HR & Management

From CFO to CEO: Make the journey from the front row in the stalls to behind the lectern

15 min read

10 October 2016

It is fair to assume CFO like numbers. What’s not to like? The big number above demands your attention, even if you are not analytically inclined. Your interest will be further tweaked when I say that 30, 3, 30 are key numbers that will help CFOs step up to CEO.

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All around the board table people know how to do the numbers; CFO, CTO, COO, CIO and all manner of C suite executives can crunch with alacrity. It goes with the territory. Talking through budgets, profit and loss et al is never much of an issue either, so long as the audience has access to strong coffee, pastries and an elegant way to check emails.

With the strategic direction of both board and business hanging on the success of the leader’s vision, appointing a new CEO is a big deal. The board develops, debates and sustains the strategic direction of the business which is obviously important, clever stuff. But the CEO knows it… and then shows it. It’s a right brain thing in a left brain world. So here are four desirable attributes for CEOs that coincide with right brain orientation.

• Social leadership: the ability to inspire, influence and motivate others;
• Outside in thinking: a strong mega-trend and customer focus;
• Courage: particularly during adversity and crisis; and
• Optimism: encouraging and empowering others.

The numbers 30, 3, 30 addresses social Leadership, which is the ability to pass muster over mouthfuls of Merlot; to say in a few minutes what everyone else has been unable to articulate in two hours; to capture the hearts and minds of an entire business at 3.45pm on a grey Thursday. Inspiring others though the words you use has always been a vital component of leadership, one that today too many senior executives ignore. This is unsustainable, especially in a modern business environment when feedback will be out on social media before you have left the stage. And there is no excuse.

It is a straight choice not to improve your social leadership skills. By doing so you are choosing not to work on the most valuable skill an executive can develop. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson said: “Communication is the most important skill a leader can possess.” And legendary numbers man Warren Buffett explained, “you increase your value by 50 per cent by having better communication skills”. It’s hard to disagree with a man who is never blasé about statistics but if you are still a sceptical, know Buffett sorted his own public speaking abilities early in life through Dale Carnegie and still keeps them sharp well into his ninth decade.

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Both leaders made themselves great communicators: they were not born thus. Buffett has never considered himself a natural orator and here, in that statement, is a secret: there are no natural orators. So here is how CFOs and other executives can make the journey from the front row in the stalls to behind the lectern as CEO.

30: You have 30 seconds

Sometimes you need to start with volume, pitch, body language and pace. The young executive who has realised the step up requires her to deliver better, despite undoubted technical excellence, needs a more impactful and assertive speaker to emerge, with greater gravitas thrown in for good measure, by speaking twice as loud and half as quick as she presently does, and to use the lower register of her voice. If it was good enough for Margaret Thatcher when she took office, it’s good enough for anyone. With a naturally higher register as a starting point finding the lower reaches, speaking from your bootstraps and using your diaphragm effectively, is more relevant for women than men but can effect a dramatic improvement in every aspiring professional.

Better pace and more deliberation has an immediate knock-on effect on body language, making it more measured and less rushed. Practise and repetition also makes perfect and remember we always revert to what’s comfortable and familiar. But there is, though, more to this than delivery: next up is content. You have 30 seconds and need to respond in the moment. YouTube will show you plenty of comical brain freezes caused by ice cream, but needing to entertain can have the same effect on even the most accomplished and it is rarely funny.

How to organise the thoughts that swirl around your brain in nervousness is something you can practise. Take six personal subjects and make a few notes. Struggling for six subjects? Choose en suite bathrooms; summer holidays; chicken curry; soda and lime; Paris; and lazy Sundays. Now pitch in 15, 30 and 60 seconds. Do it all again. Involve your partner, kids, friends, colleagues. Make it a game. Eventually the pitches are tripping off your tongue. If we add this skill to the young exec with now much greater gravitas we have someone who can deliver what’s needed when it’s needed at the cocktail party. You’re welcome.

Three: You have three minutes

Think three minutes is a short timeframe? Think again; the Gettysburg Address was three minutes long. Engaging others round the board table needs a range of techniques. The first question I might ask here is: are you a risk-taker? Too often the CFO or other right brained types will go for the factual, stats-laden… and boring. There may even be slides. In fact there will always be slides – too many of them. (Just stop that right now. Seriously.)

