The Strategic CFO

In many organizations, the CFO is seen as the number cruncher, sitting in an office applying procedure and saying ‘no’ to budget requests. The reality is much more complex than this. While there are still many CFOs trapped in a traditional mind-set, for enlightened businesses, the CFO has been elevated to one of the most important and strategic roles in the company. The time has come for businesses to choose what sort of CFO they want: one that can maintain the status quo, or one that provides strategic guidance to drive business growth.

CFOs have a clear choice: they can either work in Finance or finance. The former have more in common with the stereotypical CFO. They provide a safe pair of hands and can help deliver good corporate governance and compliance. Beyond that their role is mostly about ensuring fiduciary responsibility and making sure that the books balance. The new breed of CFO, on the other hand, sees finance as a tool that can enable the business to do more. After all, governance, compliance, stewardship and fiduciary responsibility, while vital, are not going to help the business grow. The best CFOs today are increasingly freeing up time so they can offer additional strategic advice without affecting their core responsibilities.

There are two key drivers that are giving the CFO the necessary time and space to expand their roles. The first lies in technological advances that have made previously time-consuming tasks much faster to complete. Traditionally, CFOs needed to spend a great deal of time and energy pulling various sources of information together from across the business and then working to ensure it all added up. Today, advances in software and hardware have allowed for the automation of many finance processes, freeing CFOs of these manual consolidation tasks.  The second lies in the focus on core competencies; standard recurring business processes such as accounts receivable (AR), accounts payable (AP) and Payroll as examples are increasingly seen as non-core and moved into shared service centres or even outsourced. This means that the CFO has more time than ever to concentrate on value-generating activity.

However, if CFOs really want to step into this new, strategic role, a complete change of mind-set is required. Values that were traditionally considered appropriate for the CFO – assessing variants and looking for things that are wrong in the business so that they can be addressed and the status quo restored – are now less important. Today’s CFOs must think differently, not just look at managing costs, but instead look at how things can be done better, faster, or completely differently. Regardless of whether they are looking at marketing, sales or manufacturing, they need to be prepared to talk not just about what the company can afford do to, but also to ask questions and challenge their colleagues to help elevate operations to a new level.

One area of the business that can experience great positive effect from the ‘new’ CFO is the IT department. When finance departments operate in the traditional way, the CFO is all too often the ‘CF-no’, refusing to green light IT projects that they either do not understand or cannot justify through a cost analysis. The CIO is left stranded, trying to prove business cases where return on investment is not as clear as the board would like. A good example is a company’s backup and recovery system, which is designed to prevent a loss. The investment must be understood in terms of the value of business that would be lost if a company loses its data or experiences downtime.

The challenge for the CFO and for their company is to create an environment where the Finance team and CFO are encouraged to expand their responsibilities and take an active interest in every area of the business. This requires a change in behaviour on both sides which is never an easy task. In an age where the slightest shift in strategy can result in monumental changes in competitive advantage, a company with a strategic CFO is the one who will win.

About the Author: Steve O'Neill