Date posted: 29/04/2020 10 min read

Lara Ariell FCA: Inland Revenue’s frank and fearless CFO

Accountants need to be technically literate, engaging, and able to communicate in plain English, says Lara Ariell FCA.

In Brief

  • Lara Ariell FCA believes accountants can have bright futures by focusing on building relationships as computers do the number crunching.
  • As CFO of NZ’s Internal Revenue, she is replacing its back-office systems to be more future ready.
  • Out-of-the-box tools by Microsoft and Oracle have transformed the way her team works, slicing weeks off project delivery.

By Stuart Ridley

Ask someone to describe an ‘influencer’ and they might spin a line about the shallowness of social media stars on Instagram or offer a fast opinion on back-room political dealmakers. But it’s unlikely they’ll think of an accountant.

And yet, as Lara Ariell FCA rightly points out, good accountants have always influenced major decisions taken by the people and organisations they serve.

“We learn at university you need quality and relevant information to make timely decisions,” notes the CFO of New Zealand Inland Revenue. “And it’s very much about helping people forecast and plan. But I think as a profession we underrate the importance of influencing skills to get our ideas across in a non-technical, non jargony way.”

Ariell believes accountants can have bright futures – even as computers take over more of the number-crunching and analytical work – by focusing more on building strong human relationships. Having access to the latest numbers is essential, but people also want ‘plain English’ advice from people they trust.

Training during a recession

On 19 October 1987 – a day now remembered as Black Monday – stock exchanges around the world began crashing hard, with trillions of dollars lost globally.

In New Zealand, the adjustment was especially harsh. Easier access to loans thanks to banking deregulation and a loosening of foreign exchange controls had fed a frenzy of share market and real estate speculation, saddling a lot of businesses and individuals with heavy debts.

Ariell was studying for a Bachelor of Business Studies at Massey University when New Zealand’s long recession began. During term breaks she did internships at PwC [then known as Price Waterhouse] to learn about receivership and insolvency.

“I was insistent I wanted to do corporate recovery work and some partners at Price Waterhouse gave me a shot,” she remembers. “It was a defining part of my career, working on the ground in businesses and seeing what models worked, what didn’t…

“It was my first exposure to stuff we now call change management: identifying problems, solving them in a really structured way and trying to get the best outcomes for as many parties as possible, when you’re balancing diverse and competing interests.”

It also made her quite risk adverse. She learned that if you don’t have the right information and resources available, you can’t make good decisions.

A commercial mindset in government

Ariell joined the public service in 1995, about five years into her career, because she was attracted by opportunities to help build the financial management capability of institutions such as the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Justice.

In her first big agency role, as CFO at New Zealand’s Ministry of Justice, she had the opportunity to work with a group of CFOs from other justice sector agencies including Police and Corrections, developing strategies to make the sector sustainable through to 2020. Budgets were tightly fixed.

“We had to take ourselves out of the constraints of a government environment and approach it with a commercial mindset,” she explains. “If this was a group of companies with cash-flow and investment challenges, what would you do?

“So we worked with Treasury to create the Justice Sector Fund, which allowed us to share money across the sector instead of always having to bid through a broader New Zealand government budget process.”

The Justice Sector Fund fostered collaboration on projects that benefited the sector as a whole and gave the CFOs longer views of the budgets for their respective agencies. It also brought home to Ariell the importance of giving frank and fearless advice on an organisation’s investment choices, particularly when using public money.

“I’m acutely aware of how much effort goes into collecting the tax dollar,” she says. “And one of the things that has kept me in the public sector is I’ve always felt we owe a duty to New Zealanders to make sure their money is spent wisely.”

Getting buy-in from the organisation

Mapping out more efficient ways of using resources might seem straightforward on paper (or screen), but if you don’t engage your people along the way, you risk your plans failing, warns Ariell.

“You can’t be complacent and think ‘Yes, I’m good at this’,” she says. “You need a mindset of ‘OK, I did that well, but what can we do next time to do it even better?’”

Templates might work when you want consistency across several business groups, she says, but they take you towards a compliance-focused approach to planning. If you want people to genuinely participate in the process, Ariell recommends helping them plan in a way that suits them.

“Then, if you need to consolidate their input so it fits a corporate product, you do the hard work at the centre, as opposed to trying to fit everyone into your process at the front end,” she explains.

“It’s about keeping things out of the complicator – otherwise people won’t relate to it and they won’t be able to draw that golden thread between what the organisation is trying to achieve and what they do in their everyday jobs.”

One easy way to uncomplicate things is to cut out all the corporate jargon, says Ariell, who would rather hear people say what they really mean so the team can get to the resolutions sooner. She’s also not convinced that extended planning timetables are better than concise meetings.

“Planning is often a task that expands to fit the time available, whether that’s six months or six weeks, so the process itself needs to be well designed and well scheduled.”

“Planning is often a task that expands to fit the time available, whether that’s six months or six weeks, so the process itself needs to be well designed and well scheduled.”
Lara Ariell FCA

Making Inland Revenue future-ready

Lara Ariell FCAPicture: Lara Ariell FCA. Image credit: Paul Howell.