Facts are useful but rhetorical questions make others think and give you the chance to deliver a zinger of an answer; statistics are all very well but stories from left field (and left brain) make you memorable, creative and exciting; data is a delight to other analyst types but sticking a shocker out there at 5pm on a Friday is a way to be noticed like no other suit that day has been. That visibility might carry through to the weekend and well into next week. What’s not to like about that?

Again, are you a risk taker? And there’s the rub, since the CFO spends much time managing and mitigating risk there is likely a natural reluctance to go all out for effect. It seems counter-intuitive. But just as there is a time and place for diligent presentation of and attention to the data, there is a time to risk-it-for-a-biscuit. I do enjoy the asides Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) shares with us, where he explains why he has just done what he has in House Of Cards. When he “goes for it”, whether it’s suggesting on the phone to the War Room that invading Russia is not off the table or when bringing out a flipchart and pens in front of his executive team, he plays with their emotions when he presents. And in true Abraham Lincoln style he always does it in less than three minutes.

30: You have 30 Minutes

As CEO you will need to nail the keynote every time. There is no excuse, because not only do you always have time to prepare, there are many who can help you. And remember, while it might not always be The Gettysburg Address, it will be your State Of The Union before a cast of thousands. Theresa May has been thrust into the CEO role unexpectedly and will be given some time to deliver on policy: but not when she is delivering her keynote. Listening to how May’s preparation went, it’s clear she had plenty of help in drafting and delivery, though the lectern is always a lonely place.

There are some key strategies to use that will help when facing the spotlights and some things you should avoid. If you choose help ensure you get it right. Too often assistance is disastrous as it is simply the wrong help. It is always disastrous to give early control of your keynote to anyone else: they are not delivering it. And avoid early interaction with a marketing bod who has a penchant for visuals: you will have a keynote that is led by the slides and designed to create a rhythm that puts the audience to sleep.

Your exec assistant or intern, no matter how motivated, is rarely the right person to rattle up slides from the notes you whispered into a dictaphone at City airport on Thursday evening. If you want to get it right every time you need to make what you do in the run up to your 30 minutes effective and have worked on your delivery style so you are confident it won’t crack under pressure. There will be pressure. As such, preparation is the key, with the first tools needed being a pen and some paper.

Francis Bacon said that “straws upon the surface flow; he who looks for pearls must dive below.” A thorough analysis of purpose needs to be followed by some divergent thinking, Brainstorming is called for. Moving from your dozens of daft ideas to something structured and sensible is used in the brain by the bucket-load, since such system two thinking, Kahneman will tell you, is very difficult. The process gets more intense when the ideas need to be sorted and ordered and shaped and finessed and put into a form that can be delivered to an audience tumescent with anticipation. Emerging from all of this are the key themes you want to present around. The rest is child’s play because you know exactly how to deliver brilliantly yes? If not, hire a big room and get working on that.

Demonstrating your outside thinking, seeing trends and customer focus is only made real by how you communicate them in pitches. Often the CEO is brought in to take a deal over the line and while the assumption is that it’s simply protocall, it is often the CEO who has the phosphorescent words that finally has the client “get it”. Showing courage during adversity and crisis is tough for some, but not everyone. Some have learned to love challenging times and are never more alive when everything is on the line.

Disproportionate or inappropriate optimism soon grates and some say you can even smell it from some distance. When Nelson Mandela left prison after 26 years he could have been forgiven for displaying some bitterness. Not a bit of it. The short speech he gave on the day he was freed encouraged and empowered thousands and saved an entire nation from itself. Optimism is one of many key emotional intelligence traits needed by CEOs.

Over the past 20 years I have asked thousands of senior business people what key skills are needed to get to the top. The word “knowledge” is writ large on every flipchart. It’s important, to be sure. Then I ask who in the room does not have knowledge: There are never any takers. I then ask who in the room can display their knowledge in every conceivable situation: 30, 3, 30. Very few feel they have that one sorted, yet we know that’s what sets the CEO apart. Ask Richard, Warren, Nelson, even Corbyn or May. Both of the latter delivered keynotes worth the name; if they had failed it is likely before long they would be out of a job.

Russell Wardrop is CEO of Kissing with Confidence.