What makes a CFO great


By Sabine Vollmer

Corporate finance leaders face four main challenges. Tackling them will allow CFOs to shape strategy and drive innovation necessary for sustainable growth, but it will also rapidly expand their role, EY research suggests.

A majority of finance leaders said they are increasingly expected to have digital know-how, use data analytics, and manage risks. They also have to deal more with shareholders and regulators than before, according to a global EY survey of more than 750 finance leaders.

Taking on the additional responsibilities is crucial to help develop and enable an overall strategy for the business, provide insights and analysis to the company’s executive management, ensure that business decisions are grounded in sound financial criteria, and represent progress on financial goals to external stakeholders, according to EY.

“The days of the CFO sitting in the corner office counting beans are long gone,” said Pip Spibey, ACMA, CGMA, the CFO at Travelport Locomote, an Australian company that offers a business travel platform. “A CFO is required to be a strategic business partner above all else, with an appreciation for all the moving parts in the business. That’s probably the most significant shift in recent years.”

Financial leaders see the patterns in the data and make sure senior management understands them, said Chris Rogers, CPA, CGMA, the CFO of Infragistics, a US software developer with operations in Europe and Asia.

A great CFO is a partner to the CEO and in private his or her harshest critic when warranted, he said.

Digital know-how. To fulfil critical strategic priorities, 58% of the respondents said they need to better understand digital technologies and data analytics. Two technologies are shaping up to become particularly important for finance leaders to understand: Blockchain, which allows data to be exchanged with the help of a decentralised ledger, could transform corporate reporting. Robotics process automation promises to automate and reduce the cost of back-office processes.

“Twenty years ago, pivot tables were cutting-edge,” Rogers said. “Mobility is today’s challenge – taking disparate systems and putting them in the cloud and making them secure and accessible in real time, so you can make decisions today instead of tomorrow.”

Digital savvy is a priority across industry sectors, because it offers opportunities for growth – in new markets, through new products and delivery models, or by transforming existing products. Financial leaders who understand how their company can deliver on its digital strategy can co-ordinate and focus investments accordingly.

Digital issues to tackle include global tax implications for how goods and services are sold; where companies base their operations; robotics; and new competitors.

A good digital strategy helps a company figure out which technology provides the best return on investment and possibly other intangible benefits, Spibey said. “Not everything will work for your business.”

Data analytics. In the past decade, half of the finance leaders polled by EY have increased the amount of time they dedicate to advanced analytics to provide more insight to the CEO and senior management. Of the respondents in the 2016 survey, 57% said that being able to deliver the data and advanced analytics will be critical for the finance function.

“Using Big Data along with your own internal data makes your internal data even more powerful, and it provides context and connection to the marketplace,” Rogers said.

For companies to turn these efforts into a long-term competitive advantage, data must become integral to the business strategy, and analytics delivery must match business requirements. To gain more value from analytics, business leaders should focus on training, easy-to-use tools for data users, and aligning incentives, rewards, and measurements.

Risk management. Two-thirds of financial leaders in large companies (more than $5 billion in annual revenue) and 54% of financial leaders in smaller companies said they believe risk management will be a key capability demanded of the finance function.

To play their part effectively, CFOs must think beyond prevention and identify strategic risks, bring up risks in strategic and business planning discussions, and take the time and resources to recruit talent in advanced analytical skills.

“By understanding the pain points of pivotal departments in your organisation,” Spibey said, “you can look at a balanced level of risk that allows for creativity and mistakes in order to drive the best possible solutions and outcomes.”

Stakeholder scrutiny and regulation. Half of the financial leaders polled said they will have to improve their skills managing relationships with stakeholders, including investors and senior management; in emerging markets it was 59% of respondents.

Understanding what drives stakeholders, communicating proactively, and telling a consistent story about the business will be critical to strengthen stakeholder relationships.

Intense regulatory scrutiny requires CFOs to also work ever more closely with policymakers. Of the finance leaders polled, 71% said they will increasingly be responsible for the ethics of their company’s decision-making.

A great CFO “is a great communicator and is as comfortable talking to boards and investors as [he or she is talking to] a roomful of software engineers,” Spibey said. “They are flexible and listen to ideas, commercially astute, and up to date with technologies.”

How to tackle the challenges

To help identify and assess fresh strategic approaches and help their companies, EY considers these five areas as critical:

  • Support innovation and new business models. Collaborating with entrepreneurs and start-ups helps drive innovation and meet changing customer and emerging market needs. CFOs play a key role in building successful collaborations, including effective due diligence on potential partners, aligning incentives between partners, and establishing an effective governance model.
  • Develop and deliver agile strategy. Business strategies should adapt to changing competitive dynamics, differing customer needs, emerging technologies, and a changing regulatory environment. CFOs can develop and deliver these strategies, for example, by unlocking capital for new business opportunities.
  • Drive sustained, long-term growth. Identifying risks as early as possible, managing negative exposures, and seizing opportunities help companies adapt to uncertainties generated by market and regulatory volatility. CFOs can provide investment flexibility to seize growth opportunities, such as new products and services or entering new markets.
  • Inspire and lead the way with strong purpose and ethics. Articulating a business’s purpose and ethical stance motivates employees to meet new challenges. CFOs help embed purpose in the business by leading through example and by grounding it to performance measurements.
  • Support digital. Understanding the opportunities and risks allows companies to incorporate digital into their strategy and into the delivery of the strategy. CFOs can then help the business to deliver the right digital capability at scale, be it by striking a balance between near-term targets and long-term potential or by building the business case for significant technology investments.

Sabine Vollmer (svollmer@aicpa.org) is a CGMA Magazine senior editor.