Ariell moved to New Zealand Inland Revenue in 2016. As CFO, she’s steering a major transformation of the organisation’s back-office technologies, policies and workforce capabilities.

“Lara is a vital member of our executive team – she has brought a clarity of thinking which has been essential to our development and management of our strong investment and benefits management approach,” says Naomi Ferguson, Inland Revenue’s chief executive and commissioner.

“She is very focused on outcomes and on working collaboratively across the public sector as a whole,” she adds. “[Lara is] leading our work on replacing our back-office systems in a way which means other government departments can benefit from our investment.”

Inland Revenue’s back-office systems are being upgraded to a cloud-based Oracle suite of products in stages, ensuring each component can go live with up-to-date data.

The transactional system, for example, relies on data and functions from the budgeting and planning systems, so Ariell chose to implement those components first, ensuring that Inland Revenue’s budgets were ready to go before the transactional systems went live.

Previously, Inland Revenue’s budgets were managed in a stack of spreadsheets, involving highly detailed manual processes to reconcile costs and other data across business units and the whole group.

“It was quite difficult to document assumptions,” says Ariell. “And then each time changes were made at the last minute, there was a lot of manual maintenance work. Now we have the Oracle EPM (Enterprise Performance Management) suite in, all that information gets captured in the one tool so you have a single source of truth for your planning documentation.” 

Using out-of-the-box tools

Ariell’s belief that a planning task will fit the timetable it’s given has been proven correct. “I gave the team a little bit of a challenge by saying – almost tongue in cheek – ‘OK, we have a new tool set, let’s see if we can do this in three weeks instead of the usual three months.’ And we did,” she says.

According to Ariell, what makes these projects run so smoothly in the Oracle system is that the tool set is intuitive. During training, the management accountants and business partners on the project quickly understood how to capture the information they needed.

One management accountant who’d set aside five days to work with their business group in the new system completed the work in half the time.

“They have the conversations they’d normally have with their business unit managers and all the work is consolidated and reconciled in the system,” she says.

“It’s not a big task because it’s just the way we configured it. Our approach is we’re buying Oracle software-as-a-service, which means we’re configuring it but not doing any customisation.”

Ariell also encourages her team to make the most of better conferencing practices using Microsoft Teams, a video meeting and collaboration platform that can be used with the Oracle system.

That means when Inland Revenue has governance meetings to review and approve budgets, Ariell’s team doesn’t need to spend hours beforehand consolidating budget spreadsheets, loading them into a content management system then outputting them for distribution as slides and board papers – instead, screen sharing via Microsoft Teams gives everyone a live view of reports in the Oracle system.

“It’s not rocket science but it’s certainly a really good example of just implementing what comes out of the box and keeping it uncomplicated,” she says.

Building your team’s talents and capabilities

While new technology certainly helps Inland Revenue modernise both the back-office and customer-facing parts of the business, the bigger transformation is happening at a very human level.

Yes, many people are improving their technical skills – and Ariell wants everyone at Inland Revenue to be digitally literate – however, there’s also a big focus on the ‘soft’ skills that some people find a challenge.

“We want people to communicate really clearly and develop as leaders, rather than just as managers,” says Ariell. “We’re also helping people adapt to change by moving from a task-based job description to a mix of capabilities for each role.”

Defining the levels required for the capability mix in each role can also be useful for mapping career progress. A member of Inland Revenue’s finance team, for example, will be able to see clearly what their capability mix and levels look like compared with those of the CFO, because they’re described in the same way.

“The thing I’m quite excited about is that CA ANZ will have a capability set for accountants,” says Ariell. “So when we design accountant roles, we will map the Inland Revenue capabilities across to the CA ANZ capabilities, which are very useful for planning your career.”

“When we design accountant roles, we will map the Inland Revenue capabilities across to the CA ANZ capabilities, which are very useful for planning your career.”
Lara Ariell FCA

Ariell likes being in the driver’s seat. “I know I can be control freakish because it’s my name on the door. And sometimes what keeps me up at night is I’m not as patient with people as I could be. I’m aware of it. Leaders need to communicate clearly and have clarity and integrity – we also need to be kind.”

She admits she could be better at balancing work and family commitments, although these days she’s more disciplined about trying to leave the office by 6pm.

On a speakers’ panel during Oracle’s Modern Cloud Day (MCD) event in Sydney last December, Ariell joked: “When my kids were smaller, they gave me a T-shirt that said ‘Half CFO, Half Vampire’, the logic being that I went to work in the dark and came home in the dark – therefore I must be a vampire, which I thought was cool.”

She still starts most days at 7am, networking over coffee with CFOs and other leaders across the public sector, then keeps the next hour free for her team. She’s not big on formal reporting – “We just have good quality conversations, with no surprises, hopefully” – and finds most people communicate better when they’re allowed to be frank.

Most days she divides her time into thirds: being part of the executive team leading Inland Revenue’s transformation program; leading and coaching her own team; and collaborating with other agencies across the public service.

“You do need to take time out to recharge and I jokingly say I’m not good at work-life balance because I get some of my recharging from doing work I find really interesting and challenging,” Ariell says.

“I see part of my job as about giving people challenging opportunities so they can grow. When you see people grow into an opportunity that’s energising and they nail something they never thought they could do, it’s magic.”