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Navigating change: CFOs must turn heads forward

Egon Zehnder's Cagla Bekbolet, in the first of a regular column for Financial Director, discusses the forward-thinking attitude expected of the top finance chiefs

MY JOB IS TO HELP multinational companies find, place and develop outstanding CFOs and financial executives. In my recent conversations with current and aspiring CFOs – and the CEOs and boards who appoint them – I’ve become convinced that we are in the midst of a transformation in the role CFOs are expected to play.

More than one CEO has told me that they want the CFO to shift from “looking in the rear view mirror” (i.e., focusing on reporting financial performance) to “looking through the windscreen”(i.e., playing a much more active role in driving performance and growth). If you’re a CFO or financial manager reading this blog, you’ve probably heard the same characterisation – but what are the practical implications for how you shape your career?

One way to answer that question is look at recent appointments at leading companies. Consider Graeme Pitkethly, who was named CFO of Unilever in May 2015 after a highly regarded 12-year career at the global consumer goods firm. The company’s CEO, Paul Polman, has cited not just Pitkethly’s financial experience, but also his “deep operating knowledge and track-record in both business and people development”. Pitkethly is currently executive vice president and chairman of Unilever’s UK and Ireland operations, and previously held a variety of global and country roles, including head of M&A and CFO of Indonesia.

Management training

I would certainly encourage aspiring CFOs – and existing CFOs looking to accelerate their career growth – to seek out opportunities to play general management roles, and to broaden their exposure to technology, marketing and sales, supply chain, shared services, organisational change and other disciplines. Experience of running the business is now as important as a track record in running and interpreting the numbers.

As organisations, markets and supply chains become increasingly global, I would also encourage would-be CFOs to take up opportunities to work in different countries. The experience of navigating a different culture and helping a business perform in place far from home is invaluable grounding for a global role.

Most of all, however, the successful CFOs of the future will be those who embrace and internalise a real mind-set shift. In the words of one CEO, the new CFO must be the “agitator of financial performance” – not simply the custodian of the bottom line, but an active change agent and leader of top line growth, able to challenge and coach executives throughout the business.

CFOs are being asked to step up to this broader role because companies are facing unprecedented expectations from shareholders on growth and financial performance – just as their global operations become more dispersed, and strategy execution becomes more complex. So, while deep financial expertise will remain a non-negotiable for the new-generation CFO, he or she must also be adept at mastering complexity, nurturing curiosity and unleashing innovation – in themselves, their teams and the business as a whole.

Broaden horizons

At one level, this means that CFOs must cultivate a broader appreciation of business issues and sharper antennae on what’s happening in the world around them. In addition to seeking roles in operations and other functions, one way to do this is to devote regular time to speaking to leaders and innovators from outside their industry or region.

And, in an era when digital is disrupting business models and creating dramatic new business opportunities, CFOs should also make sure they understand leading-edge technologies – and their implications not just for financial management but for business performance overall. (Digital is a topic that warrants a discussion of its own; I’ll return to it in a future blog post.)

Beyond cultivating curiosity and insight in these ways, the CFO as “agitator of financial performance” will also need to be a great people leader, adept at engaging, challenging and motivating global teams and diverse business units.

He or she will need to be skilled in using financial metrics to highlight new trends, pinpoint new opportunities and ask difficult questions – all while adopting the posture of coach and partner to other executives’ performance. Indeed, it is this capability that will position the CFO not just as the CEO’s “eyes and ears”, but also as their right hand and all-round consigliore.

Cagla Bekbolet leads the global CFO practice of executive search firm Egon Zehnder

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