How CFOs Can Play a Greater Role in Strategy Setting & Execution

These days there is a lot of talk about the transformation of the finance organization from being a traditional back-office function to playing a more strategic advisory role. The CFO is being touted as the CEO’s wingman responsible for helping him/her execute the company’s strategy and improve performance. Once regarded as the bean-counter of the organization, finance is being demanded to partner with operations and sales and help grow the beans.

Despite the transformation of the finance organization’s role over the years, can we certainly say that CFOs and finance executives have successfully embraced their new strategic advisory role? Are they delivering reliable advice and information for the company CEO and the Board to act on? Can the CEO confidently vouch for the CFO and his abilities in helping shape and drive the company’s future direction?

Unfortunately, although progress has been made in reshaping the finance organization, there is still more room for improvement. Various research findings have revealed what many finance professionals do not like to hear – CFOs in the majority of organizations are not providing enough strategic counsel to the CEO. In these organizations, the focus is still on cost control and accurate financial reporting. There is minimal provision of forward-looking information to support decision making. The desire by the CFO to provide strategic input to board-level decision making is there, but constant unnecessary fires that need putting out are consuming much of the CFO’s energy, resources and time.

There is no doubt that the modern business environment requires the organization’s CFO to be strategic in nature. With disruptive changes taking place everywhere at unprecedented levels, it is the responsibility of the CFO and his team to protect the organization against the threats, harness the opportunities and strengthen the organization’s competitiveness. This means moving beyond cost management and wearing the new strategic hat of the business. Unless the CFO and the other finance executives transform, partner with the business and facilitate meaningful strategic conversations, finance business partnering will remain a far-fetched reality for many.

What then should CFOs do to command a seat around the strategy table?

Know Their Organizations Inside Out

Many finance professionals have a narrower view of the organization. All they know are the numbers and that is it. Ask them to articulate to you their company’s mission, vision and strategy, you will be fortunate enough to get a good answer. In order to play a strategic advisory role to the CEO and the Board, CFOs must have a clearer understanding and knowledge of what the organization stands for. They need to know where the organization is coming from, the direction it is heading, what the constraints as well as a deeper understanding of its differentiating capabilities.

In today’s technological and information age, CEOs are looking for real-time insights to help them make better decisions. In order to make these decisions, they need to have accurate information on the drivers of the business (both internal and external). Thus, it is imperative for finance to know what is driving the numbers to enable the finance team tell a better story of the organization’s strategic performance. Knowing the numbers alone is not good enough. You need to have a bigger picture, knowledge and an understanding of how the different functions of the organization collaborate together to ensure successful execution of the strategy.

Adapt to The Changing Environment & Provide Reliable Insights

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the norm these days. These factors alone are disrupting business models and causing company strategies to quickly become obsolete. Strategies that might have helped you to achieve higher performance in the past are no longer sufficient to sustain that performance. The risk landscape is rapidly evolving and the number of risks influencing enterprise performance are also sky-rocketing..

CFOs and management teams therefore need to be on the guard against the disruptive forces threatening the existence of their businesses. Achieving this success means a continuous scanning of the playing field to identify and evaluate possible threats and opportunities. In this environment, it is therefore critical for finance to improve its Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A) capabilities and provide reliable actionable insights to improve strategic decision making. For example, the function must be able to model various scenarios and their outcomes and evaluate their respective impact on the overall strategy of the organization. In doing so, there is need to consider all sources of data, its reliability, relevance and accuracy.

Embrace Modern Technologies

Technology and digital transformations are also constantly evolving. With these new innovations comes both risks and opportunities. As a CFO you should be asking yourself – Which technologies can the organization embrace to optimize processes and drive performance? Is our organization’s performance management framework integrated enough to support decision making.

