Talking to the Board: Risk & Reward

A CFO's interactions with a company's directors can be a career maker or breaker.

Among the multitudes of things a CFO can do to enhance — or detract from — his or her career, where does the quality of interaction with the board of directors rank?

Very high, according to people who should know best: those who have served as both finance chiefs and board members. In fact, it may be that nothing is more important, except making sure the numbers are right.

Charles Noski has seen it all, from his tenures as CFO at Hughes Electronics, AT&T, and Northrop Grumman to his current memberships on four big corporations’ boards, including audit committee chairs at both Microsoft and Morgan Stanley. “I can’t imagine a CFO being successful and not being well regarded by the board,” Noski told CFO.com. “If at any point in time the board doesn’t feel the CFO is forthcoming and above board, he or she probably will leave the company.”

Keith Hall, a former CFO of Lending Tree, who has served on seven boards (three currently), puts board communications “among the top two or three things” that can help or hurt a CFO’s career.

“If the CFO goes out of his way to speak to board members, solicit their opinions and voice his own, and his are well thought out, that can help greatly,” Hall told CFO.com. “But I’ve seen CFOs who like to put up barriers, who don’t want anyone looking over their shoulder or ‘in their shop.’ I’ve seen them get very defensive when questioned during board meetings. That is not a good reflection on the CFO.”

Indeed, the potential is far greater for harm than gain, according to some observers. “I don’t see interaction with the board as a positive enhancement for a person’s career,” said David Carson, a recently-retired 33-year Ford Motor Co. executive and one-time executive director of finance for Europe, who made numerous board presentations over the years. He said that on a 1-to-10 scale, with 1 being no influence on career advancement, he would rate it a 2. “But it can be a negative, if you can’t answer a question or you babble a long-winded explanation.”

Tom Kolder, president of Crist|Kolder Associates, a C-level recruiting firm that does board searches as a side specialty, compared board communications with other “externally focused” activities. “I’d rank it right up there with your effectiveness in dealing with the analyst community and the banking community,” he said.

Seeking Board ROI

Despite the obvious motivation for effective communication with directors, many CFOs do not take full advantage of opportunities in this area. That’s according to the Corporate Executive Board, a for-profit firm that conducts qualitative research on a wide spectrum of issues on behalf of corporate subscribers.

The firm’s Finance Leadership Exchange practice, whose subscribers include 630 CFOs at companies with annual revenue between $50 million and $1 billion, recently prepared a report concluding that many CFOs are not leveraging board interactions to enhance company performance. They tend to be unsatisfied with the level of strategic guidance their boards provide, the research found.

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