more efficient in what we do and/or more effective in the way that we provide that service such that we can allow and continue to free up capital to support business or reinvestment into the business?”
As professionals in this space, the ability to stay up to date in terms of what’s happening in the market; whether it be ERP technology, technology that would sit on top of the ERP like BlackLine (which is the company that I am now a member of), and/or planning and forecasting and analytics technology that are more on the data consumption side… Important as professionals that we stay attuned to how it could help us in our roles. I think that could be a differentiator.
What I found is that, as companies are looking to progress on their digital finance transformation agenda, these unicorns, these individuals that understand the technical accounting, that can marry that with the business need and the managerial side to the technology, are astutely valuable to our CFOs because those are the folks that can piece it all together. If they can work, then, with the softer skills to be able to be a change engine, to drive change effectively, that set of skills allows for the employee to shine and be maybe on an accelerated career path.
Q: Let’s talk now about some of the tools or solutions that have helped you be more effective in your various roles.
A: Tools and solutions, it goes back a little bit to the question on career progression and how we might, as professionals in this controllership space, start to have ourselves stand out a bit more. As it pertains to solutions, certainly starting with an end-to-end process orientation mindset; what are we trying to achieve in this business process, and how might we optimize it? This continuous improvement solution mindset becomes very, very important for our membership and all practitioners within this space.
During my 30 or so professional years in this space, I’ve seen how we look at business process in a different way. I see it evolving smartly over time. A couple of examples that might bring it to light.
As we think about SOX 404, as we think about how we apply elements of that and how we think about our compliance footprint and approach within our companies… When SOX 404 first came out, many companies might have been on the far end of how they might adopt compliance against that, and then, over time, taking a step back saying, “Well, okay. How might we think about where our true risk is and create an approach that is really focused on where we find risk in our ecosystem versus looking at everything equally?”
One example might be within account reconciliations where we might say, “We want to reconcile every account on this type of frequency, irrespective of what it might mean to the overall percent of our overall balance sheet.” I think as professionals, based upon facts and data, looking at process, looking at solution, where we might auto-certify low dollar reconciliations and not only not introduce risk, but be able to pivot the organization to focus on the accounts and the balance sheet as a controller that really matter and are really the ones that we care about, making sure that those are airtight.
To learn more, view the full discussion here.