The Essential Skills

To ascend to (and remain in) the CFO's office, you need much more than financial acumen.

No one becomes a CFO without possessing the commensurate finance skills. No one thrives as a CFO, however, without having much more. As Scott Simmons, vice president of Crist Associates, a Chicago-based recruiter, puts it: “No company wants just a really good finance person anymore; they want someone who can go beyond that.”

But exactly what are those other essential skills? What capabilities, talents, and expertise should be in a CFO’s toolbox no matter what industry or company he works for or challenges she may face?

To hear CFOs tell it, “toolbox” may be the wrong metaphor: magician’s bag of tricks is more like it. There’s nothing easy about mastering the soft skills they say are essential, and which seem to boil down to clairvoyance, X-ray vision, and the ability to bend time. Ultimately, however, there is a common theme. “Once you get past the technical skills, it’s all about people — communicating with them, developing them, empowering them, and listening to them,” says Charles H. Noski, retired CFO of AT&T and Northrup Grumman. “If you do those things well, it will contribute to your success as an executive, whether you’re a CFO or not.” Patience, experience, and a solid dose of intuition can help you round out your financial acumen with the following tricks of the trade.

Time Benders

Every executive knows all too well that a 24-hour day can feel woefully insufficient. Overload may be a way of life in finance, but there are ways to cut through the clutter.

Stephen D. Young, CFO of time-management consulting firm and accessory-maker FranklinCovey, tells his staff to stop producing any information they deem unimportant and “see if anyone notices.” That advice has led to a 40 percent reduction in the volume of data reported over the past two years. For example, “rather than having a budget-versus-actual analysis sliced five different ways, we slice it two different ways, and rather than have 15 different inventory reports we have 10,” Young says.

Young also takes a merciless approach to his E-mail inbox. He glances at it several times a day but doesn’t respond to any messages until the end of the day unless they are clearly urgent. That establishes a very high bar — Young says he leaves about 60 percent of his messages unopened.

Frank Gatti, CFO of ETS, also relies on a strict E-mail hierarchy. “Not all E-mails are of equal importance,” he says. Aside from those sent by his CEO, “investors and bondholders come first. Respond quickly even if you don’t have all the facts, just to let them know you’ll get back to them when you do.”

Managing Up

Every CFO has to deal with a CEO, and figuring out how to make the boss happy is a skill no aspiring finance chief can be without. “The CEO connection is the single most important thing a CFO must understand and maintain,” says David Johnson, CFO of The Hartford Financial Services Group. While a sound strategy will depend on myriad interpersonal factors, Johnson says he thinks a critical element is candor, which is key to becoming a trusted adviser to the CEO.

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