The CFO’s impact on innovation was a strong theme at this year’s Wall Street Journal CFO Network Annual Meeting on June 11 in Washington D.C. Setting the tone was the opening discussion with Sean Boyle, CFO at Amazon Web Services.
Amazon Web Services’ charter is to not only help its customers build their own innovations on its cloud platform, but to keep innovating new products and services for its customers. Prior to taking the helm as CFO in 2015, Boyle served as CFO at Apptio, and has held other finance and IT leadership positions at Amazon and Ford Motor Co.
At the event, Boyle shared his philosophy about what he calls “two-pizza teams,” the diversity of skills on his finance team, and why his goal is to be a “CFO-go,” not a “CFO-no.”
Read on for five takeaways from the interview with Boyle, conducted onstage by Dow Jones & Company CFO Christina Van Tassell.
Start Small. When looking to innovate, Boyle recommends that organizations invest in small teams—meaning a team shouldn’t be able to consume more than two pizzas in one sitting, he said (a comparison that brought chuckles from the audience). “What that does is help us see investments in a relatively low-cost way, iterate very quickly, and have a concept of ‘failing fast,’” he said. So when something does fail, a team can switch gears until they “find a model that works, and delivers the results we want.”
Mirror the Business. “We have a finance structure that mirrors the business team,” Boyle said. “My folks are deeply embedded in the business. My rule of success for the team is that folks operate informally as a COO of their areas, and that they’re virtually indistinguishable in a business meeting from their (business) partners, except for their pronounced skills in their area of expertise.”
Trust Your Team. That includes freeing them to try new things, Boyle said. “My default is not to say, ‘No, you have to prove it to me.’ My default is to say ‘Yes,’ and to ask hard questions to help me get to yes. My comical reference to that is not to be CFO-no, but CFO-go. Our goal is to help the business teams go very quickly.”
Look Beyond Accounting Skills. Boyle said there are “hundreds” of people on his finance team, but their skills are quite diversified. “The business has grown tremendously and so has the skill set of the team,” he said. In addition to accounting and finance experts, his team has MBAs with undergraduate degrees in engineering, data scientists, software development engineers, and business intelligence engineers, as just a few examples.
Through the discussion, Boyle used the word “invention” frequently—a testament to the innovative mindset he tries to promote throughout his organization. “What we’ve observed is having this rich composition of skill sets has been absolutely necessary both to support our business and to support the invention that we have to undertake to maintain our ability to scale.”
Clearly Articulate Ideas Early. Amazon Web Services has an “absolutely sincere commitment” to customers, Boyle said, adding that focus impacts everything from hiring decisions to ideation. One way Amazon Web Services stays committed to delivering on customer value is through its PR/FAQ process, which stands for its press release and frequently asked questions. Simply put, teams write up new ideas in press release and FAQ form. By articulating their ideas in a narrative form, teams can better envision what they plan to ultimately deliver, he said.
The PR/FAQ serves as a “reference artifact that maintains a very high level of aspiration for what we will continue to strive for over time,” Boyle said. “That adds maturity and objectives to these investments in great ideas.”