Workday’s CFO: Why I Care About Corporate Culture (And You Should Too)

The role of the CFO doesn’t often come to mind when thinking about driving corporate culture. But given the effect that culture can have on the bottom line, this is changing. A recent Duke MBA study shows that over half of senior executives believe that corporate culture is a top three driver of company value, and reveals that it can drive profitability, acquisition decisions, and even affect whether employees behave ethically. Increasingly, more CFOs and their extended finance organizations are playing a greater role in creating and sustaining positive employee experiences.

Workday’s CFO, Robynne Sisco, has written about the impact that the CFO can have on corporate culture. At a Workday Rising Business Leader Forum, she sat down with Emily McEvilly, senior vice president of services at Workday, to talk about the meaning of culture, how she and her team influence culture, and measuring culture’s impact to the bottom line.

“If senior leadership doesn’t model the culture, the behavior you want will absolutely not stick.”
—Robynne Sisco, Workday CFO

Defining Culture and Making It Stick

Corporate culture can often be hard to define in tangible terms.  It really starts with a company having a clear vision of who they want to be and what they stand for, said Sisco. But getting a vision for culture to take hold in companies can often be challenging. Sisco highlighted the need for clear communication about the vision across the organization and stressed that vision must be the compass by which decisions are made.

More than anything else, Sisco said, senior management must exemplify the vision in their behavior. “If senior leadership doesn’t model the culture, the behavior you want will absolutely not stick.”

Making Investment Decisions to Support Culture

According to Sisco, CFOs and finance organizations have an impact on culture, whether they realize it or not. One area of major influence is around investment decisions, because of how much they can impact the employee experience and retention.

“Industries are different, but employees are always a large part of expenses,” said Sisco. Money spent on employee programs are “investments in employee retention,” she added.

As an example, Sisco highlighted the company’s investment in Workday’s leadership programs, citing a two-day summit last year that brought in people managers from around the globe to the Bay Area to ensure they all had a common understanding of the culture and how Workday expects people managers to behave. “We were growing so fast,” said Sisco, that there were inconsistent employee experiences across the company.

Sisco said that many CFOs would see such an investment as unnecessary spend, but that Workday’s senior leadership team saw it as a crucial investment in people and culture. “It’s much easier, and much cheaper, to invest in maintaining your company culture. If you let it degrade too much, it’s extremely expensive, and difficult, to turn things around,” she said.

Sisco acknowledged that not all investment decisions will make employees happy, and that communication and transparency are key to navigating this. Noting that all employees generally want the same things: To do meaningful work, to feel a part of something bigger, and to see the company succeed, Sisco said, “If you build trust with your employees when times are good, that trust will carry through when times are challenging and you have to make some tradeoffs.”

Measuring the impact of these investments is important to understanding what matters to employees and can help shape future decisions about where to focus dollars. One way that Workday measures impact of investment decisions on culture is through employee surveys, including company-wide surveys and shorter, more frequent “pulse” surveys that provide quick insight into the health of the company.

“We are always measuring and trying to better understand how we can make effective investments in our company culture.”
—Robynne Sisco, Workday CFO

Sisco said that measurement is key, and she could see there was a direct correlation between the investment in the people manager summit and employee sentiment—”the results of that investment were clear.”

How Policies Can Reflect Culture

Sisco said it’s important to remember how policies and procedures can serve to either build or erode trust with employees. She described an example of revising Workday’s travel and expense policy to philosophically reflect the culture rather than be a set of rigid rules. “It was ultimately better for the company if we set out simple yet flexible guidelines, and showed we trusted our employees to do the right thing,” she said.

Impact to the Bottom Line

So how does all of this impact the bottom line? At the highest level, Sisco says that it comes down to the connection between happy employees, happy customers, and happy shareholders—they are all tied together and you can’t impact one without impacting the others.

To measure this, Sisco looks at data and customer feedback to see where to adjust and do things differently. As she put it, “There is no magic single indicator, but we are always measuring, and always trying to better understand how we can make effective investments in our company culture.”

Sisco wrapped up the forum by answering a question from McEvilly, who wondered, especially when a company is experiencing rapid growth, how finance and other leaders can make time for culture-building efforts—since there are often very pressing, concrete tasks that need to be completed.

“You have to make time,” Sisco said. “Because if you let it escape, it’s really hard to get back.”