How CFOs are primed to lead business in uncertain times

CFOs are increasingly seen as co-CEOs, especially in times of economic uncertainty. Business Chief talks tech and collaboration with two finance chiefs

The days when CFOs were merely responsible for the numbers are long gone.

Once perceived as risk-averse gatekeepers in charge of financial reporting and forecasting, CFOs are increasingly seen as co-CEOs, reliably helping leaders navigate all-important business strategies and securing overall business stability during periods of great ambiguity.

And at no time in recent history is this more true, as digital transformation accelerates, ESG is prioritised, and economic volatility picks up pace amid sky-high inflation and a likely recession.

“The pandemic along with inflation and the economic crisis have forced CFOs to enter a role far beyond the numbers,” says Nancy Person, CFO of content management platform provider Hyland Software.

And Nancy should know. She took the financial reins of the Ohio-based, 4,700-employee-strong software firm in April 2020, as the pandemic was in full swing, replacing the finance chief of nearly three decades.

“We [CFOs] became a critical role during the pandemic and because of this gained the trust of not only CIOs and HR leaders but the CEO as well,” says Nancy.

Add to this the Great Resignation and organisational acceleration of digital transformation and finance chiefs are now stepping into a role beyond just the finances.

While Nancy acknowledges that numbers will always be the centre of a finance chief’s role, she sees CFOs as “transitioning into strategists and market experts as we continue to navigate the unexpected.

One of the biggest issues CFOs have had to deal with over the last six months, she says, is how to model for the future, with the most difficult part making assumptions about how the pandemic, and now a possible recession, might impact the business.  

But in such uncertain times it has become critical for CFOs to be at the forefront of strategic decision-making, to help ascertain how best for a business to proceed, she says.

“It’s my role to ensure the company is set up for success even when the unexpected occurs,” she says. “ These things are hard to predict but staying ahead of it as much as possible and readying ourselves for any financial pivots that need to be made is the key to a successful and trustworthy relationship between the CEO and CFO.”

As Interim Chief Financial Officer at San Francisco-headquartered software company Anaplan, Nadine Pichelot believes finance chiefs hold the potential to be their company’s change agents.

“While they aren’t expected to lead all parts of business operations, it’s clear that organisations are leaning increasingly on their CFOs to develop and manage strategies and transformations beyond the bounds of traditional finance.”

She says that when the pandemic first hit, CFOs were naturally well positioned to help their organisation respond quickly, and strategically, and now with business growth top of mind for leaders, finance chiefs are being called on to navigate what is a much more dynamic landscape.

“Given that all operational decisions have a financial impact, CFOs have a unique level of visibility across a company. They also have experience using data to respond to micro or macro disruptions.”

Moving from siloed to collaborative working

But while the post-pandemic business environment requires leaders to be confident in their ability to quickly adjust plans according to ever-changing realities, many find the approach taken by businesses to planning doesn’t allow for this.

Historically, planning and therefore strategic decision-making has been a siloed and highly manual process for businesses. At the end of the year, each department head would propose their strategy to move forward, and the CFO would review their individual budget requests – either offering approvals or adjustments based on company financials – and from there a large business plan would be formed.

This often results in a broader scheme that is neither agile nor strategic, Nadine explains, and ultimately one that is difficult to execute effectively.

That’s because static tools that require manual input, like Excel, create operational silos within an organisation – so real-time visibility doesn’t exist. When plans are being developed, leaders are not able to collaborate effectively to unlock opportunities for the business because they don’t have a view into what other departments are doing.

“In a dynamic environment like the one we are in today, that lack of visibility can mean the difference between profits and losses,” she says.

Driving digital transformation

The digital transformation of finance and accounting can create a seismic shift for CFOs bold enough to embrace it, giving them more time to analyse data and make more informed decisions.

“In recent years, as their role has evolved, we’ve seen more CFOs call into question the idea of an annual operating plan or an annual forecast,” says Nadine. “The type of change we’re experiencing, and the rate at which it continues to happen, has proven that CFOs can’t create a plan once a year and walk away or expect to make small adjustments every six months or every quarter and be okay.

