FP&A Talks Series: How to Create Sustainable High Performance Leadership in Finance?

FP&A Talks Series: How to Create Sustainable High Performance Leadership in Finance?

By Anders Liu-Lindberg, Co-founder, COO and CMO of the Business Partnering Institute

What is the Holy Grail for any leader? For me, it is to create a high-performance team AND to sustain that team over time through high-performance leadership. That is not easy to do, so when we get the chance to learn from someone who has managed to do it really well, we must pay close attention.

In this first “FP&A Talks” we’re speaking to Fredrik Hedlund, Senior Vice President and CFO for Global Connect at Nielsen. Fredrik is one of the few senior leaders who has truly invested in creating a high-performance leadership team and it shows. “FP&A Talks” is a new series running on fpa-trends.com featuring senior leaders in Financial Planning & Analysis who share their views on how we can create a world-class FP&A department. 

Now let’s see what Fredrik has to say about high-performance in Finance.

How we normally define a high performer in Finance

Q: If I had asked you ten years ago how would you define high performers in your finance function?

High performers would stand out in my organization. They would consistently exceed expectations, need little hand-holding, and generate high-quality work. They would be my go-to people for challenging projects because they get the job done.  

Q: Why do you think this is a typical way we think of high performers?

As CFO’s, we are relentlessly pushing to maximize business performance; and our own personal success is linked to hard performance metrics such as revenue growth, margin expansion and cash flow. Therefore, I believe that we naturally associate high performance with “Get Shit Done”. 

What are some of the typical side-effects to high performance

Q: Do you think this kind of high performance is sustainable over time?

I don’t think it’s possible to perform at peak level all the time, day-in and day-out; and I don’t think it’s a healthy way to approach work. However, I do believe that it is possible for all of us to be our best when we absolutely need to. Just look at how athletes prepare for competitions and how they prioritize recovery afterwards to get ready for the next event. 

Q: Often when I ask finance associates to add more value to the business by focusing more on business partnering, they say they don’t have time. Do you think it is a lack of time or energy?

Well, time is a limited resource but personal energy is renewable. We need to learn to manage our ENERGY. That’s the key to achieving sustainable high performance.  

How to make high-performance sustainable

Q: How does this relate to what you have experienced at Nielsen? What did you do to turn things around?

Here is my story: My leadership team and I went through a roller coaster few years of driving change across more than 40 countries in Europe. We went from being a private equity-owned company to a public company. You name the type of change, structural, regulatory, people, we were proud of what we accomplished. But we were also totally exhausted by the end of 2012. I started noticing cracks in the leadership ranks. Sure, we were a high performing team but my leaders were running out of gas. Some were having problems at home, others were making silly mistakes, and all of them were reluctant to take on new change initiatives. The stress was real. Our high performance was not SUSTAINABLE. We needed to change the way we went about our day. Every day.

We all know that people are always the most important asset. But we hadn’t been feeding, fueling and fostering that asset in a way that felt right. So we made changes. I contacted a company called Tignum and signed up for help for myself and my leadership team.  

We went into the Tignum program with some core goals. Some selfishly good for the company (boost stamina and resilience), but at the same time, good for the individuals and our finance team in Europe. Here’s what we hoped would happen: 

  • Our productivity would increase 
  • Our work-life balance would change for the better and our quality of life would improve.
  • We needed better habits. We ate badly. We worked all hours. We had no off switch, collectively or individually. 

We went to boot camp and joined the program. It started with tests. Medical and fitness tests. Lots of them. We ended up with report cards on our bodies that were brutally honest. We spent the next two days focusing on: Mindset, nutrition, movement, and recovery. Each learning step was based on a foundation of scientific support but was done in a way that made it accessible and manageable. I felt like we could make substantial changes to our habits, including eating better, moving more and finding moments of downtime to recharge our batteries.

Post-program, my breakfast of a cappuccino and croissant turned into a breakfast of green tea, bifidus yogurt and a homemade mix of nuts, which included chia seeds and goji berries. In the office, I now walk up and down three flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator; I move regularly during calls instead of sitting down; I frequently snack on nuts; and I drink plenty of water. Once a day, I take a 15-minute power nap – YES, a power nap during work hours! Usually, after lunch, I drink an espresso that will give a caffeine boost just as I wake up from my nap.

After six months, Tignum re-tested us. Our numbers were good - big improvements!

What a truly high-performing finance organization can achieve

Q: Imagine everyone in Finance living by at least some of these principles how do you think it would change the function?

The finance function would become stronger: More resilient, more energetic, more engaged.

Q: How has it changed the finance function at Nielsen and what results have you seen?
We have been preaching to our teams about the benefits of our new habits. The impact has been significant: Our turnover is minuscule, our Gallup Employee Engagement Survey result across 100 countries reached a high last year, and I truly believe that we have turned the corner to become a SUSTAINABLE high performing team.

Q: What parting thoughts would you like to leave finance professionals out there struggling with making ends meet with?

I would start with prioritizing recovery: First, set a goal of getting one more hour of sleep each night. Second, track your sleep every night to ensure that you are moving towards your goal (what you measure, you can improve). Third, build short recovery breaks into your daily routine. These are simple first steps towards achieving sustainable high performance. Then start exploring the other three areas: Mindset, nutrition and movement.

Fascinating story from Fredrik. This is a completely different way of creating a high-performing team (at least one that’s sustainable over time). There are lots of lessons learned for all of us!


This was the first episode of “FP&A Talks”.  I hope you enjoyed as much as I did!

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