Contrary to common misconception, many ambitious CFOs don’t plan to step into CEO roles. Often, their unique skills and optic on the company they work for specifically position them as an expert in the CFO role, a role that increasingly involves a strategic remit. In fact, the business world is seeing unprecedented demand for a strong CFO’s valuable perspective and discipline. But what makes a successful finance leader?
The divisional and group CFO Gary McGaghey explains that as the CFO’s role evolves, traditional finance skills like analysis, reporting, and control have now primarily become the responsibilities of those outside the finance function. Meanwhile, the CFO is more likely to strategise for the company’s financial future, overturning outdated perceptions of finance and shaping the finance function into a partner of the company.
Here, drawing on research from Ernst & Young[CM1] , a consultancy that surveyed 699 senior finance professionals in Europe, India, Africa, and the Middle East, Gary McGaghey examines what makes a successful CFO and offers six tips for aspiring finance leaders.
A Central Role in Strategy Development
The CFO plays a central role in strategy development, offering both a wide perspective on the company’s performance and a deep understanding of where the company creates its value. As the finance function uniquely integrates with virtually every aspect of a company, the CFO is often better informed about the company’s operations and performance than any other individual.
However, different CFOs contribute to company strategy in different ways. While one-third of the respondents in the Ernst & Young survey said they actively develop and define their company’s overall strategy, many more said they offer insights and analysis to support the CEO and ground business decisions in financial criteria. In this case, the CFO’s commercial understanding and analytical skills make their proactive, supporting role essential to top-level decision-making.
Whether CFOs bring the company’s vision to life by completing a major mergers and acquisitions (M&A) deal or building a rationale for international expansion, they play a key role in formulating, challenging, and assessing the company’s strategy, not to mention monitoring it for investment opportunities, risk, rates of return, and performance within the competitive landscape. Although different CFOs contribute to their companies in different ways, these contributions tend to generate value for the company.
Partnering With the Company
As the CFO’s role has broadened, shifting them into a partner of the company, CFOs tend to allocate their time differently than they have in the past. The Ernst & Young research suggests that CFOs are more likely to spend only a quarter of their time with individuals from the finance team and three-quarters of their time with other individuals in the company. This is because they often focus on business issues and growth opportunities rather than specific financial issues or opportunities.
As a result, although the CFO holds a role at the top of the company, they must also uphold this role in relationships throughout the business. This is especially the case now that many finance functions have become decentralised and are now embedded across the company.
To work closely and partner with the wider company, a healthy organisational culture is important. However, the Ernst & Young research highlights poor organisational culture as one of the biggest obstacles to the effectiveness of the CFO. Poor organisational health is often the result of inflexible processes, an outdated perception of the finance function, a bureaucratic mindset, or poor communication between functions, all of which can limit the success of the CFO’s business partnership role. Gary McGaghey emphasises how important a healthy organisational culture is to the CFO’s success.
The evolving role of the CFO has also seen the development of the measures commonly used to track organisational performance and individuals’ performance, and many companies use far more metrics to measure this performance today than they have previously.
While the speed and accuracy of processes are still key benchmarks for many companies, other benchmarks that are more difficult to measure, like customer satisfaction, are becoming increasingly important for many companies too. Meanwhile, some CFOs benchmark their companies against their peers, paying attention to how the company performs versus competitors.
The CFO tends to offer strong financial and analytical skills, not to mention a unique overview of the whole company, its leadership team, and the management qualities required to oversee a large function. As a result, the CFO is often an ideal candidate to take on operational responsibilities, perhaps overseeing functions like IT, property, and logistics.
However, taking on operational responsibilities can pose a conflict of interest when CFOs need to uphold an objective voice for the company while evaluating business performance and value creation. That said, many CFOs consider upholding an objective view while taking on operations responsibilities manageable and can stay unbiased.
Although many CFOs have expanded their responsibilities across strategy and operations, this isn’t to say they no longer spend time on the finance department’s fundamental responsibilities, such as cost management, cash flow, and risk management. However, the more time CFOs spend on these tasks, the less time they have to develop the company’s corporate strategy. Only 37% of CFOs in the Ernst & Young study said they had enough time to focus on corporate strategy.
The Ernst & Young research also demonstrated that large companies are more likely than smaller companies to prioritise cost management, perhaps because these companies are more likely to identify cost-cutting opportunities. Meanwhile, smaller companies may have greater visibility into their operations and already cut costs where possible.
