But these contrasting personalities can be an organizational strength if managed properly, says Wisler. “You want different voices in the mix. That’s why people have different functions within the organization,” she says. “But when you’re speaking to the public or to employees, the CFO and CEO really need to present a united front and support each other, even if behind closed doors they are having contentious discussions.” If a chief executive harps too much on the finance head’s cautious approach, for example, that CFO’s authority may be undermined in situations where caution is warranted. “If the CEO is too negative about the CFO, and the CFO then goes and tries to tighten controls or reduce costs, people may ignore him because he has lost some credibility,” says Wisler.
When tension with the boss first emerges, the finance chief can take steps to improve the situation by trying to see things from the CEO’s perspective. “The CFO has to realize there may be more to any issue than the numbers,” says Debra Benton, an executive coach based in Fort Collins, Colorado. “It would serve the CFO well if he could look at others in power and understand their point of view, and then try to create a proposal for that point of view.”
Coaching on how to manage the relationship can also be helpful, says Charles B. Eldridge, senior client partner and practice leader, financial officers practice, at Korn/Ferry. He notes that many companies use the services of industrial psychologists to review employees’ roles and determine how those with different styles can best work together.
Sometimes, though, the relationship between the CEO and the CFO is strained beyond repair. Grenfell, the former communications CFO, made the decision to leave a previous employer after it became clear that he and the chief executive did not have the same views on ethics. “I was asked to do something that I thought was inappropriate at best and fraudulent at worst,” he recalls. “I went home that night, thought about it, and the next day I resigned. I wasn’t going to do it, and I wasn’t going to work in that kind of environment.”
While in the past prospective employers might have looked askance at an abrupt exit or a short tenure at a former employer, such a move no longer puts a black mark on a CFO’s résumé. Given the high demand for strong finance executives, the marketplace tends to forgive finance chiefs who depart suddenly, says John Wilson, founder and president of executive search firm J.C. Wilson Associates in San Francisco. “If it is a high-caliber CFO, people know that it was just not meant to be. It was just an unfortunate placement that unraveled,” says Wilson. “The market shrugs and lets the person move on.”
If a CFO does decide that he must leave the company, Benton counsels against speaking ill of the former employer, no matter how painful the situation may have been. “It is best to get out in the marketplace with a nondefensive, good-humored attitude and say, ‘Hey, this is business. We all know there are people who don’t always agree,’” she says. “You shouldn’t say, ‘I had an egomaniacal boss and I had to leave,’ because people will think that next time maybe you’ll say that about them.”