Hard Times

Why finance executives are overworked and under stress.

The bottom line is that most CFOs have never had to do so much with so little. And by most accounts, there’s no relief in sight. While CFOs are fortunate to work in high-paying jobs (the people most concerned about their stress levels are those making less than $40,000 a year, according to a survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association in 2004), high pay does only so much to mitigate the heavy lifting. Unlike Korn, most finance chiefs have no plans to jump out of the boiling pot. But unless they can recognize the warning signs of stress and develop skills to cope with it, they are like frogs who aren’t aware they’re in the process of becoming soup.

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The precious-metals industry is an insanely stressful world driven almost entirely by the fluctuating price of gold, platinum, and other metals. Depending on the day’s price for raw material, Metalor Technologies Inc., the company where Robert Nolan served as CFO of North American operations, was either having a good day or a bad one.

The bad days, though, were made worse by a Swiss parent company that exerted constant pressure on Nolan to perform to profitability standards that were often unrealistic given the variability of the cost structure. Complicating matters, Metalor had five different operating divisions in the United States, and seven total reporting entities, each with a different business model, all of which had to roll up to their financials three days after the end of the month.

Managing the complexity took 80-plus hours a week. Meanwhile, Nolan and his new wife had five of their seven children from previous marriages living with them. The result: Nolan’s general health began to suffer, as did his new family. Finally, in May 2003, he quit.

Truth be told, much of the finance executive’s stress level is self-inflicted. After years of pushing to be a strategic partner throughout the organization, as well as its moral compass, many CFOs are victims of their own success.

Some 52 percent of those polled in the CFO survey, in fact, say that today’s stress comes from the growing demands from business units for finance support. Nolan, now controller at Summit Technical Service, a privately owned technical-personnel firm in Warwick, Rhode Island, says that his “to do” list has never been longer. “I have to be involved in so many details of this organization, because who else is going to do it?”

At the same time, the unique position of the CFO in the organization — as the confidant to the CEO and the fiduciary to shareholders — creates its own stresses. “Because the CEO trusts you so much, everything seems to land on your desk,” says Korn. Moreover, she adds, everyone looks to the CFO as the “pillar of all ethical decisions.”

Being that pillar has a downside, however. Many CFOs, in fact, report that their fellow C-levels have to constantly ask them for permission or approval in this post-Sarbox age. “And a lot of executives are resentful of CFOs,” says Korn. “They don’t like that we have all this regulatory muscle behind us now. They just want to do all this creative work and not have to worry about their fiduciary responsibilities.”


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