Building a Strong Finance Team
As CFOs broaden their roles and renew their focus on finance fundamentals, they must build strong networks to support them. While such networks can come in many forms, a supportive team can drive the change that the CFO has strategized. On top of this, some companies invest in shared service centres to redistribute some of the finance team’s administrative and transactional responsibilities, leaving the finance team to work on core business issues.
Communication Skills to Build Stakeholder Trust
Communication skills are essential for the modern CFO, who must build trust with a variety of stakeholders, including investors, analysts, and the media. Nearly two-thirds of the Ernst & Young study respondents said the CFO must act as the face of the company on all topics relating to overall financial performance.
Although finance communication is becoming more integral to the CFO’s role, over 50% of the respondents in the Ernst & Young survey felt the shift from focusing on financial performance to managing a complicated stakeholder universe is one of the most difficult challenges they have faced. This proved especially true in relationships with external stakeholders. Therefore, developing communication and interpersonal skills is essential for CFOs.
While 32% of the Ernst & Young survey respondents felt they needed to develop their communication and influencing skills and their skills to manage upward, such as in relationships with the CEO and board, 27% felt they needed to develop their presenting skills and their insight into their company’s industry.
These are six key areas that Gary McGaghey recommends CFOs address during the first 100 days of taking on a new role.
1. Anticipate the Unanticipated
The reality of the challenges facing a company may be of a different magnitude and/or scale than the CFO expected from conversations in the interview process. They might find that the company’s systems, processes, performance, relationship with the bank, or finance team capabilities and knowledge are far from what they anticipated. Therefore, Gary McGaghey recommends that CFOs get to grips with the company and identify issues to prioritise before taking further action.
2. Respond Quickly
The appointment of a new CFO means the whole company will undergo a period of change. CFOs can capitalise on this period of change by implementing their own changes where necessary. Gary McGaghey suggests that if the company requires a turnaround, the CFO should pave the way for this change early. On the other hand, if the company is already performing well, the CFO can establish new projects to trigger further growth.
3. Ask Lots of Questions
While CFOs who have been hired internally should already have a thorough understanding of the company, externally recruited CFOs will have a lot to learn about the company and its systems, people, and processes. So, Gary McGaghey recommends that these CFOs take the opportunity to ask as many questions as possible, including questions that may feel silly or obvious, as these can spotlight fundamental issues that have previously been overlooked.
4. Build Relationships
The CFO may need to communicate with a wide array of stakeholders, and they should prioritise building these relationships, which can be key to investment. CFOs should get to know the stakeholders’ expectations of them as well as the CEO and senior management team’s expectations of them. Gary McGaghey adds that it can be beneficial to meet all senior finance and commercial managers during the CFO’s first days with the company, especially if the company operates across multiple locations. On top of this, CFOs may identify a mentor during these early days to guide them in their first steps.
5. Build a Strong Finance Team
Gary McGaghey suggests that new CFOs dedicate time to understanding their team’s responsibilities, competencies, and issues. This way, they can identify who they can rely on to support them in specific areas and strengthen the finance team for future projects.
6. Establish Credibility
Once a CFO has followed the above steps, it’s time to put their stamp on the company’s strategy and establish credibility. Gary McGaghey notes that an external recruit will have to spend time immersing themselves in the company and quickly understanding how it generates value. If joining the company from another sector, they may even have to familiarise themselves with field-specific terminology and reporting measures quickly. Meanwhile, an internal recruit will need to establish credibility by building an external network and profile with shareholders, fund managers, and analysts.
The Evolutionary CFO Role
The CFO’s role is always evolving in line with industry and digital trends, making it a unique position for those in the finance space. As the scope of the CFO’s role and their potential to influence corporate strategy and fuel business change expands, many CFOs are enjoying a high level of career satisfaction and finding success in their roles.
About Gary McGaghey
Gary McGaghey is a chartered management accountant in the UK and a chartered accountant in South Africa. As the Group CFO of Williams Lea Tag, Advent International’s €1.3 billion end-to-end marketing production and business services group, he oversees the private equity company’s carve outs, divestitures, cost restructuring, balance sheet refinancing, working capital cash flow management, and M&A. He has previously delivered M&A-driven and organic growth for a plethora of listed and privately owned companies, including Unilever, Nelsons, and Robertsons.