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Quarterback Qualities: What Finance Leaders Can Learn From Football Pros

Football Helmet at Stadium (XXL)

You’d be hard-pressed to find two quarterbacks more different than the ones who will take the field in this Sunday’s big game.

The Denver Broncos’ veteran Peyton Manning epitomizes the prototypical old-school pocket passer while the Carolina Panthers’ youthful Cam Newton represents the new era QB, capable of improvising to make good things happen. This lone stat underscores the divide: Newton had 636 rushing yards this season. Manning ran for negative six yards all year.

No doubt—two extremely different styles, approaches, and tactics. Yet the two quarterbacks share some essential strengths—namely they have mastered their unique skill sets to produce consistently good results and they are the unequivocal leaders of their teams.

For finance professionals, there are clear parallels here that can lead to better teamwork, enhanced collaboration, and improved results. The analogy of the CFO as quarterback has gained traction in recent years as the role evolves from its bean-counter stereotype to one in which strategic vision, successful execution, and deeper collaboration are increasingly part of the job description.

Further, just as today’s quarterbacks must possess the skills and aptitude to thrive in what has become an increasingly complex game, similarly finance execs need to be able to handle a range of emerging challenges. Consider this observation from the Adaptive Insights Q3 2015 CFO Indicator report:

It is clear that CFOs are navigating through uncharted waters. Tasked with managing a deluge of data from multiple sources across the organization, there is an expectation of CFOs and their teams that they can aggregate, accurately process, and interpret the data for actionable insights across the business.

So what specific lessons from the field translate back to the office? Here are five key plays to lead a more successful and integrated finance team.

Embrace change.
It’s become commonplace to see quarterbacks on the sidelines huddled over a tablet, breaking down plays and assessing real-time analytics from the game with their offensive coordinator. Effectively using technology offers a competitive edge on the gridiron—and surely the corporate world. CFOs and their teams are increasingly relying on dashboards that provide real-time metrics and analytics while offering actionable visibility into the organization’s finances and projections. To best access and leverage that data, CFOs are seeking a single source of truth—a key step on the path to finance transformation—that allows them to identify reliable data and deliver insights in real time.

Surround yourself with talent.
They get most of the headlines, but any quarterback will tell you that he could not succeed without the ongoing support of his offensive line. The strength of those blocking and protecting the quarterback has a direct correlation to what that the QB—and his team—can accomplish. Cam Newton gets this. That’s why in the off-season he texted Michael Oher, the inspiration for the Hollywood hit The Blind Side, and urged him to pursue jump-starting his career with the Panthers. Oher ended up joining the team—and playing well. He will be protecting Newton’s blind side in the Super Bowl this Sunday. Similarly, CFOs have a much better chance at success when they are surrounded by a high-performing finance team—that has their backs.

Improve collaboration.
One need not look any further than the ongoing saga of Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel to see the fallout from a culture that lacks collaboration. While “Johnny Football” has the physical gifts required of an elite NFL quarterback, his collaboration and teamwork chops are beyond questionable. The end result: Manziel will likely get cut, the Browns head coach was fired, and the team remains in utter disarray. Little wonder that as the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported from the introductory press conference for new coach Hue Jackson, “The key words to come out of Jackson’s introduction to Cleveland … were ‘collaboration,’ ‘alignment’ and ‘low ego.’”

Give credit, accept blame.
The best quarterbacks praise their teammates and also take their fair share of blame when things go bad. That builds trust and respect that can’t be duplicated. CFOs can benefit from taking a similar approach. For instance, Gannett’s Alison Engel recently shared some insights on leadership when receiving the distinguished CFO award from Media Financial Management (MFM).

Engel’s first leadership principle is the Golden Rule. “If my team or a person on my team does well, I brag about them to management and celebrate their successes,” she said. “If my team makes a stumble, I take the blame. The buck stops with me, after all.”

Delegate responsibility.
Engel is also a big advocate for giving her team opportunities to stretch themselves and hopefully succeed. “I try and pass projects and work down to my team; I don’t keep them all to myself,” she says. “I try to coach, mentor and develop people. My goal is to be the boss that I would want to have.”

Similarly, great quarterbacks know that they can’t do it all on their own. In the Arizona Cardinals‘ improbable overtime win over the Green Bay Packers, quarterback Carson Palmer twice put the ball into the capable hands of standout wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald responded with a dazzling 75-yard reception and a game-winning touchdown two plays later. Palmer later made it clear that he had the utmost faith in Fitzgerald’s ability to deliver in the clutch.

Thankfully, CFOs will never face the prospect of being blindsided by 300-pound defensive linemen. Yet they do share many similar challenges and responsibilities that a quarterback faces when trying to lead a successful team. Borrowing from the QB playbook can result in better leadership, alignment, and performance—and ultimately, keep the books out of the red zone and in the black.

American football player holds ball
So close to the Super Bowl …
To hear how the Arizona Cardinals scored an operational advantage, watch this video to learn how their finance team tackled big data to score greater visibility.

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