Jess ElmquistDecember 5, 2023
Topics: Employee Experience

How do you spell CFO? L-O-V-E

My guest this month on “Smarter” isn’t a CHRO, but he might as well be one. Davinder Athwal is the chief financial officer at Phenom, and he understands talent strategy better than most of his financial peers. We came from different industries and joined Phenom at about the same time. We value each other’s opinions and we’re constantly bouncing ideas off one another.

Traditionally, CFOs are preoccupied with the economy, competitive threats, profits, and cash flows. Table stakes stuff. Athwal is well-versed in the foundational basics. It isn’t until you actually sit down with him and hear him talk about issues outside the scope of Finance do you begin to realize that he’s more than “just” a CFO.

For example, he believes it’s not enough for a company to merely have satisfied customers. The way to keep them coming back is for them to love your organization. And the way to do that is by fostering a workplace culture where employees feel valued.

“If I don't love working here, it's much more difficult for me to create products and services that my customers are going to love,” he said of employees in general. “If I don't love what I'm doing here and love the people I'm around and doing it with, I'm faking it.”

He speaks passionately about talent, apropos because he’s seated in front of a framed picture of the iconic “LOVE” statue located near City Hall in Philadelphia. When a CHRO and CFO get together to talk shop, expect a spirited conversation. And that’s precisely what we had.

[Watch the full podcast episode here, listen to it on Apple and Spotify, or continue reading for the big takeaways]

The one-two tandem

CHROs and CFOs have more in common than most people think. They’re committed to the same end goal—a successful company and a happy team. But over time, silos can grow around each team’s perspective: HR is focused on hiring, retaining, and developing employees, while Finance is focused on forecasting accurately and ensuring an organization meets its financial targets.

Without a commitment to collaboration and communication, these fundamentally distinct approaches can quickly lead to misunderstandings that devolve into dysfunction.

“That's a place where CHROs and CFOs can really partner together,” Athwal said.

Where HR and Finance come together is strategic workforce planning that supports the overall business strategy. If a company decides to enter a new market, a key component is planning its workforce to support that strategy. That was certainly the case when I led recruiting at Life Time as the organization was rapidly expanding country clubs. The business leaders and I would map out a talent strategy to support the new locations.

HR, working in concert with Finance, needs to decide whether to hire or use a contingent workforce; retrain employees or hire new talent; or hire in headquarters or open a new location to attract new talent. These are not insignificant labor costs.

Nor are they mere headcount planning tactics. It’s looking at your current workforce’s skills, and modeling hiring and ramp-up scenarios. Again, the strategic workforce plan drives the operational workforce plan, not the other way around.

When finding the right job becomes personal

Business acumen aside, Athwal knows firsthand the frustration of the job search.

His parents emigrated to the UK from India in the mid-1960s. His dad was a military engineer who specialized in an emerging field at the time, electronics communication. Tech companies in India were falling over themselves to hire him. He assumed that same dynamic would play out when he got to the UK, but it didn’t turn out quite that way.

“He couldn't even get a response,” Athwal remembered.

Was it because his dad didn’t go to the right school? Didn’t work for a well-known employer? Or was it something more nefarious?

“In short, he just was not a normal candidate for the kind of jobs that he was looking for,” Athwal said.

Assessing a candidate’s actual skills, and not some tenuous proxies that are a poor indicator of success is, unfortunately, still a way of life in 2023. Some organizations are getting the message and using artificial intelligence to objectively evaluate people. That’s the good news. But there are still too many employers who rely on antiquated, unreliable yardsticks to measure suitability.

That’s really too bad.

CFO of the Year

Looking at Athwal’s career from those bagel-buying days to now, many would be impressed by the trajectory. But not those of us who know him. It was only a matter of time before others figured out what we already knew about the professionalism he brings to the job. His peers went so far as to nominate him for the Philadelphia Business Journal’s CFO of the Year award. He won! Again, no surprise there.

“To be recognized among that group it really does feel extra special to have that honor,” he said.

About 20 CFOs in total were recognized. “They were all super business people,” said Athwal. Not a single back-office, bean counter type in the group, which speaks to the evolution of the role. They are important not only for the CEO and the C-suite to direct financial strategy, but being a strategy leader.

“I would liken this to great chess players,” he said. “Finance leaders have to go beyond being linear thinkers just focused on the next step to capture a pawn or a bishop on the board, to being strategic thinkers who plan multiple moves ahead.”


HR leaders – what’s your relationship with the CFO like? How are the two of you working together to better the organization? Drop me a line on LinkedIn and let’s get a conversation going.

About Smarter

“Smarter” is a podcast where I engage with top experts and senior leaders to uncover the big people trends, unlock the insights, and listen for new ideas related to purpose, people, and the processes that work the best. Let’s get smarter together.

Jess Elmquist

Jess Elmquist is the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Evangelist at Phenom. In a previous career as the Chief Learning Officer at Life Time, the healthy way of life company, Jess hired more than 200,000 people and spoke to hundreds of his executive peers about talent trends.

Get the latest talent experience insights delivered to your inbox.

Sign up to the Phenom email list for weekly updates!


© 2024 Phenom People, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

  • ANA
  • CSA logo
  • IAF
  • ISO
  • ISO
  • ISO
  • ISO
  • ANAB