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?