Good Sports

CFOs have to build teams and play on them. It isn't easy.

Aside from the occasional coaching stint, most CFOs’ Little League days are long past, but the lessons learned on those distant summer evenings may hold the key to their future success. Two such lessons — learning to take a leadership role on a team and to collaborate with other team members — are critical for any finance executive who aspires to advance. Whiff on those and the result can be career stagnation.

CFOs face two distinct team challenges: they must lead the finance team as well as play on the senior management team, where the dynamics can be fraught with tension as members compete for resources, the CEO’s favor, and even his job.

Building a strong team is critical because the CFO role is now so varied and demanding that no individual can effectively manage and execute all parts of it alone. Finance executives who hope to put their time to best use — working on strategic planning with the CEO, say, or meeting with large institutional investors — must rely heavily on their supporting cast. “Work is much more complex than it was 10 or 20 years ago,” says Todd Harris, director of research at consulting firm PI Worldwide and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult for any one person to have all of the knowledge and all of the skills to get his or her work done. This is really driving a need for teams.”

“CFOs need to get results through others,” says Fred Adair, a leadership consultant and former partner at executive search firm Heidrick and Struggles. “The demands on different subfunctions in finance are becoming much greater, and if the CFO has not created an organization with competence at each level, he gets pulled back into the details.”

As an entry point, Adair often asks executives to think about the best sports team they were ever on — from Little League to high-school basketball to intramural Ultimate Frisbee — and try to recall what was great about it. “The answers are always the same,” he says. “People say, ‘We knew each other. We knew what it took to win. We had a common goal. We had fun.’ You need to draw on that experience.”

Taking the Lead
Building and leading a strong team is easier said than done, of course, and that may be particularly true in finance. “CFOs are numbers people,” Adair says. “Building an organization is where they tend to fall down.”

Experts on team behavior cite a few important steps that finance chiefs can take to build better teams. Having the right mix of skills and people is an important starting point, but the nuts and bolts of the team’s processes are also critical, says Harris. The most effective teams establish ground rules for how they’re going to communicate, make decisions, handle conflict, and evaluate performance.

Adair agrees. “So much of the improvement you can make in leadership effectiveness is not through changing out team members or doing rope climbs,” he says, but by specifying “basic agreements about goals and roles and processes.”

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