How to Mentor Your Boss, the CEO

To be the best business partner you can be, find the courage to speak the truth to your CEO.

At a recent Institute of Management Accountants conference, Rich Beyer, chairman and CEO of Freescale Semiconductor, gave a presentation titled, “Financial Executives as True Business Partners.” The topic is not new to CFOs. But what made the presentation beyond the norm was its focus on the relationship between operational and financial-team members and how the latter should provide counsel and direction to the former.

Beyer described how, as he progressed through the ranks to his current positions, finance staffs contributed significantly to his success. It was a perspective not often shared with finance professionals and one that offered insight as to how CFOs can work more effectively with their CEOs.

In fact, the message has great applicability throughout the CFO organization. Beyer stated that finance folks often give too much credibility to their operational counterparts, assuming they know more about accounting and finance than they actually do. He suggested we challenge them in a respectful manner, make sure they understand the relevant financial aspects of their positions, and offer suggestions beyond the numbers.

Hip Huggers

In addition to educating nonfinancial individuals on business metrics, financial reports, and their linkage to strategy, Beyer actually suggested that financial leaders advise their CEOs about personal weaknesses, blind spots, and insensitivities. Because the CEO and CFO are “joined at the hip,” the finance chief can add value by being candid with insights in those areas. Even if the counsel is not readily accepted, the CFO should persevere, Beyer insisted.

Bud Kulesza 7-7-11

Those comments caused me to pause and reflect on the relationships I had with CEOs and other nonfinancial colleagues during my career. I experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly when attempting to offer counsel to and, in fact, mentor some people. Mentoring peers, not to mention those above you, can be daunting, but finance leaders should not shy from it. Just keep in mind that to avoid embarrassment and allow for open discussion, sharing such insights is usually best done one-on-one.

You may know the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which an emperor is sold clothes that are actually invisible, only to be exposed in public by a small, vocal child during a parade. As CFOs, we cannot allow that to happen to our CEOs. The consequences of not providing timely insight can be terminal for an organization and all involved.

I can reflect to numerous times when I provided insight that a CEO didn’t have readily available. The good CEOs considered the input and made their decisions taking into account the knowledge I provided. They didn’t always make the decision I would have made, but I respected them for that. They also respected me for providing the information, appreciating that I thought enough of them to share difficult news, especially nonfinancial information. Good leaders, financial or otherwise, welcome such insights.

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