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CFO camaraderie: Confronting isolation together

Not everyone can understand the unique challenges CFOs face, but building a professional network can be a helping hand to CFOs feeling isolated in their roles

CFO camaraderie: Confronting isolation together

In the world of corporate leadership, the adage ‘it’s lonely at the top’ couldn’t be more accurate, acknowledges Billie O’Connor, CFO at Milk & More, a sentiment that resonates deeply with her fellow finance executives.

The role of a C-suite executive often entails shouldering an isolated burden – one that involves grappling with strategic challenges, making crucial decisions, and navigating career trajectories, all while finding few avenues for candid discussion.

For CFOs, this isolation is no exception. O’Connor, who has steered the financial helm of the UK grocery retailer for just over two years, speaks candidly about the transition from being a supportive deputy within the finance function to becoming the ultimate decision-maker.

“[CEOs] will be looking to you to explain what needs to happen in several areas,” she says. “This is a real step change in expectation, and as such, can make you feel like you are alone.”

This leap into the CFO role can be a stark realisation, leaving professionals feeling stranded, particularly when their superior – usually the CEO – lacks the same depth of financial expertise.

Amidst the dynamic landscape of modern business, executive loneliness is an increasingly prevalent phenomenon, though often relegated to the shadows of professional discourse.

In a post-pandemic era characterised by heightened virtual interactions, the sense of disconnection has deepened, impacting CFOs significantly.

The rapid pace of change has thrust many CFOs into multifaceted roles, expanding their responsibilities to realms such as legal, procurement, IT, and even HR. This expansion can foster feelings of overwhelm, exacerbated by the weight of heightened expectations.

This change has propelled CFOs to confront not only financial risk and compliance but also an array of potentially contentious decisions.

Alex Bant, chief of research and practice and vice president of Finance at Gartner, points out that CFOs are often entrusted with unpopular choices due to their access to extensive information. As a result, navigating interactions with colleagues can be fraught with challenges, stemming from the fear of making a misstep.

“There’s a constant concern about inadvertently saying something that could have negative repercussions,” Bant observes, shedding light on why many CFOs gravitate toward maintaining a more isolated stance.

In a world where the role of the CFO has morphed beyond the conventional financial realm, the solitude of executive leadership remains a steadfast companion.

As these finance leaders tread uncharted territories, the significance of their challenges underscores the necessity for a greater understanding of their unique experiences.

Unravelling the veil of solitude

 In the world of corporate leadership, the ascendancy to the C-suite often ushers in an unexpected sense of seclusion, leaving even the most seasoned financial executives grappling with isolation.

This isolation, prevalent among CFOs, can cast a long shadow over their well-being, job satisfaction, and decision-making abilities, even ushering in the spectre of burnout. However, these challenges often linger in silence, fueled by apprehensions of being deemed inadequate leaders.

“Feeling lonely can hinder people’s morale, and, potentially, performance if left unsolved”, explains Julien Lafouge, CFO at Spendesk. “This can be more common as you move up the hierarchy.”

The perception often takes root that as executives ascend, pastoral support becomes superfluous – a belief that C-suite leaders should adeptly navigate pressures and challenges on their own accord.

Yet, O’Connor affirms the urgency for CFOs to transcend this trepidation, recognising that they are not solitary voyagers in the realm of isolation. Within the C-suite, numerous individuals encounter akin struggles, yearning for connections with their executive counterparts.

There are thousands of people “in the same profession” grappling with the same struggles, she says, who are just as eager to connect with their executive peers.

Beneath this dilemma lies an unappreciated conundrum – a risk of forsaking the opportunity to glean diverse perspectives and insights. As Lafouge underscores, CFOs stand to gain immeasurable value from absorbing “diverse perspectives and best practices.”

If they decide to go it alone, they will likely “hinder their personal and professional growth”, he says.

Amplifying the power of connection

 In the endeavour to combat the isolating nature of the CFO role, Lafouge advocates for a comprehensive approach that places networking at its core.

He asserts that CFOs can proactively alleviate their isolation by embracing a “holistic” strategy encompassing networking intertwined with complementary measures. “Networking is a powerful tool that enables them to connect with peers facing similar challenges,” he says.

Central to this strategy is the art of networking, a formidable tool that can facilitate interactions among like-minded individuals navigating comparable corporate landscapes.

As highlighted by Lafouge, networking empowers CFOs to establish vital connections, fostering an environment where shared experiences can be openly discussed, and collective wisdom can thrive.

Just over 70% of the C-suite say they are transparent about their well-being, but only 22% of employees agree. Source: Deloitte Insights 2023

LinkedIn is a great place to start, says O’Connor, who uses the site to host her NOVA Community, which helps females in senior leadership connect, collaborate and share stories.

Beyond digital platforms, O’Connor highlights the valuable role of recruiters in expanding CFOs’ networks. Recruiters, who possess extensive professional webs, often become enduring allies on the journey to combat isolation.

“Good recruiters become good long-term friends – they know your colleagues in the industries and can always make good recommendations”, explains O’Connor.

This symbiotic bond offers CFOs an alternate avenue for enriching their networks.

Engaging with articles and publications online can also be an indirect yet impactful method to broaden one’s network. Many CFOs share their insights and experiences through these mediums, providing opportunities for resonance and connection.

Billie O’Connor advocates seizing these openings, encouraging CFOs to initiate contact when an article particularly resonates. “If something really resonates with you, why not reach out and connect with them? Ask for a Teams call or a coffee to pick their brain”, she says.

Embracing the network landscape

 While one-on-one interactions with fellow C-Suite members and industry peers are vital, the potential for growth and resilience expands further through participation in professional organisations and events.

Professional events and networks provide a fertile ground for CFOs to delve into shared experiences and exchange insights. Lafouge advocates for a proactive stance, encouraging CFOs to seek out events that align with their interests and aspirations.

“They [CFOs] should actively seek out events that allow them to expand their knowledge base and build relationships with like-minded professionals,” says Lafouge. “CFOs can seek out mentorship or coaching from experienced professionals in their field to gain new perspectives and insights”.

This approach does not solely revolve around attending events, but also around creating spaces for reciprocal learning and support. Diving into the concept of mentorship, Lafouge introduces the idea of peer-to-peer mentoring.

These relationships, he says, “are a more “informal and supportive setup” that allows CFOs to “share experiences and advice in a mutually beneficial way.”

Mentorship, whether from experienced professionals or through peer-to-peer relationships, offers CFOs an invaluable channel to broaden their perspectives and refine their leadership approaches.

Devils in the details

 Gartner’s Bant delves into the tactical aspect of networking, aligning it with the precision CFOs are known for – numbers.

“What often works for CFOs is setting a numerical goal,” he says. “That could be the number of people to meet in a certain quarter, a percentage of their time that they spend at external events, or even the number of connections that they try to follow up with”.

This strategic perspective reframes networking from an abstract concept to a structured pursuit, ensuring its integration within the bustling realm of CFO responsibilities.

O’Connor emphasises CFOs need not succumb to the illusion of being solitary figures. She highlights that a wealth of CFOs are eager to connect and converse.

“You’ll be surprised how many [CFOs] actually want to connect and chat and talk to each other about experiences, regardless of gender or background,” says O’Connor.

The realisation that a community of like-minded professionals exists, ready to engage in supportive discussions, can be a revelation for CFOs battling isolation.

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