Over the past several years, I’ve personally witnessed the role of CFO shift.
More than ever, these top finance executives are utilized — and valued — as right-hand advisors to CEOs and other C-suite colleagues in myriad ways.
As the trend becomes increasingly prevalent in organizations of all sizes and sectors, the onus is on finance professionals to obtain or strengthen the specific qualities needed for the job of strategic advisor.
It’s much more than analyzing the dollars and cents behind transactions. Being a relied-upon advisor requires prudent, careful thinking about every facet of the organization — from cost control, efficiency input, and partnerships (who you want to work with), to overall company strategy, areas for improvement, and how to relate to, and truly understand, customers.
For example, a few years ago, my organization had the opportunity to partner with an important and significant customer. The sales team was (rightfully) excited and recommended we make a substantial investment to support the business.
One particular recommendation caught my attention quickly: an addition to our office building, which obviously added up to a hefty sum. I had to see the business opportunity to believe it, and this is where my client development process began.
I took trips to Europe with our engineering team and to the customer’s Canadian headquarters; we set up frequent phone meetings with the customer, all of which allowed me to evaluate, understand and believe in the partnership beyond the numbers.
Ultimately, I met with the customer every quarter, talked to them about investments and their new projects, and managed our building expansion. Through this experience I forged a more meaningful, strategic relationship with the customer, which I now see as an integral and increasingly vital part of my role as CFO.
This is also how I envision every CFO’s role evolving: more involved with customer development. To do so effectively, CFOs and finance professionals must possess certain “soft skills” and characteristics, including:
It’s the only way senior finance professionals will ultimately lead change within their company. Being open and transparent with employees during difficult times, such as a recession or crisis, also earns respect.
The courage to do what’s right and willingness to challenge others in difficult situations is critical. Change is often scary; CFOs need to be bold and brave to see the big picture and assure others that what you’re doing will work — for employees, customers and the bottom-line.
Being calm, collected and consistent are essential qualities for every CFO. At the age of 28, I became CFO during the recession; it was crucial that I was visible — and visibly confident and in control. People would ask questions daily about the financial health of our business and when “we’d go back to normal.” I answered as truthfully and optimistically as possible, and avoided panic.
“Do your job” and make key decisions. It’s important to have both the hard skills and the soft skills in your position to help take the organization to the next level.
5. Continuously improving
CFOs must have the drive to aggressively evolve — the business and also one’s own professional development. Conferences, webinars, certifications, degrees, etc. contribute to advancing skills and knowledge. You’re never done learning.
6. Cultivate the big picture
CEOs create the big picture; CFOs must be able to see it from an independent perspective, both internally and externally, and focus on the long-term goals that will support the organization’s mission for years to come.
As CFOs, we must make it our collective goal to move beyond the stereotype of “number-cruncher.” The profession has an unprecedented opportunity — and challenge — to take on the role of strategic advisor; soft but fundamental skills have never been more important.
I encourage all senior finance professionals to strengthen your skill set and, ultimately, elevate your value to your organization.
Benjamin R. Mulling, CMA, CPA, CITP, is chair of the Institute of Management Accountants’ (IMA) global directors for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. He also serves as chair of IMA’s governance committee. Mulling is chief financial officer of TENTE Casters, Inc., a multinational manufacturer of mobility solutions to the institutional and medical markets.