Alexander Hagerup, Co-Founder and CEO of Vic.ai, is a serial tech entrepreneur with a strong passion for artificial intelligence.
In business, as in all facets of life, nothing ever stays the same. Markets boom and bust, consumer tastes shift, and new technologies revolutionize even the most entrenched processes.
Change can be incredibly positive. Change builds resilience, opens us up to new perspectives and creates opportunities we never saw coming.
However, change can also be uncomfortable, and this discomfort feels especially pervasive during this era of rapid technological transformation. Entire industries are being disrupted by automation and artificial intelligence (AI) — from real estate, where algorithms can read millions of homebuyer documents in seconds, to medicine, where AI can read X-rays faster and more accurately than radiologists.
This is as true for finance as it is for any other sector. From the smallest accounting firms to the largest enterprises, automation is a foregone conclusion — particularly in the accounts payable (AP) function, which is notoriously tedious. I have helped dozens of companies navigate these changes, and I’ve witnessed the full spectrum of employee reactions — from motivation, excitement and quick adoption all the way to skepticism and resistance.
Whatever the reaction, change is nevertheless well underway — and its potential is limitless. From HR executives to CFOs, business leaders must do all they can to help their teams navigate these changes and understand the opportunities they present.
Make AI personal.
Many companies consider their people to be their greatest asset. This aphorism is especially true during times of great change.
In my experience, the largest determining factor in how smoothly a company adopts new technology is the mindset of its employees toward technological change. Employees who recognize the opportunities — not only for their company but also for their job satisfaction, their skill sets and their future career prospects — are much more likely to embrace and even spearhead these changes.
Leaders play a huge part in illustrating this positive path forward. By laying a clear path and providing the needed tools, leaders can guide their teams smoothly along the journey and celebrate small wins along the way.
Identify individual skill sets and train accordingly.
In addition to illustrating the journey, leaders must strive to set every employee up for success. From adding machines to digital spreadsheets, innovations in finance have always led to job changes — but they have also created new opportunities.
In finance, the need for these innovations is significant. A recent Prophix study found that 86% of CFOs reported needing professionals’ skills to evolve for continuous planning and forecasting. In AP, AI solutions are already liberating accountants and clerks from data entry, approvals and three-way matching — freeing them up for more cerebral, rewarding, high-value work.
The best leaders will plan ahead by identifying and training employees for these new opportunities. This work shouldn’t be done in a vacuum; a conversation with impacted employees about their interests can keep them more invested and engaged.
Perhaps those with strong interpersonal skills can shift to negotiating with vendors or advising clients. Those with a business mindset can help develop financial strategies. To guarantee success, department leaders should work alongside HR to provide training to help their team members reach their full potential.
Equip your first adopters to become ambassadors.
Once leaders have identified their team members who are most excited about innovation, they should equip them with the tools and messages they need to serve as ambassadors for change.
Well before the adoption of new technology even occurs, these employees can begin stirring up enthusiasm by highlighting the positive outcomes their colleagues will enjoy. In AP, for example, the tedious workload eased by AI is almost guaranteed to boost morale. Ambassadors should also underscore the skills their colleagues will gain from mastery of these technologies: More and more companies are hiring for these skills, and employees may even be able to negotiate internally for better compensation.
When it comes time to implement the new technology, these ambassadors should be the first adopters. Their fluency in the new technology, paired with their enthusiasm, will make them go-to teachers and troubleshooters — ensuring swift, smooth adoption across the board.
Respect employees’ fears and communicate accordingly.
No matter how well a company prepares, there will always be some degree of fear associated with change. The best leaders will treat this fear with the respect it deserves.
Leaders should get ahead of fears by communicating early and often in a realistic, transparent and reassuring manner. Walk employees through what they should expect and when they should expect it. Emphasize positive outcomes but also acknowledge any negative externalities; employees will see straight through attempts to sugarcoat change, which can further exacerbate distrust and resistance. Be open and available, perhaps by hosting “town halls” where employees can voice questions and concerns. Encourage “ambassadors” to be sounding boards and to communicate to leadership any shifts in morale.
By helping employees feel respected, heard and understood, leaders can avoid much of the resistance associated with change.
Implement a culture with an “embrace the change” mindset.
Change is inevitable — and without it, progress is impossible. The difference between success and failure in our relationships, our careers and our businesses rests on our willingness to embrace it.
While daunting, digital transformation is not slowing down, and it is going to open doors we never knew existed. Across sectors, finance teams will soon enjoy efficiencies we can hardly comprehend today. As leaders, we must do all we can to encourage and maximize these changes for our employees — our greatest assets — freeing them up to imagine bigger ideas and build better companies than ever before.