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Sincerity, Authenticity and Collaboration in Finance: A Q&A with Johnson & Johnson’s Stephen Rivera

Stephen Rivera, VP, Global Technical Accounting Advisory Services & Policy, Johnson & Johnson and CFRI presenter, discusses how finance can encourage personal growth with technical skills.

What are the key takeaways from CFRI and how can they be operationalized? Controllers from some of the largest companies in Corporate America will debrief on the important themes discussed and share their perspectives on day-to-day management through the interconnectivity of technical accounting and financial reporting, technology, service delivery, transformation and people issues. Learn about the challenges they face today and what their expectations are for the future of finance.

FEI Daily speaks with Stephen Rivera, VP, Global Technical Accounting Advisory Services & Policy, Johnson & Johnson, and CFRI committee member.
FEI Daily: You’re on the planning committee for CFRI. What was vision for the conference this year and why the focus on leadership and technology?

Stephen Rivera: This year there's a focus on thinking about peoples’ ability to find their place in corporate America, based on your style and who you are. People want to work in an environment where they can be authentic. We will also focus on unconscious bias and being inclusive. Sometimes the finance and accounting profession does not allow people to be themselves because there is a certain style that people expect one must have in order to be successful. When I look back on my career journey, I was a candidate that did not fit the traditional mold of an accountant. I am different in many ways – I am Hispanic, I am an extrovert and I am passionate about everything I do. Early in my career, these were not ‘good’ qualities for finance and accounting professionals in corporate America.  I have been fortunate in working for leaders who are willing to be open and accept me for who I am and allow me to be the best at what I do. Being caring, passionate and energetic about people is not a weakness. Good leaders are the ones that people want to work for. Good leaders care and bring the best attributes out of the people who for them. Further, leadership is all about sincere collaboration. People want to work for leaders who are relatable and willing to share some of their vulnerabilities. Good leaders help ease the stress of difficult accounting and finance roles that are difficult and often require long work days.

This year we are also focusing on how technology is changing the focus of a finance career. There are a lot of important questions we need to address. What does it mean to be a future finance leader in this new world, where one still needs to understand the latest rules and regulations, but also apply this other aspect of technology? What skills will our future workforce need?

FEI Daily: What are some of the other themes that you're hoping to cover during the Controllers’ Roundtable session?

Rivera: Again, technology will be a big theme during the Controllers’ Roundtable session. Another theme that I talked to Alice Jolla (2019 CFRI Chair) is getting “back to basics” regarding accounting compliance. We have to hold people accountable for doing the right thing when it comes to accounting compliance. The compliance function of being the controller or the chief accountant of a company is all about getting it right. People must know that the rules are written for a reason, and people who do not follow the rules really should be thinking about taking a different career path.

Accounting compliance is so basic yet, people think they can get around it, or they think that they can push the envelope. I have said to Alice many times that the companies that do not exist today are the companies that did not do the right thing. Once a company engages in bad accounting practices, it loses its reputation and it loses respect in the world of finance and accounting. Sometimes a company is labeled as a company to stay away from based on its reputation and practices. Other times, a company ceases to exist due to improper practices and disregard for compliance.

One of the key messages that I share with younger professionals who are starting their careers in finance is that “you can always fix a product if something goes wrong.” Sometimes products do not work and we have to fix it, and sometimes we have to innovate a product to make it better. Once the product is fixed, we can start selling it again. But, if a company suffers damage from people who are not ethical and do not do the right thing, it is usually too late to fix things.

Having a reverence for the accounting profession and having accountability for decisions are important. It has been 17 years since Sarbanes-Oxley was enacted. Are we in a better place? Do we have respect for the controller and the chief accountant of the company? Or are the roles still considered “back-office”? Do the controller and the chief accountant have the power to say no? The answer for me is “absolutely.”  I have the power to say “no,” based on the professional license that I worked hard to earn, and the values in Our Credo that I embraced when I joined Johnson & Johnson in 2005. Our Credo describes our responsibility to the people and communities we serve. There is no room for not doing the right thing.

FEI Daily: You mentioned technology earlier. How has technology changed your role and the nature of the work you do?
Rivera: In many ways, I have just started the technology journey. My group serves a very unique function at Johnson & Johnson. We set US GAAP accounting policy for a multi-national organization that spans three different industries (consumer products, pharmaceuticals and medical devices). We also provide analysis and advice on accounting issues. We get questions from around the globe that range a wide spectrum – from basic accounting questions to very unique situations that require in-depth research and collaboration.
In 2015, Johnson & Johnson launched technical accounting training modules for the finance organization that simplify our most-used accounting policies in a user-friendly training format. This have been a huge success at Johnson & Johnson. It was a great example of using technology to simplify our policies to help our employees.

We also have a chat-bot in the works that uses automation and robotics for accounting policy questions. We want it to be like Amazon’s Alexa and we want it to assist in some of the low-level of questions we receive. We have so many young people and new people joining the company and I think a chat-bot can provide some basic directions and guidance, especially if they do not know where to go. Imagine someone asking for a basic accounting policy and the chat-bot describes where the policy is and provides some key background about it. The chat-bot may even suggest training courses if folks need more help.

Of course, I do not think a robot can take care of the more complex accounting issues that my team deals with regularly, but it is a start and may allow my team to free-up time to do other things.

Technology is ever-changing and I am excited by the potential impact it could have in my organization.

FEI Daily: Why is it so important for Controllers to connect with their peers?
Rivera: It is all about learning and collaborating. Connecting with one another allows us to share best practices, benchmark and share new ideas. At Johnson & Johnson, we have saved time and effort by working with others to find solutions to complex issues that were shared by our peers. And, I can say that we have shared solutions and experiences with our peers that have helped them work through issues.