In some cases, thinking business first, numbers second may actually mean offering less information. Chuck Eldridge, senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International, tells of a CEO who was asked to describe what he liked so much about a departing CFO. The CFO made a huge impact on the business, the CEO said, by taking away a 200-page data book that the previous CFO had given the CEO each month and replacing it with a much briefer description of the metrics, data, and insights that really mattered to the business.
Strategic CFOs push the boundaries — but recognize the limits of their role. The vast majority of CFOs — 88% of those studied by the Corporate Executive Board — think they have a good relationship with their boss. That should be a given. But that relationship doesn’t necessarily parlay into power.
“If the CFO views him- or herself as a change agent but the board and CEO don’t, it will be hard for that CFO to really play that role,” says Click. To broaden their horizons, then, he advises CFOs to educate themselves about various areas of the business and take on incremental responsibilities, with an eye toward building up their experience base. One, for example, took an active role in a Booz & Co. project analyzing the client’s global strategy, taking it as an opportunity to learn more about the operational side of the business, and “leveraged that into more responsibilities for himself,” says Click.
Some finance professionals are even going back to school to prepare for the increasing breadth of the role. Ajilon’s Reina says he knows of CFO candidates who have recently obtained Six Sigma training, project-management certifications, and even HR credentials.
If those qualifications seem more fitting for a chief operating officer, that’s no accident. As more companies phase out the COO and president titles, the CFO often assumes oversight of additional corporate functions. Does a bulging portfolio of operational responsibilities make a CFO more “strategic”? Not necessarily; those CFOs who have a broader role thrust upon them through circumstance may find that their stock rises little. But for those who are ready to prove the full extent of their value, the time has never been more ripe to assume the mantle of the truly strategic CFO.
Alix Stuart is a senior writer at CFO.