These days technology is acting as an enabler to drive strategic execution and performance. Yes you might have standardized your processes, data management systems and implemented a cloud-based solution, but think of Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Advanced Analytics, Cognitive Computing, Machine Learning, E-Commerce, and Internet of Things (IoT). What impact do these technologies have now, and in the future on your business model? Do they threaten to force your business out of existence or sustain and enhance it?

The CFO needs to partner with the CIO/CTO and establish how the information strategy fits into the bigger picture. Which areas of the business should leverage technology to drive innovation and strategic success? Since CFOs in most organizations have taken over the responsibility of IT investments, the CFO must be conversant in IT language, and be able to clearly communicate the benefits accrued to the organization from investing in any one of these new technologies. He or she must also be able to lead the conversation around the table and secure buy-in from the CEO and other senior executives.

Turn Threats into Opportunities

CFOs and finance executives are known to say no to majority of company investments which in most cases causes them to be at loggerheads with their CEOs. Many finance professionals are trained to identify risks and everything capable of going wrong which often blinds them to the bigger picture. There is nothing wrong with identifying risks but what is important is for the CFO to avoid constantly saying no to strategic investments.

Instead of only seeing the threats and keeping the company purse closed, the CFO must also be able to identify the upside of the risks. They should help the CEO take a calculated risk that is within the risk tolerance and appetite levels of the organization. In order to advance in today’s business climate, successful execution of certain strategies requires the organization to develop a certain degree of risk appetite, otherwise the organization should not expect to make great leaps forward if it is always risk averse.

What else do you think CFOs should do to be successful strategic advisers to the CEO?

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Leading in Uncertain Times

One of the biggest challenges facing business leaders today is making the right decisions that will ensure their organizations succeed, survive, and remain competitive in an increasingly uncertain and complex environment.

A recent post, The best way to lead in uncertain times may be to throw out the playbook, by Strategy+Business has several good points.

The article is about the COVID-19 pandemic, how global companies navigated through the crisis, and how best to prepare for future disruptions. Here are some key points and my comments.

