It is easy to understand why CFOs are keeping their heads down and their budgets lean. The financial crisis of 2008, followed by ongoing volatility, put most companies into a defensive stance, with management understandably more concerned about reducing costs than about identifying and exploring growth opportunities. Finance functions acted accordingly, holding down operating costs while keeping their own staffing and resource allocations as lean as possible.

Now, however, companies are recognizing that they need to refocus on growth, despite challenging uncertainties. CFOs are finding it difficult to play offense while playing defense. In a recent Accenture survey of more than 500 senior global finance executives, only 34 percent of CFOs said they were heavily involved in helping their companies identify growth opportunities -- despite the fact that 79 percent of the same CFOs saw preparing for growth as important or very important.

In addition, most finance executives did not agree their finance organization is employing leading practices to deliver higher value to the enterprise. These practices would include identifying growth opportunities, embedding the organization in the larger enterprise to deliver value, delivering more data than in prior years, partnering with other corporate functions, providing analytics to the enterprise, proactively responding to regulatory changes, or expanding finance's input into strategy and high-level decision making.

To some extent, CFO reticence to jump on the growth bandwagon can be understood. Current growth is hardly robust and the need for cost controls remains clear. In many industries, new regulations will require significant expenditures, and funding for such expenditures often comes from planned investments to support growth initiatives.

Ironically, in their zeal to control costs, many companies may have made their finance functions too lean -- at least that was the fear of 32 percent of CXOs (the CFOs' clients) who also participated in the study. The research indicated that organizations with the leanest financial functions lag behind their peers in terms of performance.

We believe there are five key priorities for CFOs who want to help their companies grow:

1. Establish the right strategy and governance. Winning finance organizations focus on the continual development and enhancement of their capabilities, maintaining an evergreen functional strategy. They also have clear governance structures, which are organized to help provide maximum support to their strategic agendas. For example, they make a clear distinction between financial planning and analysis on one hand, and accounting operations on the other; and they organize appropriately. The finance organization -- as an integrated entity -- should hold a key position at the center of the larger enterprise and contribute directly to the company's strategic priorities.

2. Promote a shareholder value-centered culture. The creation of shareholder value is the goal of all enterprise activities, and finance should play a central role in driving that value. By embedding finance in the larger enterprise and making sure that financial thinking, metrics and analytics pervade the organization, CFOs can participate directly in high-level decision making. This can further enable the CFO to respond to constantly changing markets, which 46 percent of the respondents in our global finance study cited as one of their most significant challenges.

3. Engage in strategic planning and target setting. Top CFOs are closely involved in the process of identifying an appropriate business strategy and translating that strategy into specific objectives, value drivers and key performance indicators. They also help create the strategic planning documents and strategy maps that help move the business forward. CFOs also should participate in target setting from the top down, driving value by translating vision and strategy into rigorous operational and financial targets.

4. Integrate forecasting, reporting and analytics. While forecasting is the ongoing process of making projections of future business performance, and reporting and analytics look at what actually happened -- as well as why it happened and what to do about it -- many finance organizations are accustomed to doing this in a more predictable environment. Although current circumstances create challenges for these organizations, the degree that these elements are integrated can have a direct impact on the quality of insight they are able to gain into the reporting and analytics needed for effective line management. Integrated processes can provide a much more thorough perspective than traditional views of budgets and accounting.

5. Manage financial risk proactively and holistically. Traditionally, specific financial risks have been addressed within specific areas of the finance function. Foreign exchange risk, for example, has been addressed within treasury and cash management. In a wildly unpredictable business environment, however, risk must be managed more proactively and more holistically. Strategic, enterprise-wide capabilities are needed, both to pre-empt risk and to identify and convert opportunities that arise in risky situations. CFOs should therefore be involved in the identification, assessment, measurement, management and mitigation of financial risks across the enterprise.

To be sure, there are other hurdles facing CFOs in a growth environment, including managing increasing volumes of data and finding the talent needed to support growth initiatives. If funding issues hold back the finance function, however, CFOs must fight for the funding needed to develop new capabilities to support growth.

CFOs and their finance organizations have done a good job of dealing with the many challenges that have come their way in recent years, but now they need to help their companies seize the growth opportunities appearing in select markets and geographies. Those CFOs that have the right capabilities in place to support the corporate growth agenda -- while keeping an eye on costs -- will contribute the most to their company's future performance.

Paul Boulanger is the managing director of the Finance & Enterprise Performance consulting group at Accenture, a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company. Accenture's full 2011 high performance finance report, "Delivering Value in a complex world," is available here.

Don't miss Paul Boulanger's video interview with Business Finance's Dave Blanchard, Focus on Growth, Not Cost Control, or this in-depth Q&A, CFOs Need to Refocus on Building the Business, Not Just Saving It.