How one company's finance and HR teams handled talent retention

A unique collaboration between finance and HR helped Valimail improve employee engagement
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· 5 min read

When San Francisco-based email authentication company Valimail began transitioning into a new strategic business model in mid-2020, the company’s chief people and performance officer, Elaine Mak, said employee engagement and talent retention were big problems.

Employees rated the company poorly on Glassdoor, and its employee net promoter scores, a measure of employee engagement, were abysmal, according to Mak. “[I said] I can’t do anything about [Glassdoor reviews] until we make some dramatic internal changes,” Mak told CFO Brew.

One of those major changes was to develop a new, more strategically aligned working relationship with Ryan McQueeney, the company’s chief financial officer, when he joined the company in October 2021.

“When I started, one of the things that had happened from a budgeting and forecasting perspective, is that the finance team or the CFO at the time was doing it in a silo by himself,” McQueeney told CFO Brew. That siloing led to confusion around budgets, lower levels of accountability within the organization, and a misalignment on core company values, Mak and McQueeney said.

The pair decided they needed to collaborate much more closely to successfully align the company’s talent needs and financial priorities with the larger organizational strategy.

Come together. There’s no question that engaging with and retaining talent is a top priority for finance professionals. In survey after survey, CFOs cite talent retention as one of their top concerns. Addressing those issues can’t be done by finance or HR alone, according to Amy Spurling, a former CFO and founder and CEO of Compt, an HR benefits platform.

“It has to be collaborative; it can’t just be finance deciding the number and then HR has to figure out how to split it up because you’re going to have retention issues,” she said. “That’s going to be far more costly.”

McQueeney had worked collaboratively before with HR at another company and understood the value of aligning finance and HR. To launch their collaboration, before creating budgets and weighing head count, Mak and McQueeney wanted to understand the most effective way to work together. So they drew up a partnership agreement.

That agreement laid out, in great detail, their working styles, how each preferred to receive feedback, their ways of communicating, and how often to check in with each other. They also agreed on how to best solve the inevitable conflicts that would arise.

“It’s about meeting each other where we are at,” Mak said.

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Yosh Beier, executive coach and co-founder of Collaborative Coaching, a Portland, Maine-based leadership consultancy, recommended working out the personal dynamics of the relationship first. “Figuring out how to collectively implement a strategic plan just doesn’t work if you don’t have those pieces squared away,” Beier told CFO Brew.

It also takes a time commitment. McQueeney and Mak spent months working on the partnership agreement before they tackled the business issues they were wrestling with. They wanted to make sure that they were speaking the same language and sharing common goals.

“I was trying to help her understand how I think and the finance side of things, and she was helping me with the HR side and understand how people matter to the business,” McQueeney said.

“It did take a lot of work, a lot of dialogue and conversations because, to me, this is a process of codesigning and cocreation together,” Mak said.

Working out a partnership agreement also takes specificity and depth, according to Beier. Executives need to drill down into the motivations, sensitivities, and potential discomforts of the relationship, he said, and get beyond just being a good coworker.

The process didn’t end once they wrote their partnership agreement, however. Mak and McQueeney continue to meet quarterly to assess their relationship and make any necessary adjustments.

Off to work. Once they established clear guidelines for their working relationship, McQueeney and Mak extended their collaboration to their teams and the broader workplace. Finance and HR staff attended meetings jointly and built staffing budgets based on the company’s strategic goals.

Mak and McQueeney both said that the process helped create cohesion, transparency, and accountability among their teams and the broader company. Employees now have a better sense of their role, feel more heard and are more involved, according to McQueeney.

“We’re all singing the same tune; we’re all unified around clear purpose, clear goals, clear values,” Mak told CFO Brew. That consistency has helped create a significant rise in the company’s eNPS scores and Glassdoor ratings, signs of improved engagement, according to Mak.

That cohesion also had practical implications for the finance function and the budget, McQueeney said.

“It helps with just making sure everybody’s aligned, and alignment is such a big thing in building up financial forecasts and understanding what the strategy is for the next few years and how to get there,” he said.—DA

News built for finance pros

CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.