Change / transformation Current Affairs Finance Leadership

Quit talking about change. Do something about it instead.

You say change and complexity have got you down?

You don’t know what change and complexity are — not until you’ve walked a mile in John Hill’s shoes, anyway.

At a time when residents were fleeing Detroit in search of a fresh start, Hill rolled into town and accepted a nearly impossible task: He agreed to become Detroit’s CFO and help restructure the city’s operations, finances, and economy.

Think about that for a second.

In 2013, Detroit stood at the brink of financial and social ruin. On July 18, 2013, the city filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history. The city’s debt at the time was estimated to be between $18 billion and $20 billion. Detroit’s proud auto industry was reeling in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008-09. The city’s population had plunged from a high of 1.8 million in 1950 to about 700,000 in 2012, which left “tens of thousands of abandoned buildings, vacant lots and unlit streets” throughout the dilapidated city.

Four months after that bankruptcy filing, in walked Hill as the city’s new CFO.

Talk about change and complexity.

Hill didn’t blink, though. He delivered.

“(H)e helped navigate the city through (the bankruptcy) process and has been systematically implementing structural reforms to improve the city’s financial management systems, revenue collection efforts, and restructuring the city’s financial functions,” wrote Crain’s Detroit.

In fact, Hill was named Detroit’s top government CFO by Crain’s, which cited his handling of Detroit’s bankruptcy finance process and his efforts to transform the city’s finance operations.

His secret: Hill changed Detroit's finance staff, processes and structure … all at once. "Doing it slowly,” he explained, “would have been fatal." In fact, Hill told the crowd at Oracle’s 2016 Modern Finance Experience in Chicago, “I was worried we weren't changing things fast enough."

In other words, when your only alternative is extinction, transformation and innovation look like safe bets.

In that light, Hill offered five pieces of advice for change management:

  1. Continuously talk about your vision. Communicate it ... and live it.
  2. Identify and destroy every single silo you see.
  3. Find your change agents and support / celebrate them.
  4. Encourage people to question everything you do at every level.
  5. Turn your words into action.

In other words: Walk the talk. Do what you say you have to do. If you insist this profession must move boldly toward the future, be the first to take that step. Do what you know must be done … and what your clients insist you must do.

Hill, by the way, is a Maryland CPA. He’s a College Park graduate and one of the first 100 black Maryland CPAs … ever. He served as executive director of Washington D.C.’s Financial Control Board before moving to the Motor City.

If you’ve ever doubted that Maryland CPAs can save the world, you can put those doubts to rest.


William D. Sheridan