Wharton’s CFO Course Evolves with the Times

The frequent changes to "The CFO: Becoming a Strategic Partner" drawn in large part from student suggestions, track changes in the CFO's role.

While the course began dealing with the new balance of responsibilities, it didn’t turn into a legislative primer. “We don’t have to make these folks experts on Sarbox; they already are. What we could do was help them allocate their precious time.”

Other changes in the program focused on risk management. Its traditional definition as currency risk and financial risk “is a very small part of risk management today,” according to Percival. Increasingly, issues of operational risk began to put CFOs in the position of COOs. “If you mess up on one of these risks, it’s not just financial; it could have tremendous implications for the whole company.”

So now, separate sections exist on risk. Plus, more time has been given in recent years to real options.

The approach of choice for “Strategic Partner” is scenario planning, in which students study how to improve the communication of ideas in integrated sessions. But role-playing is not stressed. Rather, “it’s taking a look at some important decisions that corporations actually made. Let’s say it’s a huge investment, and the board of directors has to sign off on it. If the board asked you to make a recommendation, how would you analyze this?” Attendees experience how, even if the board decides to go in a different direction, it will do so with financial wisdom about the implications of the choice.

Often with such an approach, friction between the CFO and CEO develops. “You’ve got CEOs with vision and CFOs with a view on the ramifications of the resulting decisions. You’ve got political issues when you have strong CEOs with a vision of what they want things to look like,” says Percival.

“We’ve increased the number of real options we examine, and we’ve fine-tuned real-options thinking and application,” he adds. “My CEO wants to go aggressively and rapidly into China. That may or may not be a good idea. Maybe we should go in small, not big, and then have what amounts to a call option, and add capacity. That kind of perspective often doesn’t come in unless it’s from the CFO.” Such analysis brings in the pluses from being a first-mover, as well as the minuses.

An emphasis on “execution, as opposed to strategy” has also developed in recent years, says the professor. “In executive education in general, we overemphasize formulation. It’s sexy and involves a crystal ball,” he explains. “But execution — the blocking and tackling — is vital. And CFOs tend to be to some extent the nuts-and-bolts kinds of people,” so this is a change to bring out their natural strengths.

There’s also been an increasing emphasis on information technology, again stressing practical lessons for dealing with the company’s IT function.

“It’s a very labor-intensive program,” says Percival of the week of classes, mostly constructed as half-day programs. “There are 10 different faculty involved during the course of the week, which starts on Sunday afternoon.”

Sessions for 2008 are planned for April 6-11 and Nov. 2-7.

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