“Instead, they must be able to identify the real-time levers that are going to help them mitigate risk, manage cash flow and liquidity, and cut costs to drive performance and growth in the future.”

That’s why digital transformation has become a high priority for modern CFOs, and why finance chiefs are critical to driving digital transformation and expanding growth opportunities, she says.

Nadine argues that with the right technology, CFOs can connect all their organisation’s critical data points in a single environment that users across the business can access at the same time. Leaders from finance, supply chain, workforce, sales, and marketing departments can leverage this data to model multiple scenarios quickly, build more accurate forecasts, and make more confident decisions – all at the pace of change.

“This is something we call connected planning, or as Gartner calls it, Extended Planning and Analysis (xP&A). By embracing connected planning, CFOs can help bridge the gaps between departments and ensure the entire business is aligned and working towards the same strategic outcomes.” says Nadine.

The future CFO – collaboration and interpersonal skills essential

But it’s not technology alone. If finance chiefs are to help position themselves, and their companies, for greater growth in today’s demanding and dynamic environment, they need to become among the most tactical, adaptable, and strategically minded executives in the entire C-suite, says Nadine.

Emphasis also needs to be placed on interpersonal skills and change management, given finance chiefs’ role in driving digital transformation forward.

“There are misconceptions around transformation, where people think you are saying the old ways are wrong or bad, so for CFOs to succeed, they need to help their organisations overcome those cultural tensions and dispel those misconceptions,” says Nadine.

This is where challenges arise for CFOs. Because, while perceptions may be unanimous when it comes to CFOs’ ability to perform well at business level, recent research commissioned by Anaplan and Deloitte shows disparity when more interpersonal skills come into play.

For instance, CFOs tend to over-credit themselves when it comes to actively coaching others across the organisation (27% CFOs versus 12% colleagues) and similarly, are less likely (43% CFOs versus 52% colleagues) to concentrate on strengthening relationships amongst their peers during times of disruption.

And less than half of finance chiefs say they recognise collaboration as being particularly important. This is especially key given that more than four in five CFOs and colleagues agree that the challenges businesses faced in the last year could have been tackled better with stronger communication between departments.

“Finance chiefs need to break down departmental silos and foster stronger relationships in order to lead their organisations forward in this increasingly complex environment,” says Nadine. “If they can show genuine willingness to help modernise and build resilience in other areas of the business, it will go a long way to winning over hearts and minds.”

Nancy says that the past few years have demonstrated that CEO and CFO collaboration is integral amidst unprecedented times and that relying solely on one perspective from the C-suite limits the opportunity to generate effective solutions and diminishes the likelihood of long-term success for an organisation.

Nadine urges CFOs to tap into their emotional intelligence – and their change management skills – to foster the mutual trust required to optimise operations and create a more agile, resilient business.

Nancy concurs, pointing to empathy and resiliency as key traits. “When grappling with uncertainty, difficult choices are inevitable, and these decisions should be delivered with sensitivity and compassion, acknowledging that employees are also being faced with the impact of economic uncertainty.”

Ultimately with the right soft skills and technology, CFOs can build a culture of collaboration within their organisations and position themselves, and their companies, for greater growth and opportunity.

MEET THE CFOs

Nancy Person, CFO, Hyland Software

Joining Hyland in 2010, Nancy has held various finance leadership roles, becoming CFO in April 2020. Prior to Hyland, Nancy worked in the financial services industry in reporting and audit roles, serving as manager in the Risk Review Group at KeyBank and senior manager of financial reporting at Charter One Bank. She began her career with Deloitte in their Audit & Assurance group. 

Nadine Pichelot, Interim Chief Financial Officer, Anaplan

A seasoned finance executive, Nadine has more than 25 years of finance and operational expertise and experience in leading large international teams, including roles at Philips, Lightning, Apple Computer, Cisco Systems, and Dell. She joined Anaplan in 2015 as Finance Director for EMEA, becoming SVP Interim CFO six months ago.

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