May 16, 2021

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From financial chief to business strategist: the new CFO mindset

5 min read

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Life for the chief financial officer (CFO) is evolving rapidly, with their role increasingly as much leader and strategist as accountant. Coupled with adoption of technologies, including artificial intelligence, machine learning and advanced data analytics, this is driving a shift in the CFO’s mindset, with a focus on what matters most: business survival, productivity and growth.

Taking on a broader and more strategic role requires a broader skillset that will enhance business growth. “Boards will expect future CFO candidates’ CVs to include experience in operational or digital roles and exposure to different markets and industry sectors, and optimisation across the whole business, rather than just from a cost-control perspective,” says Tony Gregg, chief executive at executive search firm Anthony Gregg Partnership. 

This could signal new opportunities for candidates from outside a traditional accountancy background. However, many experienced finance professionals have successfully made the transition to leader, partner, sounding board and strategist to the chief executive, as well as taking ownership of the financials. They have forged diverse careers that have prepared and helped them to upskill for the challenges they now face in the top finance role.

When he left pure accounting in 1993, Richard Snow, CFO of finnCap Group, knew that he needed hands-on, day-to-day financial management experience. He says: “A year at Ladbrokes at a senior level and two years at Greenberg Traurig performing both CFO and financial controller functions, alongside a regulated role, provided the grounding for me to move into my current role.”

He believes that experience in key CFO responsibilities, for example operating and communicating with the public markets, managing expectations, managing key external advisers, and in delivering key strategic programmes, such as mergers and acquisitions, is essential for bringing value to the board and supporting the chief executive. 

All this is for nothing if the finance and accounting team is not staffed and managed to be a strategic growth partner

“The transition from small team player in investment banking to working across broad teams at Vodafone and Ladbrokes was vital to me becoming effective as a CFO,” says Snow. “We can only be as good as the team we manage, and learning and discovering people skills and diplomacy were two things I had to learn quickly when I moved into industry.”

Embracing new technology

In the digital age, embracing new technologies, particularly around data analytics, is crucial for CFOs in addressing the evolving needs of the business and also of their role. Samuel Monti, CFO at Epicor Software, insists that technology is critical to the ongoing evolution within the office of CFO. 

Monti says: “They need to understand how to transform the finance and accounting organisation from a data perspective, and this begins with designing and building systems that will support efficient financial closes and data repositories, ending with a robust business intelligence function.” 

Upskilling, he says, can be accelerated by engaging consulting practices at the forefront of this evolution, understanding best-in-class technologies around financial planning and analysis, and business intelligence, as well as intelligent hiring of finance and accounting roles to align with this technology shift. 

“However, all this is for nothing if the finance and accounting team is not staffed and managed to be a strategic growth partner,” says Monti. “Finance can feed data to the entire organisation that should result in proactive decision-making.”

Others see technology’s part in shaping the role of the CFO as still somewhat limited, as the tools available lack the required flexibility, particularly when it comes to forecasting.

Catherine Birkett, CFO at GoCardless, says: “It’s still very difficult to predict what happens if we lose revenue, if we lose it over a longer period, or what happens if the profile of our client base changes, or even which of these is the most likely. You have to consider different possibilities and build in enough flexibility to be prepared for any outcome, and unfortunately we’ve yet to find a tool that fits the bill, but I remain hopeful that it will come.”

The impact of remote working

Enforced remote working during the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the need for a greater use and understanding of digital-collaboration tools to keep businesses functioning. The finance function at appliances firm SharkNinja has long engaged with analytical and modelling tools, and like many organisations last year had to embrace virtual working and the use of communications tools such as Microsoft Teams. 

Vice president of commercial finance Alison Rose says: “Scenario modelling is fundamental to the way we forecast, understand changing consumer trends, and respond appropriately. Analytics help us understand our performance and what the medium and long-term impacts of these results will be. 

“Business intelligence tools have helped with our reporting dashboard and enabled seamless communication of sales data within our UK operation and our US head office. Being able to collaborate in real time while being remote has been a critical tool for us and other functions across the company.”

Timely, accurate and relevant data has never been more important to the finance function nor to the need for agile business decision-making. However, as technology generates ever-increasing volumes of data, businesses and investors become hungrier for more. 

By embracing advanced analytics technology, CFOs can play a key role in helping to interpret and turn this data into meaningful predictive insights to maintain the agility of decision-making seen during the pandemic to identify and grasp opportunities faster and ahead of the competition.

Andrew Hicks, CFO of software and services firm Advanced, says: “As people who are used to dealing with numbers and data, CFOs, sitting at the intersection between financial and operational information, are ideally placed to lead the management of this data, which supports better-informed management decisions and provides stakeholders with the information and insight they are demanding.”