In a time of accelerated change for business, here's how chief financial officers can go far beyond the status quo.
Once known as elite accountants, today’s chief financial officers know numbers aren’t enough. For their organizations to succeed, CFOs must do far more than deliver on-time and accurate financial reporting. As their roles have expanded, they are corporate leaders in their own right, charting a course toward the future.
“The old-school skills of accounting and compliance won’t cut it in the modern world. A CFO needs to be a well-rounded business leader, which encompasses technological mastery, strategic thinking and team-building,” says Jack McCullough, founder and president of CFO Leadership Council near Boston.
Mark Thresher, executive vice president and CFO at Nationwide, agrees. “It’s about much more than financial statement. The CFO has to be a key adviser to the CEO and the board about the business in general. You need an understanding of how decisions are made about buying and selling, the products we offer, where we are headed and why.”
Those knowledgeable about the CFO’s world today share their thoughts on success in the role.Stay up to date with the region’s movers and shakers, top employers, philanthropic causes, real estate developments and thriving creative and startup scenes. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
1. Strategic thinking
More than ever, CFOs look to the future. With accounting officers, compliance officers and controllers assuming larger roles, the CFO can focus on aligning finances with the organization’s high-level goals and strategies.
“It is impossible for a business owner to maximize the value of their business without a true CFO who matches their strategy to the numbers,” says Brad Martyn, founder of FocusCFO, a Columbus-based company providing fractional CFO services to companies in four states.
“A CFO outlines and implements the plan to maximize the value by identifying ways to increase operating cash flow, reduce business risk and create a platform of scalable growth.”
Deloitte addresses the issue in a series of articles aimed at executives, saying It’s imperative that CFOs ask the right questions about where the company is currently positioned; what prevents or could prevent it from achieving its potential; and then framing strategies accordingly.
2. Risk and resilience
Risk comes in many shapes and sizes, from an organization’s investment portfolio to its use of third-party vendors. Companies also grapple with an array of other potential hazards, including lawsuits, tariffs, cyber security and movement on the financial markets. “From a standpoint of risk, everything is so much more complicated,” says Phil Renaud, executive director of the Risk Institute at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
Today’s CFOs need a thorough grounding in business and predictive analytics, as well as training in IT and human resources, Renaud says.
At Nationwide, which is in both the insurance and financial sectors, “we can’t de-link risk from how we run the business,” Thresher says. Risk is a framework for many decisions, such as how much capital to put behind its businesses and how to invest its assets, he says.
Vendors are a big part of the equation, Thresher says. “Every time we sign a contract, it’s with the idea that they had better be in business when they need them,” whether it’s an IT cloud provider or a windshield manufacturer.
A successful CFO builds resilience into the organization’s operating and strategic foundations. Renaud cites as an example what happened when a fire shut down the plant that was sole supplier of a key microchip for the Ford F150. With no backup, production on the truck ground to a halt. “(Having) two vendors would have addressed that, but it would have been more expensive,” Renaud says. “In his role, the CFO may say the resilience of the business is worth it.”
Part of the job is to temper optimism and consider what could disrupt the organization, be it a possible recession or losing its largest customer, McCullough says. “You need to run those scenarios.”
3. ‘Walking the floor’ and beyond
CFOs must understand operations and strategy from all perspectives. To be of most value, they should work with every functional group in the business, including sales, marketing, operations and production, Martyn says.
From going on the road with sales leaders to spending time in a call center, “You need to know all aspects of the business, and spend as much time as you can with your business leaders,” Thresher says. For example, he stays engaged in government relations, legal and human resources to better understand all the variables.
That kind of insight into may explain why the next step for today’s CFOs sometimes is the chief executive officer’s seat. Two recent examples are Tim Robinson at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Mike Kaufmann at Cardinal Health.
4. Team-building and EQ
Building elite teams is critical to CFO and organizational success. “My goal is to hire people smarter than I am. I can’t be an expert in all things— taxes, investments, legal,” Thresher says. By being able to trust and rely on those around them, the CFO can have a higher-level view of the company and its future.
A CFO should be a strong leader, coach and mentor, and have the ability to listen, Martyn says. “EQ (emotional intelligence) is a real plus, and you can’t always teach that. It’s an ability to interact with people so they trust and confide in you. The better ones have an innate ability to do that, much like a doctor’s bedside manner.”
5. Time out
It’s challenging in the short term but imperative in the long term that executives find room for non-work activities, McCullough says. The late auto industry titan Lee Iacocca was known for treasuring family time, and even U.S. presidents have carved out a half hour daily for physical activity. “It’s a great mood regulator,” McCullough says, adding that many top executives have said time away from work has been a factor in their success. Community service and membership on nonprofit boards also provide an outlet.
“CFOS are the ethical leaders of their organizations, not only in terms of their own behavior but in terms of creating a culture where ethics count,” McCullough says. “As CFO, you set the example for the entire organization.”
Thresher says, “My role is to protect the honesty and integrity of the company.”
Laurie Allen is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.