The role of a Chief Financial Officer has always been a question of numbers.
Accounting, bookkeeping, digits on spreadsheets, that sort of thing. But modern-day CFOs find they are spending less and less time on finance. They now have bigger fish to fry.
CFOs’ duties and responsibilities, their expertise and their value have all been changing radically over the last two decades. Driving this rapid change are still, in a way, numbers. Perhaps more precisely, the role of the modern Chief Financial Officer is a question of data.
The sheer amount of data at our disposal – the number of numbers, if you like – is colossal; harnessing it requires somebody who knows how to deal with numbers.
Enter the CFO.
I. The traditional role of the CFO
A CFO used to be seen as a company’s account-in-chief, the person responsible for drumming up reports of past performance and the point-person for questions on taxation or compliance. It’s in the last 20 years or so that things have changed quickly.
The turn of the century saw a shift towards Enterprise Resource Planning as software began to mature. When CEOs wanted their company to transition to integrated business planning, they often turned to their CFOs to implement and integrate the new tech solutions.
Global economic turbulence has long proven to be a catalyst for change; after the financial crisis of 2008, more importance became attached to efficient money management and the CFO began to take on business and strategic functions to steady the ship. Covid promises to be another landmark moment in the evolving role of the CFO, as it has put the focus on change management and the need for companies to adapt fast when faced with crisis.
The rise of the start-up has also pushed change over the last decade. Finance Directors joining these young companies that often saw double-digit growth began to see their responsibilities expanded considerably to the point where they often found themselves as privileged advisors to the CEO, the trusted consigliere to the capo, a partner who would drive the integration of new business solutions.
Larger companies are also part of this trend and increasing numbers of CFOs, helped by their new-found experience in strategic planning, are finding themselves being promoted up the ladder to CEO.
CFOs as seen by CEOs
The CFO-CEO relationship has become tighter as a result, as several studies on the future of finance chiefs have suggested.
In its “CFO of the Future” report* published in 2020, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) highlights this growing strategic role. CFOs are put forward as the pillars of SME strategy, as it is they who ensure the operational and the financial resilience of their companies. The Covid-19 pandemic has made the CFO’s bird’s-eye vision of the health of a company even more valuable, as the need to be agile and reactive has become key to survival.
Strategy is a key component of the CFO of tomorrow
A KPMG study* underscores the strategic function of the role. It asked CEOs to list the areas in which their CFOs have had the most impact in their business. Here are the top three results of that survey, in order of importance:
- Performance and growth of the company (dealing with partnrships and strategy);
- Governance of the company (overseeing regulation, the needs of the executive committee, risk management and compliance);
- Efficiency and value (optimising costs, supply chain management).
II. Big Data: the game-changer for CFOs
Back to the eternal link between CFOs and numbers. Digital technology has brought with it an exponential increase in the volume of numbers – that we’ll now call data – that define a company’s future strategy. Every aspect of a company can be quantified and all that data passes under the microscope of the CFO: logistics, customer relations, production, marketing, HR…there is no department in a modern company that cannot be scrutinised through data. There’s so much of it that it needs to be correctly harnessed if it’s to be analyzed to its full potential. “Taming” all this data has fallen to the numbers expert: the CFO.
Data and the rise of real-time reporting
Until the early 2000s, a CFO would typically report on performance that was in the past, on what a company had done. Now, data is visible in real-time and CFOs are able to report on how a company is performing right now. This change in time-frame has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of predictive modelling.
The game now is not about checking numbers generated in the past, but rather about filtering real-time data in order to make decisions about the future. Hence the rapid development of a CFO’s strategic role in a company.
Mastering analytics has therefore become an essential skill for any would-be CFO. The sheer volume of data on each company department is overwhelming, so the challenge is to develop solutions that centralise all that information and identify which data is pertinent when it comes to making business decisions. Modern CFOs need to know which data will give them instant answers to questions such as:
- What is the optimum price for a client or supplier right now?
- What specific information does a certain manager need to be able to improve his department’s efficiency for a new project?
