By Amy Parkinson, Principal Consultant and Financial Leadership Specialist at Berwick Partners
With today’s CFO often described as a ‘financially literate CEO’, the challenge for aspiring CFOs is to develop their leadership skills and business acumen as well as their financial intelligence. With guidance on how to achieve this and why, Amy Parkinson, Principal Consultant and financial leadership specialist at executive search firm Berwick Partners, offers insight into the changing dynamic of the CFO role.
The role of the Finance Director has evolved from an organisation’s financial record keeper, to a CFO who is a ‘Deputy CEO’, a business leader with exceptional financial intelligence, and who has proven skills across commercial, strategic, operational and leadership competencies.
For some finance professionals, their first CFO position is secured just fifteen years after qualification.The pressure is on for the next generation of CFOs to swiftly and strategically develop their skills.
The evolution of the CFO has been at a steady pace. Years ago, we identified that the CFO role was becoming increasingly commercial, but the extent to which today’s CFO has become the CEO’s trusted advisor is even greater than expected.
In particular, the role has expanded to involve real influence on an organisation’s commercial and strategic decisions. This is especially true within an SME, where the CFO can be responsible for operations, IT, HR and legal, as the roles of CFO and Chief Operating Officer are often combined.
These changes are a consequence of increasing pressures on leadership. The CEO role is increasingly complex, with a myriad of stakeholders to manage, disruptive technologies, economic instability and a heightened level of external scrutiny. So, the CEO needs a right-hand person to help negotiate a complex landscape, and a CFO is ideally positioned to fulfil this, because of their broader skills and insight and the trust the CEO and Board have in them.
The CFO has unique insights across the entire business. Financial systems that integrate all areas of the business deliver clear visibility, from purchasing decisions to pricing commercial contracts. Data analytics and business intelligence usually sit within finance, and the CFOs analytical skills ideally place them to interpret masses of data when discussing strategy with the CEO.
The CFO is there to support and challenge the business and to question financial forecasts. The CFO is also trusted by external stakeholders, and accountable and reliable in the eyes of the bank, the board and regulators.
The CFO of the future
Over the coming years, leadership challenges are going to increase, with the place of the CFO as a trusted, strategic advisor continuing to grow. This impacts the team below the CFO and focusing on building a finance function that develops talent and that people want to join can really help.
We are seeing a rise in the number of Deputy CFO positions, which is an evolution of the Group Financial Controller (GFC) role. These additional roles represent real opportunity for the right individuals.
Using process automation and artificial intelligence more broadly will also free up the CFO to be more strategic, whilst also improving the efficiency of the finance function.
Steps for aspiring CFOs
Aspiring CFO’s must develop a broad base of financial as well as commercial and ‘soft’ skills to offer credible advice that will be well received.
The foundation is, of course, a good finance qualification. From there, aspiring CFO’s need to build commercial and operational finance skills to improve their understanding of practical business issues. The role of GFC is critical, and one often overlooked by aspiring CFO’s focused on the more strategic elements, but gives credibility with stakeholders. Within a listed company, it is unlikely a CFO won’t have undertaken a GFC role at some point in their career.
The Route to CFO
A recent study confirms today’s CFOs agree. We sought the opinions of sixty established CFOs from a range of industries and backgrounds, and their advice for aspiring CFOs is universal:
Efficient career planning makes a difference; a robust career plan is vital, and taking time to invest in a career path is invaluable.There are two roles employers’ value on a potential CFO’s CV – Divisional Finance Director and Group Financial Controller. These give the opportunity to develop relationships with key career influencers, and build strategic expertise with a panoramic view of internal and external issues.
As business continues to operate on the global stage, international experience is advantageous. Working internationally is an effective way to build commercial, strategic, operational, legal and technical expertise, and hone leadership skills in intense situations.
Actively seeking opportunities to positively impact a business is vital. One effective way is to take on problem tasks, especially high risk projects. Aspiring CFOs become known as the ‘fix it’ person and will be trusted at a senior level.
The last piece is to develop leadership skills. The days of a traditional ‘ivory towered’ FD are well and truly behind us. An effective leader has to be the trusted advisor who leads the executive and their own teams.
Finally, be authentic, and don’t try to change behaviours upon reaching a senior role. It is your personality and style that are a strength and have been a part in achieving the leadership role.
‘The Future CFO’ Report is a collaboration between Berwick Partners and Odgers Berndtson to support aspiring CFOs and finance leaders in navigating the next step in their career.