Given the financial turmoil of the past decade — the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank, the near collapse and subsequent government bailout of the U.S. financial system, and the Great Recession — it's no secret that finance executives across all industries are confronting a host of new challenges. Today's CFOs are no longer relegated to traditional, purely financial roles. They face a volatile business environment, one that mandates that they constantly adapt their skills and acquire new ones. Doing so is not just a matter of keeping the organization fully compliant with new regulations — it's about ensuring the survival of the business.
Now, more than ever before, CFOs must step out of their comfort zone and assume a new set of roles and responsibilities. The job is quickly becoming a hybrid role of scorekeeper, advisor, operations manager, and strategist. And with these new demands comes a heightened level of scrutiny that was once reserved for the CEO.
Are you ready for CFO 2.0? Whether you're a seasoned finance chief looking to extend your role, or an up-and-coming finance pro with your eyes on the top job, ask yourself these questions:
1. Are you a communicator? As CFOs take on more operational responsibilities, they're being challenged to embrace a more outward-facing and transparent approach to leadership. They're learning to go beyond the confines and comfort of their department and interact with a mix of internal and external audiences, ranging from division heads to line-of-business employees to investors and the media.
Being a strong communicator means being fluent in the language of numbers. You must be able to rapidly digest financial information and relay it to these stakeholders. Do you have the ability to translate the data that's at the core of the finance universe into business language that's just as easily understood by, let's say, a sales rep as by the CEO? If so, you can become the kind of CFO that so many companies need: a catalyst for change, a leader who can lay the groundwork for a culture that promotes financial literacy and a value discipline.
To be sure, these skills don't come naturally to all finance folks. If you find the communication demands of the job daunting, don't despair: An executive-level leadership or communication seminar can help you develop confidence in your ability to articulate the financial vision of the business.
2. Can you see the big picture? CFOs today must serve as strategists, and to do this effectively they need a broad understanding of their company's business challenges and opportunities. A finance background is, of course, a prerequisite for the position, but executives who can claim a range of experiences across the organization's various functions and business units will have a stronger grasp of how their decisions impact operations (and vice versa). It's worth taking the time to become familiar with the basics of risk management, treasury, human resources, and IT.
And among those, I'd single out risk management in particular. This function is key because today, a strong emphasis on compliance and transparency must permeate every decision and action that the CFO takes. It's the CFO's responsibility to set the ethical tone at the top of the organization and to “walk the talk,” showing employees by example how integrity needs to be part of everything they do and say on a daily basis. This is important when you're talking about company successes, but it's absolutely crucial when you're discussing failures or a breakdown in procedure, especially those that are in the public eye.
3. Are you comfortable with technology? You'll need to understand the potential impact of technology not only on finance and on your own job, but on the business overall. IT advances are causing a massive shift in finance executives' allocation of their time; by some estimates, in the near future only 20 percent to 30 percent of a CFO's time will be spent working on the financial statements, leaving more time to think about the drivers of those results and strategies for improving the business and strengthening finance processes. Tech tools offer similar gains in efficiency in nearly all facets of the company — understanding that potential value is imperative for the new breed of CFOs.
Navigating the new finance career landscape isn't an easy task. It requires extending the traditional skill sets and developing innovative thinking and adaptability. But this is an exciting time for finance leaders who are ready to think more broadly about their role and its growing importance for the success of their organization.