- What inventory do we need to quickly withdraw from the supply chain?
In future, CFOs and finance teams will continue to invest more focus into developing analytics tools that will drive predictive models. That makes understanding technology and digital tools a vital skill for people with that profile. CFOs will likely need to work closer to CIOs and CTOs than they have done in the future.
If digital transformation is priority, CFOs need to know where to start. A survey by McKinsey* on the future roles of finance directors picks out four points that are key in companies’ digital evolution:
- Automization: how to go from an Excel spreadsheet to a fully integrated and automated software.
- Data visualization: data-viz tools will help finance teams analyze, plan and forecast.
- Analytics tools: filtering the vast amount of data will also benefit forecasts for budgets and business plans.
- Digital integration: how do you encourage the transition to digital across the whole company without falling into the trap of over-centralization? It will require integrating the widest range of elements possible, including cost monitoring, operations management and supply chain. For data to truly become a driver of performance company-wide, the approach will need to rely on agile systems.
Leaders who excel in operations, strategy and communication
Strategic vision based on global experience
As CFOs adopt a more strategic advisory role for their CEOs, they will need a full understanding of the market sectors and specificities relative to their company. If their business crosses regional and national boundaries, that means a certain level of cultural understanding will be required.
CFOs must therefore be able to distinguish between economic variables (for example taxes and project separation/integration) as well as cultural ones (labour laws, customer relations, languages) to assist CEOs in their strategic decision-making.
The major studies carried out into the future of finance all point towards the same essential elements: deeper knowledge of the markets concerned, a focus on growth and optimizing the value of investments.
That’s why CFOs who can point to their international experience will be best placed to solve problems grounded in strategy:
- What will be the medium- and long-term impact of a given investment?
- What will be the most precous investments of the next few years?
- Would it be better for the company to back away from certain markets or partnerships?
Marketing, the new ally of Finance
CFOs who took part in the ACCA study generally agree that marketing is a powerful tool for their own profession. In future, they would like to use social media more often as a strategic channel. Companies already communicate with each other via the posts of their CFOs on platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn. It’s a particularly effective way of promoting expansion plans, product launches and company branding and values.
Marketing is also extremely useful to finance departments in terms of data analysis. For example, a finance director can learn much about future sales volumes from customer satisfaction surveys, or understand better what investment is needed in either paid or organic online ads. It’s just another way in which a modern-day CFO can guide company strategy thanks to quantified data.
Honing the art of leadership
A conclusion common to all the latest major studies on the future of the CFO is that they will need solid leadership skills. They will be asked to bring value to their own finance teams but also across the entire company, as a leader and as a business developer, with experience and personality.
Good leadership blends several key ingredients. Among the most obvious is the capacity to coach and delegate. Storytelling, being able to convince and influence the decision-makers, is another asset that has not always been a quality required in a CFO but that will be going forward. The studies also point to the ability to innovate, resilience and customer-centric focus as keys to effective future leadership.
Stanford University has a program setting out the qualities needed by CFOs over the next 10 years. A glance through the modules included in The Emerging CFO: Strategic Financial Leadership Program speaks volumes about the importance of both digital and leadership in training the CFOs of the future. The skills taught are not ones that would have been most associated with finance directors 30 years ago.
- Smart Information Processing in Financial Decision-Making.
- The FinTech Revolution and the CFO.
- The Challenge of Change.
Strategy and leadership:
- Strategic Leadership: Why it Matters.
- Communication and the Art of Persuasion.
- Neuroscience and the Connection to Exemplary Leadership.
- Harnessing the Power of Story.
💡 Tackling change and disruption is an oft-mentioned topic in studies examining the future of finance. Covid will spring to the minds of many as a topical disruptor but the way the global economy has evolved in the last few decades shows evidence of a longer-term trend. Financial crises happen more frequently as technology accelerates the pace of change. Good CFOs will be a crucial asset for innovative companies.
Fintech and the development of decentralized finance are creating a future where the qualities desired in a CFO will combine data, strategy and leadership. It is no longer simply a question of numbers.