Talk about silver linings: thanks to the recession, the core skill set of the CFO has been highlighted like never before. From working-capital management to cost control to scenario planning, the CFO’s expertise has proven to be the critical factor in corporate survival. Finance chiefs across the country have also taken the lead in explaining the economic crisis to skittish workers, fielding questions about everything from vendor and customer viability to ravaged retirement accounts. They have strengthened risk-management policies, identified a host of supply-chain vulnerabilities, and found ways to navigate in an environment in which forecasting is virtually impossible. As a result, the CFO role has arguably never been more important, more visible, or more respected.
But will the spotlight continue to shine as brightly as the economy begins to recover? Has the hard-won experience of the past two years permanently raised the profile of the finance chief, and will that translate into rosier career prospects? Most important, perhaps, will CFOs who made the tough calls on layoffs and budget cuts during the recession be able to change gears and help drive growth, be it at their current company or their next employer?
The top finance job has been in the limelight before, perhaps most notably — or notoriously — in the early part of this decade, when CFOs featured prominently in numerous fraud cases. That gave rise to the Sarbanes-Oxley era, during which CFOs became their companies’ top cops and an intense focus on internal controls was the order of the day.
No sooner had the dust settled on the regulatory front than the economy began to sputter and then crash, providing CFOs, ironically, with a golden opportunity for redemption — and ascension. Regardless of whether the CFO role was deemed “strategic” (see “Are You ‘Strategic’?“), it certainly became more valued.
“The recession has heightened the importance of the CFO because, in most companies, CFOs have had to roll up their sleeves and make sure that the business can survive,” says John Leahy, finance chief at iRobot, a publicly traded robotics company with approximately $300 million in annual revenue. “The CFO is really the prime person who needs to protect the franchise.”
Onward and Upward?
Nearly half of the finance executives responding to a September CFO survey agree with Leahy, saying their roles have become more important and respected over the past year. A similar number say the recession has boosted their career prospects, and that the CFO role has evolved into a suitably strategic post. (For complete survey results, click here.)
Leahy, who joined iRobot in June 2008, just a few months before the stock market crashed but with the recession already under way, says he has spent a significant amount of time educating employees about the importance of cash-flow and working-capital management. “We literally went through Finance 101, teaching people what EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization] is, what operating cash flow is, and what levers each person can pull in his or her role to have an effect on the business,” he says.