Five essential traits that are most valued by long-tenured CFOs:
1. Cultivating deep and trusting relationships among the CFO, CEO, senior executives, the board, Wall Street, and extended stakeholders. The financial crisis was an unforgiving testing ground for many a corporate leader, especially in the C-suite. CFOs are trusted partners, working closely with the CEO to address challenges as they arise and to get out in front of problems. Key factors for developing talent who may one day be in the CFO role or in other senior leadership positions are the ability to align objectives and establish trust.
2. Demonstrating broad business perspective and understanding. Prospective leaders cannot limit their development to finance. They need a perspective of overall business fundamentals. Among successful CFOs, career paths have often taken them through diverse and sometimes challenging routes, including taking risks to gain a wider business view—across operations, international positions, and divisional management. These experiences enable them to develop a multi-faceted perspective from which to operate and contribute.
3. Serving as a strategic business partner with credibility beyond finance. Successful CFOs share a common characteristic of being able to rise above and beyond the traditional role of the finance executive. Extending the traditionally narrow focus of financial governance, they operate as strategic business partners, particularly to the CEO. (In fact, CFOs are often groomed to become CEO one day.) For promising financial leadership talent, developing a strategic-partner capability requires a holistic view of the company and the ability to build a platform that transcends finance. Financial leaders of tomorrow will be expected to have an interest in the whole business—not just the pure numbers. Finance does not operate in a silo.
4. Being a “steady hand on the wheel” during turbulent economic times. During times of uncertainty, all stakeholders (employees, customers, and shareholders) become challenged and financial leadership is tested. Experience is the best teacher and the most valuable preparation. Lessons to be learned include the inevitability of change and the importance of maintaining credibility, internally and externally, and to view crises as opportunities to improve performance in areas such as productivity and efficiency. A healthy balance sheet and fiscal discipline support the business and position the organization for economic recovery.
5. Showcase mastery of the details. Financial executives must develop multilayered, detailed knowledge of the organization. Theirs is a unique perspective across operations. In fact, the CFO may be viewed as co-owning the results along with the operating team. Developing mastery in this area requires a variety of experiences, from opportunities to learn from wise mentors to taking international assignments. Learning to lead others and enhancing their contributions are essential.
Other valued skills and competencies include a high level of technical expertise, including taxation, treasury, accounting standards, and transfer pricing. Financial talent must be deeply schooled in compliance and regulatory oversight (e.g., Sarbanes-Oxley).
A solid foundation in these areas is crucial for any financial executive, but development does not end there. Financial leaders are expected to demonstrate mental agility—able to learn quickly, handle complexity, and adapt rapidly as situations and circumstances change. Financial executives are also expected to be leaders, particularly as they move up the rungs of the organization. Just like any corporate leader, financial executives, including the CFO, are expected to motivate, align, and empower their teams, bringing together leadership ability and the right leadership style.
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