What are the characteristics we see top CFOs bringing to their organizations? That list closely resembles qualities of top CEOs – for good reason. The requirements for a top CFO have evolved quickly from a transactional, data-reporting role to one now responsible for strategic management of the organization’s assets.
A CFO must be able to not only outline for the CEO and board how the organization is currently faring but also forecast strategic directions and their potential impact. To do so, he or she needs tools you might not consider for a CFO role.
A CFO must deliver a broad company and industry perspective and project and analyze new opportunities and competitive challenges. He or she develops strategic scenarios, aligns them with the company’s vision, and serves as a trusted advisor to the CEO and board.
Emotional intelligence and people skills
CFOs must be able to communicate complex financial scenarios to nonfinancial executives and owners/investors in a way that supports good decision-making – turning information into insight. A CFO with emotional intelligence has the self-awareness to recognize that communication styles may need to change for different audiences without becoming defensive or impatient.
A CFO typically leads a team, but leadership extends beyond supervisory responsibilities for direct reports. Leadership includes the ability to inspire others companywide to support a vision or goal, coach them along the way, and help clear away barriers to reaching those goals.
A top CFO incorporates creativity within legal and regulatory boundaries to explore ways a company’s assets can be used for maximum benefit. When might it make strategic sense to form a joint venture? Make an acquisition? Venture into foreign markets? Go public or seek private equity investment? These kinds of recommendations require a keen intelligence and the ability to see past “what we’ve always done.”
These characteristics typically aren’t emphasized in accounting classes. They’re far beyond the technical fundamentals that accounting and finance professionals are first expected to master. That’s why the step from a mid-level or even top finance and accounting position to the CFO job is such a big one. After the technical skills and job mastery requirements are taken care of, there’s often little time to address and earn the benefit of more abstract “soft skills.”
Marjorie Engle, AGH senior vice president of organizational development and family business services, notes that emotional intelligence and strategic thinking are often the most difficult skills to develop for future (or current) CFOs. She recommends that those with an eye on the top finance job incorporate education and reading on strategy alongside their more technical training. That, along with assessment of personal characteristics, such as emotional intelligence and people skills (followed by coaching if needed), can help build the kind of comprehensive perspective a top CFO offers.
Congratulations to this year’s CFO of the Year honorees, and to the companies which had the foresight to employ them.
Originally written for publication in the Wichita Business Journal’s CFO of the Year insert.