Seun Salami, Chief Accounting Officer (CAO) at TIAA, a financial services organization that serves the academic, medical, and governmental fields, has a unique approach to his role, seeing it through the lens of his economist background that focuses on people, process, and technology as inputs.
Indeed, many accountants focus on optimizing the process and technology inputs. However, Salami sees clearly the need to use talent to help improve the process and execute on the technology. “[Talent] is the piece that stitches everything together,” Salami says. “And having the right combination of talent is super important.”
Salami has lived in four different countries and three different continents over the last 20 years of his career, and credits his success with his undergraduate degrees in accounting and management, master’s degrees in finance and economics, and accreditations as a chartered accountant and Certified Public Accountant. He also invests his time in the next generation of accountants as a board member of the Illinois CPA Society and serves on the board of the nonprofit United Hospital Fund, which works to improve healthcare for every New Yorker.
He also spends his time trying to be a great dad to three young girls.
As CAO, Salami has sought to optimize the talent in his organization by examining how diverse it is as to gender, race and ethnicity, skills, industry background, etc. He and his management team need to understand the collective skill levels within the function, as well as the gaps, the market demand for each skill, and how these skill levels complement each other to achieve the four objectives of the accounting department.
These objectives push the accounting department to act as:
- a steward preserving the assets of TIAA, minimizing risks, and getting the books right;
- an operator running the function efficiently and effectively;
- a strategist to shape the overall strategy and direction of the accounting department, moving it from an “accounting help desk” to a key contributor that supports clients and business strategy, evaluating strategic choices, assessing their value implications, and linking them to financial metrics; and
- a catalyst making sure that the CAO instills a financial approach and mindset throughout the organization to improve performance.
Assessing collective talent assets
Since he stepped into the CAO role in early-2019, Salami has focused on understanding the make-up of his organization in detail. More than half of his direct reports are women. Most of his business managers come from varying industry backgrounds, but all have the insurance sector in common. And, at TIAA, the average tenure of associates in the accounting and controller functions is 10 years.
Based on the diverse nature of his workforce, Salami sees a huge opportunity to optimize the operations of his organization to further its transformation to meet the accounting needs of a growing company. He continues to identify opportunities to apply technology to transactional processing and help members of his team utilize automation tools for some of these activities.
One area his team is currently focused on is in the reconciliation function, and training his team members to not only do the work but also to take a step back and look at what story the numbers or reconciliation is telling them — the proverbial What? So what? And now what?
Empowering staff & attracting young talent
Salami is also focused on transforming how people look at their careers, performance, and development. On a very basic level, he says, we start the conversation with each associate by asking him or her, “What is important to you?” Then, Salami and his leadership team collaboratively explore how the associate’s aspirations and skills match the needs of the organization. In this way, he strives to give each person a fulfilling career.
When it comes to younger team members, Salami adjusts his approach to meet the early-career professionals where they are. Salami knows, for example, that Gen Y and Z want access to leadership, the opportunity to share their perspectives and be heard, and clearly defined options for career growth. To attract early-career talent, his team employs a robust internship program, recruiting 8 to 10 interns each year. Those who return to TIAA as full time staff see the commitment to their career growth that the organization is making, which includes paying for the CPA exam and providing funding for prep courses and continuing education opportunities, post-CPA exam.
Salami says he is very optimistic about the future the accounting profession because organizations such as TIAA show they value accountants and are focused on these three areas:
- Committing to expose accountants to business mechanics;
- Empowering accountants to be strategists that will help shape the overall direction of the organization; and
- Leveraging accountants to help instill a financial mindset within the organization.
“Gone are the days where accountants have to sit in the back office focused only on books and records,” he says. “We’re seeing a future where accountants are sitting at the table with other expert strategists in the front of the house, helping with pertinent decision support and analysis.”