Opinion

CFOs embracing leadership skills can head for the top

6 min read

03 September 2015

There are many recent examples of CFOs landing the top job at our biggest businesses. More will follow as CFOs become better leaders.

Nick Robertson’s departure from the chief executive role at online fashion group ASOS was a huge surprise given its continued potential for future growth.

What wasn’t too much of a surprise was the man announced to replace him – chief operating officer Nick Beighton.

Okay, he is a COO, but Beighton joined the group in 2009 as chief financial officer and therefore joins a league of top class executive talent who has made the jump from the finance chair to the CEO lounge.

Just consider some of these names – Ian Dyson, ex-CFO at Marks & Spencer who took the top job at Punch Taverns, Ian Livingston, who went from BT’s FD to CEO, and John Rishton, ex-CFO at British Airways and eventually CEO of Rolls-Royce.

Expect more former CFOs to follow this route either internally, like Beighton, or externally.

The CFO position has been cemented as the number 2 position behind the CEO in recent years with the downturn being the main driver behind the change.

Board members, both non-executive and executive want to know the exact ins and outs of the company finances, where money is being spent and how to account for future strategies.

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It is no longer the case, as with some companies before the recession, of get financing, spend and then move on to the next project.

Eyes are much more fixed on the balance sheet now and the CFO has to respond both by doing the basics of his job correctly in ensuring that accounts are up to scratch and the best financing options are on the table but in being able to communicate his or her role effectively to all the business.

Much more interaction is needed between the CFO and stakeholders be they investors, shareholders, media or fellow employees. More interaction and communication is needed between the CFO and vital departments such as chief digital officers or marketing or those responsible for consumer engagement.

Perhaps as a by-product of this, CFOs are developing leadership skills which will help him or her in their current role but will also pave the way for their next role as a CEO.

No longer can they or should they hide behind their large calculators in their offices. They must engage fully in company strategy and discussion.

Indeed, according to PageGroup’s Global CFO & Financial Leadership Barometer last year, a CFO’s role “continues to be increasingly varied” with 58 per cent handling company administration, 41 per cent IT, 37 per cent legal, 34 per cent human resources and 24 per cent procurement and supply chain.

“As their remit increases CFOs are working more independently from CEOs and are driving changes which impact the organisation as a whole,” the report said. “Financial leaders are strengthening their position and escalating in importance. Their growing involvement in shareholders’ meetings, investor relations and corporate strategy underlines this development. CFOs are increasingly acting as change leaders.”

But how naturally does this come to the average CFO? If they are being asked to engage more and lead more surely this can’t suit every financial career man or woman?

These skills are not honed in the type of financial training they receive early in their careers.

It should be and organisations and bodies training our next generation of CFOs must take these new skill-set needs into account when devising their own strategies.

Indeed, one CFO recently told me that for aspiring accountants and finance leaders in their thirties it was more important to show “gravitas” and communication skills than effective technical skills if they ever met senior executives.

This is what they will be judged upon in the future. “You have other people in your office to do the spreadsheets. You concentrate on communicating and leading. You are a businessperson now, not just an accountant,” the CFO said.

For those currently in the CFO chair – how can they add leadership and communication skills? Training can obviously help – how to manage varied stakeholders, how to use your skills to shape strategy and how to influence the board during meetings.

Coaching and mentoring can help as can learning from your peer group. You have to trust yourself that you have the basic qualities to be a leader – drill down into yourself, find those qualities and skills.

In the best case scenario it will make you more effective at your job and put you in pole position when the CEO chair becomes empty.

If not you face the danger of your company’s headhunters looking elsewhere to find a CFO with the necessary leadership drive.