  • Rather than follow a rigid blueprint, executives must help organizations focus on sensing and responding to unpredictable market conditions.
    • Comment: Senior leaders play a vital role in providing clarity about the organization’s strategic direction, creating alignment on key priorities to ensure the achievement of enterprise objectives, and ensuring the business model is continuously evolving to create and capture value in the face of uncertainty. They must not rest on their laurels and stick to the beliefs and paradigms that got them to where they are today and hope they will carry them through tomorrow. Regulatory changes, new products, competition, markets, technologies, and shifts in customer behavior are upending many outdated assumptions about business success. Thus, the businesses you have today are different from the ones you will need in the future hence the importance of continuously sensing changes in the global economy. Employees and teams often feed off the energy of their leaders and tend to focus their attention where the leader focuses attention. If the leader is comfortable with current business practices and rarely embraces the future or challenges the status quo, then the team is highly likely to follow suit.
  • When it became clear that supply chains and other operations would fracture, organizations began scenario planning to shift production sources, relocate employees, and secure key supplies.
    • Comment: Instead of using scenario planning to anticipate the future and prepare for different outcomes, it seems most of the surveyed organizations used scenario planning as a reactionary tool. Don’t wait for a crisis or a shift in the market to start thinking about the future. The world is always changing. As I wrote in The Resilient Organization, acknowledge that the future is a range of possible outcomes, learn and develop capabilities to map out multiple future scenarios, develop an optimal strategy for each of those scenarios, then continually test the effectiveness of these strategies. This does not necessarily mean that every change in the market will impact your business. Identify early warnings of what might be important and pay closer attention to those signals. In other words, learn to separate the signals from the noise.
  • The pandemic forced the organization’s senior management team to re-examine how all decisions were made.
    • Comment: Bureaucracy has for a very long time stood in the way of innovation and agility. To remain innovative and adapt quickly in a fast-changing world, the organization must have nimble leadership and an empowered workforce where employees at all levels can dream up new ideas and bring them to life. Identifying and acting on emerging threats and potential opportunities is not the job of the leader alone but every team member. To quote Rita McGrath, in her book Seeing Around Corners, she writes, “Being able to detect weak signals that things are changing requires more eyes and ears throughout the organization. The critical information that informs decision-making is often locked in individual brains.” In addition to the internal environment, the leader must also connect with the external environment (customers, competitors, regulators, and other stakeholders), looking for what is changing and how.
  • It’s worthwhile for leaders of any team to absorb the lessons of sense-respond-adapt, even if there is no emergency at hand.
  • Sensing: Treat the far-flung parts of your enterprise as listening stations. The question leaders must ask is, “What are we learning from our interactions beyond the usual information about costs and sales?” Train your people to listen for potentially significant anomalies and ensure that important information is not trapped in organizational silos.
    • Comment: Cost and sales data are lagging indicators that reveal the consequences or outcomes of past activities and decisions. Although this information can help leaders spot trends by looking at patterns over time, it doesn’t help understand the future and inform what needs to be done for the numbers to tell a different story. In addition to lagging indicators, pay attention to current and leading indicators and understand the relationship between these indicators and outcomes.
  • Responding: Improve communication across intra- and inter-organizational boundaries. Leaders should view business continuity as an essential function that acts as connective tissue for the enterprise.
    • Comment: In addition to creating mechanisms that allow the free flow of information both inside and outside the organization, decision-makers should also be comfortable receiving information that challenges their personal view of the world, even if it’s not what they want to hear. Create a culture of psychological safety where people are not afraid to share bad news for fear of getting punished, but rather are acknowledged and rewarded for speaking up. Leveraging the diversity of thought enables leaders to anticipate the future as an organization, decide what to do about it collectively, and then mobilize the organization to do what’s necessary.
  • Adapting: Challenge assumptions, and question orthodoxies. There’s always the temptation to mitigate threats simply by applying existing practices harder and faster. One way to get at those deeper issues and encourage double-loop learning is to ask, “What needs to be true for this to be the right approach?”
    • Comment: In an increasingly uncertain environment, it’s difficult to survive and thrive with an old business model or outdated technologies. Many businesses fail because they continue doing the same thing for too long, and they don’t respond quickly enough and effectively when conditions change. As a leader, stay curious and connected to the external environment, look for market shifts, understand what needs to be regularly refreshed and reimagined, adopt new technologies and capabilities, and adapt in ordinary times but also during times of transition. Unfortunately for many leaders, it’s just more convenient for them to continually downplay the fact that conditions are changing than take the appropriate course of action that drives business success.

How are you preparing your organization for potential future disruptions?

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The Collaborative Organization

These days the term collaboration has become synonymous with organizational culture, creativity, innovation, increased productivity, and success.

Let’s look at the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. At the peak of the crisis, several companies instructed their workers to adopt remote working as a health and safety precautionary measure.

Two years into the pandemic, they are now asking their employees back to the office full time or are planning to adopt a hybrid model.

The need to preserve our collaborative culture and accelerate innovation are two of the top benefits being cited by organizational and team leaders for bringing workers back.

Collaboration is indeed essential for the achievement of team goals, functional objectives, and the overall success of the organization.

Today’s breakthrough innovations are emerging from many interacting teams and collaborative relationships.

When teams, functions, and organizations collaborate, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; group genius emerges, and creativity unfolds.

But, what makes a successful collaboration? What are the key enabling conditions?

