In discussing the characteristics and skill-set of the modern CFO, it’s normal to try to select a single person as the prototypical example of how a finance leader is supposed to act, work, and lead. But one of the key learnings from our Adaptive Live global user conference last month is that CFOs can have success and make a strategic impact within their businesses in a variety of ways. And though they’re making the same transition from number-cruncher to strategic difference-maker, there are many ways to make that change, and many different factors that inspire that transition.
The varying styles of the modern CFO were most evident during Day 2 of Adaptive Live, during our Future of Finance: A CFO Panel discussion that featured three CFOs who each took a unique approach to becoming more valuable members of their companies’ decision-making teams.
One of them was San Francisco Ballet Association CFO Kim Ondreck Carim, whose honesty and fearlessness in the face of the company’s financial truth earned her a seat at the strategic decision-making table. Decreased donations, combined with a steady increase in costs, made staff and board realize that they needed to include a financial perspective to help problem-solve, cross-functionally. So after helping artistic and board management to see the positive role finance could play in making in artistic decisions with solid data and analysis, Carim was invited into the discussion. Today, she leads cross functional, lean process improvement teams that have helped to reset the company’s fiscal balance, while still maintaining the Ballet’s artistic focus on world-class quality.
Sometimes business complexity and market competition can force finance out of the background and into the forefront of making executive decisions. That was exactly the case for Citrix Systems CFO & COO David Henshall, who detailed why he was invited to become a more impactful member of the leadership team.
“The more in touch you are with the rest of the business, the better you are as a finance leader,” Henshall said, explaining how his background in operations prior to finance made him uniquely positioned to add greater value across the business.
Henshall originally joined Citrix as CFO in a traditional finance role. Over time, his focus on deeply understanding the operations as well as the finances of the business helped him to move into the COO role. He saw the need for finance to embrace an “empathy for the customer” mindset that promoted a rich understanding of the operational situations facing the company. Henshall was able to match that outlook with not only financial reports, but also the insights gained from the mountains of data available to finance teams. Today, Henshall is using his unique blend of operational and financial acumen to play a number of critical roles at Citrix. That includes partaking in sales calls to provide a more holistic view of new deals, offering financial analysis during pricing discussions, and producing analytics that have helped several different department heads to manage their teams in a more fiscally-efficient way.
Our panel also made it clear that finance can provide the forward-looking insight needed to clearly identify the best decision according to the financial well-being of the business. As our third panelist, WageWorks CFO Colm Callan said, finance has to focus on measuring the key performance indicators that will signal a need to change course before it’s too late.
“Revenue and results are lagging indicators,” Callan explained. “Once they reveal a problem, it’s too late to fix it.”
When WageWorks’ previous CFO left the company, the CEO hand-picked Callan to assume the role. The company was growing aggressively and needed a CFO who could bring a strategic mindset to decision-making discussions, while also establishing better systems and analytics to help manage and scale the business.
So Callan reevaluated the metrics that finance was measuring and switched the team’s focus from lagging to leading indicators that can better act as a catalyst to either drive change when needed, or reinforce best practices already in place.
As exemplified by our Adaptive Live CFO panelists, there is a clearly-defined skill-set that today’s most successful CFOs must have in order to maximize their value to the business. They must bring an operational focus to their role to clearly define the corporate direction, shape the underlying business plan, and help build a broader strategic role for the entire finance department. Equally as important, modern CFOs must be able to use financial insight to effectively communicate the business’ direction and plan, and detail exactly how each department can execute against it. Doing so is the most proven way to drive the cross-functional support needed to help make that plan a reality.
A CFO can either react to or drive the evolution and growth of the organization. The best CFOs are those who can help overcome organizational challenges and hurdles to growth by doing everything they can to avoid saying “no” to the business when it comes to financial requests, and instead find a way to say “not that way.” They offer solutions to effectively balance the need to control costs without stifling business growth or creativity, and they use data to drive insights that help communicate why specific decisions have to be made in a way that gets other key leaders to buy-in to the plan. And that’s exactly what each of these three CFOs has done within their own organization, in their own unique way.