What Makes CFOs Tick?

The trail of accounting scandals has led some to question the judgment -- not to mention the motives -- of finance chiefs. So, why do CFOs do what they do?

Former CFO Philip Varley still feels the pressure.

But now, the tension is less about revenue recognition and more about landing his 1998 Cessna 182 on a 9,000-foot sidewalk known as Telluride Airport. The Telluride strip, which sits amid 14,000-foot mountain peaks in Colorado, offers only 6,000 feet of runway. “The most exciting airport I’ve landed at,” says Varley.

Varley knows a little something about nerve-wracking landings. A CPA and U.K. chartered accountant, he spent nearly 22 years navigating a maze of quarterly closings and regulatory requirements.

But last October, Varley turned his back on the corporate world, choosing instead to take the job of CEO of Barrington Air, a small, Denver-based air-charter operator. How small is small? Well, Varley’s not only the Barrington CEO — he’s the airline’s chief pilot and owner.

A sane observer might well ask why a well-trained and well-paid financial manager would trade in the corporate high-life for IFR landings through treacherous mountain passes. But Varley asserts that he swore off the big-time business world for a simple — and disturbing — reason.

The former chief financial officer says he refused to deliver what CEOs were demanding of him: tarted-up financial statements. In fact, Varley says his insistence on playing by the rules earned him the label of troublemaker, a tag he claims made some employers and executive search firms nervous about hiring him.

Other CFOs and finance managers have faced similar career pressures. According to an exclusive survey of finance chiefs conducted by CFO magazine (see “The Fear of All Sums”), around 17 percent of the respondents said that, over the past five years, they have been asked by their boss to misrepresent their companies financial results at least once.

A few have succumbed; most haven’t. Interestingly, experts in corporate culture, including psychiatrist and author Ari Kiev, say finance officers tend to possess enough self-assurance to say no to unreasonable (or illegal) demands. Indeed, self-confidence is one reason these executives have attained such high positions within their organizations. Without a doubt, Kiev believes that aggressive CEOs need the counsel of equally strong CFOs, not corporate sycophants.

But ironically, an over-developed ego, often plumped up by career success, can push a CFO to go beyond the bounds of accepted behavior — let alone GAAP. Often, finance chiefs rationalize their lapses in judgment by telling themselves that they’re just doing what they’re bosses want them to do.

In fact, psychologists point out that some finance chiefs have an overwhelming desire to please their bosses — no matter what the consequences. In some cases, CFOs actually view superiors as paternal influences.

Anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that WorldCom’s former CFO Scott Sullivan saw Bernard Ebbers as something of a father figure. And employees at Enron Corp. have testified they were reluctant to question then-CFO Andrew Fastow’s role at the company because Fastow was “Skilling’s boy,” referring to onetime CEO Jeffrey Skilling.

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