  • It extends beyond the boundaries of the organization. Business success is a function of internal and external relationships. Instead of viewing your business in vacuo, understand that you are part of an ecosystem. External to your organization, who do you need to partner with to enhance your value creation processes, achieve/exceed your objectives, or successfully execute your strategy?
  • Ensure the objectives are clear and there is shared understanding by everyone. Unclear objectives are one of the topmost barriers to team and organizational performance.
  • Foster a culture that encourages opinions and ideas that challenge the consensus. People should feel free to share their ideas and not hold back for fear of others penalizing them or thinking less of them. Collaboration is hindered when one or two people dominate the discussion, are arrogant, or don’t think they can learn anything from others.
  • Groups perform more effective under certain circumstances, and less effective under others. There is a tendency to fixate on certain topics of discussion amongst groups which often leaves members distracted from their ideas. To reduce the negative effects of topic fixation, members of the group should be given periods to work alone and switch constantly between individual activity and group interaction.
  • Effective collaboration can happen if the people involved come from diverse backgrounds and possess complementary skills to prevent conformity. The best collective decisions or creative ideas are often a product of different bodies of knowledge, multiple opinions, disagreement, and divergent thought processes, not consensus or compromise.
  • New technologies are making collaboration easier than ever, enabling us to increase our reach and broaden our network. Although new technology helps, it will not make your organization collaborative without the right culture and values in place. First, define what you want to achieve through collaboration then use these tools to promote creative collaboration.

How else are you championing collaboration within your organization to create value and succeed?

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Preparing for Geopolitical Shocks

Geopolitical instability has steadily increased over the past years, and uncertainty in the global economy is at an all-time high. Thanks to globalization and advances in technologies, we now live and work in a tightly interconnected world, one in which the boundaries that previously separated domestic from global issues have disappeared.

Threats are no longer confined to traditional political borders, social structures, and geographic boundaries. Geopolitical shifts have dramatically altered the global economic landscape and brought politics and business together.

The rise of China as an economic and politically influential power has threatened the dominance of the United States as the world’s largest economy. Although the opening of China and a market of 1.4 billion people have benefited both countries, it has also intensified competition and sparked U.S. economic and technological espionage accusations against China, leading to strained relations between the two giants.

U.S. companies operating from China have felt the impact of this tense relationship. The opposite is true for Chinese companies in the U.S.

Across Europe, national populism is on the rise and now a serious force. In 2016, the United Kingdom shocked the world when it voted to leave the European Union, generating reverberating effects across markets.

Banks and financial services companies that once benefited from the EU passporting system have had their cross-border banking and investment services to customers and counterparties in the many EU Member States impacted, causing them to reimagine their value proposition models.

The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia is another example of a geopolitical event that has had devastating effects on human livelihood and businesses. Although the conflict between the two countries has risen over the years, I think it’s fair to say that few political analysts, governments, and businesses predicted a war to happen.

The war has created a humanitarian crisis, rattled global commodity and energy markets, caused prices to soar, and forced many international companies to temporarily suspend their Russian activities or completely cut ties with the country.

Global supply chains which are already fragile and sensitive due to the COVID-19 pandemic are now facing new challenges in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Multilateral economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia. A state of affairs that was unthinkable months ago and is now threatening to derail the nascent global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the global domino effect of geopolitical events and the shrinking of the distance between markets and politics, the need to better understand and more effectively mitigate geopolitical risk has become more urgent. The business impacts, whether direct or indirect, vary by company type and industry sector.

Your company may not be able to prevent wars between nations, but you can anticipate and better prepare for geopolitical shocks:

  • Integrate strategy, risk, and performance decision-making. Consideration of risks to business success is an important part of the strategy selection and execution process, not an afterthought.
  • Develop a better understanding of geopolitical trends and how they are changing. For example, what are the megatrends in business, politics, and technology that are making geopolitical risks more diverse, prevalent, and consequential?
  • Assess the links between these geopolitical events and business performance. What are the events that matter most to your business? For example, how might current global political trends pose physical, business, and reputational risks to your parent organization?
  • Anticipate how these trends are likely to play out in the short, medium, and long terms, and develop mitigation strategies for each geopolitical scenario. Proactively anticipate and plan for radically different worlds, instead of reacting to problems as they arise
  • Review your mitigation strategies as the world changes. Are they effective enough in case of a major shock?
  • Develop capabilities for continuous learning to anticipate, address, and recover from geopolitical crises.

What do you think?

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