Bad News Bearers

Why CFOs should learn the fine art of delivering inconvenient truths.

It’s never a pleasant task to deliver bad news. Pity finance chiefs, then, who have to perform that role with increasing frequency these days. “I don’t think CEOs realize it, but being open with them can be difficult, and the CFO often gets a ‘shoot the messenger’ kind of treatment,” says one financial executive. Many CFOs will attest that one of their biggest challenges is keeping their CEO happy, and today that challenge is more daunting than ever.

“A CEO doesn’t want any unpleasant surprises from the CFO, and certainly not in this economy,” says Rachelle J. Canter, president of RJC Associates, a career and leadership consulting firm based in San Francisco.

The good news is that C-suite candor is a skill that can be acquired without much difficulty, says Canter, even by the most reticent of CFOs. But it takes time; building an open, trusting relationship with anyone requires a learning curve.

The first step on that curve is to study how the CEO likes to communicate, says Canter. “Take time to talk to [CEOs] about how they like to get information, how often they like to get information, and what mode of communication they prefer,” she says.

One finance chief of a small Tampa-based company learned early in her 15-year working relationship with her CEO that when it came to bad news, he didn’t want to hear about it until absolutely necessary. “I like to make sure people are warned ahead of time about possible scenarios,” she says, “and he likes to worry about it when it happens.”

A difficult situation for a CFO, to be sure. Yet the finance chief and the company have survived the CEO’s head-in-the-sand approach for many years. “I don’t think he wants me to just drop a problem in his lap, so I make sure that when I go in he knows it’s going to be a serious conversation,” she says. “He eventually learned to trust and respect me. But when there are tough times it’s difficult for me, because I know how he reacts to bad news.”

At the American Society of Radiologic Technologists, director of finance Diana Bunnell had a very different challenge: adjusting to a CEO who doesn’t believe in beating around the bush. “From just observing him I could tell that he really likes to get to the point, so I learned that I have to be entirely honest and lay everything on the table right away.”

That style doesn’t come easily to Bunnell, she admits. Her natural tendency is to hold back and to be careful in how she presents things. Many CFOs, in fact, may be wired that way. “I think [in finance] our inclination is to think about it and analyze the best way of saying something,” she says. “Now when [the CEO] asks me a question, we just start the conversation.”

Candid Culture

Canter reminds finance executives that they don’t have to figure it out alone. For those who question their ability to communicate effectively with their chief executives, it can be very helpful to observe others on the management team who appear to do it well. “Take them out to lunch individually and say, ‘I see you can deliver difficult information well. How exactly do you do that, and what are your tips?’”

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