Are Financial-Services CFOs Ready to Bolt?

Turnover has practically ceased in the high-pressure financial sector, but signs suggest many finance chiefs are looking for the exit.

Greater demands on financial-services CFOs and their consequent disaffection for the role are among a number of converging trends threatening to seriously thin the talent pool, says a new white paper from recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles.

As in other industries, turnover in the financial sector has been in freefall mode for the past few years (see chart below). Many CFOs thought twice about trading a known risk for an unknown one, and some seasoned finance chiefs delayed retirement in order to help their firm through difficult times.

Now, with a recovery slowly taking shape and the Dodd-Frank Act shaking up financial firms, many companies are looking at changing their leadership teams and competing for game-changing talent. But the recovery also is expected to spur a fair number of financial-services CFOs to finally retire or move out of that high-pressure industry.

“Many financial-services companies tell us they are already feeling pressure in trying to bring in CFO talent,” the white paper’s authors write. “Whether promoted internally or hired externally, the talent well is dry.”

The recent extraordinary demands on finance chiefs in such a highly regulated industry have caused enormous fatigue, Heidrick & Struggles says. As a result, many are viewing the job as increasingly unattractive, and with fewer willing players, the talent gap will continue to widen.

Financial CFO turnover

While most firms in the sector continue to look within their industry for CFOs who are experienced in complex financial instruments, they should consider widening their sights in order to broaden the available talent pool, white paper co-author Todd Monti tells CFO. It appears that some firms are already doing that. In 2009, at the height of the recession, all 15 CFOs hired by Fortune 1,000 financial-services firms came from direct competitors. Last year, only 4 in 12 did so.

At the same time, companies should try to make the CFO role less harrowing, the white paper recommends. There is no way around having to juggle key but disparate duties, such as satisfying shareholders, managing regulator relationships, working with the board, helping business-unit leaders run the company, and communicating with analysts. Still, many CFOs will leave if the issues of fatigue, risk, and uncomfortable visibility are not addressed.

One solution, for the many financial-services firms where overall strategy is mostly the CEO’s province, is to share responsibility for strategy with the finance leader. Having little say in strategy formulation can make it difficult for the CFO to excel in his role, says Monti. In the same vein, the finance chief could be invited to join the board of directors. And the CEO should work with the CFO to explore how new talent can be brought in to handle less-mission-critical priorities.

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