How CFOs Can Rise to the Occasion in Times of Uncertainty

How CFOs Can Rise to the Occasion in Times of Uncertainty

The Great Recession of 2008 was traumatic, to say the least: 170,000 small businesses failed over the course of two years (2008-2010), and huge corporations like Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual went bankrupt in days (if not hours).

Many reports acknowledge that, despite lingering effects on sectors like education, for the most part the economy and housing market is slowly recovering. Cautious optimism is wise, however, as Brexit and US election of Donald Trump have shown us that even with our recovery, we’re still fraught with difficulties and new challenges.

Among all the confusion and change, the one executive who holds critical influence over a company’s survival or failure may well be the Chief Financial Officer. Believe it or not, a CFO’s role has transformed in recent years, to the point that CFOs have grown beyond their popular image as master accountants, instead becoming an integral part of the boardroom and the decision-making process.

How has the CFO position changed?

In a nutshell, technology and the 2008 recession have altered the CFO role immeasurably, forcing CFOs to broaden their skills to go beyond simple finance and numbers, expanding into the areas of strategic vision, execution, and even market forecasts.  

The reason? Companies that were able to navigate their way successfully through the recession shared a number of traits: they invested carefully in staples like healthcare, communications, and consumer staplesthey downsized and reduced overhead; and they automated processes and made operations as efficient as possible, while ensuring regulatory compliance.  

In each and every success, the CFO played a pivotal role, given their intimate knowledge of the company’s financial health. CFOs didn’t simply sign off on company-wide pivots or nod at the board meetings; instead, many of them offered strategic vision, plotted out the financial impact of every move, and ensured that all changes were financially sound.

Additionally, as EY notes in their report on the evolving role of the CFO, not only do CFOs provide objective financial advice, they are also involved in areas ranging from investor relations to strategic marketing and analysis. Probably the executive most involved and in touch with the broader organization.

Companies must clearly define a CFO’s duties

In this day and age, CFOs have seen their umbrellas rapidly expand to include other duties. But in their “DNA of the CFO” report, EY notes that 51% of CFOs report feeling stretched thin, with another 56% reporting a tension between old duties (finance, compliance) and new ones (strategic priorities).

One key solution to alleviating pressure on CFOs is to clearly define their duties. While all sources are very clear on the fact that CFOs have to move past doing business as usual and move out of their financial comfort zone, their new responsibilities remain ambiguous.

Now, it is true that every company will differ in the responsibilities assigned to their CFOs, and no two companies will assign the exact same duties. However, Deloitte created the Four Faces of the CFO, a handy framework that draws out the broad strokes of what is expected of a CFO. The roles are varied, but have no ambiguity: as a Steward, CFOs see to traditional responsibilities in areas like compliance, finance, and accounting; as an Operator, they preside over financial planning and the daily workings of the company; as a Strategist, they use data to drive growth and vision; and finally, as a Catalyst, they advocate for clever business improvement initiatives.

Until this first step of defining the CFO’s role is handled, there will be many unhappy CFOs with too much on their plate.

How can CFOs balance their new jobs with their old?

This brings us to the next step, of course: how can CFOs maximize their efficiency and stay afloat in a quickly changing environment? Every situation is unique, but there are a few broad suggestions that may help.

Rely on automation where possible, and a larger staff if necessary

First, it is obvious by now that technology has the ability to put certain workers (and even entire industries) out of business. However, automating certain financial activities is actually a labor-saving, cost-cutting tool for CFOs. Simply creating an automated, efficient process that is easy to use and (mostly) bug free may be enough. After all, consider that the ideal actuary and accounting functions are three things: repeatable, error-free, and efficient. While these three characteristics happen to be traits that humans, as a species, are not particularly skilled at, they are an area in which technology excels.

Compliance: why a larger staff is currently necessary

Still, automation is only part of the answer, at least so far. However advanced technology is, it still has not yet reached the point where it can resolve complex legal and compliance disputes. As such, given all the uncertainty and changing government regulations, it’s still very necessary to have a capable, driven compliance department of auditors, lawyers, and other specialists.

This is even more crucial for multinational corporations, who must comply with a huge array of contradictory and conflicting regulations across various borders. As Western Union CFO Raj Agrawal makes very clear, creating a strong culture of compliance requires the right resources in the right locations, something that cannot always be accomplished with the existing technology at hand.

Further, as Deloitte has found, there is no substitute for a strong, positive culture in the compliance department. Implementing any compliance regime requires testing, monitoring, and regular feedback, all of which contain that single, critical element: the human one.

New and improved training and networking

Lastly, CFOs need to network, train, and organize alongside other CFOs. This might sound counterintuitive at first: CFOs in different organizations should be collaborative peers.

Consider this: CFOs all face similar challenges and pressures at work, and it is in their shared interest to present a collective, unified front on how they will address these problems.  After all, if CFOs do not stand up and clearly outline what is in their job description (and what isn’t), others will do so for them.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of summits and conferences, from the prestigious, multi-faceted MIT CFO summit to the nonprofit CFO Summit. It is up to individual CFOs to make or find the time to sharpen their skillset and keep up with industry trends, but such summits are incredibly useful in more ways than one.

In a post-recessionary world filled with uncertainty and risk, the CFO has become more important than ever. But even with a busier schedule and a more uncertain role, CFOs can still take steps to maximize their efficiency, keep their organizations profitable, and importantly, stay sane.