Digital accelerator, strategist, futurist … for today’s CFOs, with great power comes great responsibility.
An ever-expanding remit offers fresh opportunities for personal development and professional impact.
But what does it mean to move beyond the traditional CFO role and supercharge transformation for your business? And can it all be done while juggling the pressure to keep balancing the books?
We caught up with three CFOs - Billie O’Connor of Milk & More, Sylvia Ionita of waterdrop and Vineta Bajaj of Rohlik Group - on how they’re rejecting the status quo and embracing a newly elevated role.
Move with the times and not only be left behind, but decline. Consumers, technology, and talent alike are all transforming at record speeds, and CFOs are uniquely placed to champion change while managing the purse strings to ensure longevity, according to Bajaj:
“There are four generations in your customer base who have the ability to purchase [and] people who are in decision-making power can be of those different generations too,” she says. “Therefore if the CFO is resistant and doesn’t even acknowledge change, it’s difficult to be effective. I don’t think it’s optional.”
For Ionita, this means CFOs must match the future workforce’s enthusiasm for digital transformation:
“The next generation, they grow up with all those technologies, they grow up with AI. So if we don’t consider AI as part of our business, they might get bored, they won’t be interested because they’re not challenged.”
Chief Future Officers should rise to the challenge of transformation and live up to their namesake, helping to future-proof organisations for generations to come. But how do they deliver on the broadening scope of what’s required?
Feeling the pressure to lead by example when it comes to ROI on investments? You’re not alone.
“There’s something innate in finance people, I feel this as well, where when I want to spend money or invest in finance, the whole business is looking at me going, are you going to overrun? What's your ROI?” says Bajaj.
Thinking outside the box and having the confidence to lean into your own business acumen to make the right decisions is key. But in this day and age, intuition alone isn’t enough.
“I think there's a lot of gut feel that happens in businesses. And sometimes there's nothing wrong with that, but I think all of it should be validated” says O’Connor.
“We used to forecast based on history, but how many people have got realistic minus one, minus two, minus three years they can rely on now for trends?"
That validation needs to come from greater finance led analytics and getting to grips with where data can make the most impact.
“Once you know what the two or three biggest levers of your business are, that's where you put the effort into understanding data [...] You can find a way to get this done without it being announced to the business. Come back when you've got a small result first of how you treat a decision based on that info.”
So worry less, risk more, and white lie if you have to?
“Everyone's always a little bit worried about falling on their face and not taking a risk or certainly in some cultures,” says O’Connor. “If you're in a culture like that, don’t broadcast it.”
But just how data-literate does a Chief Future Officer need to be? For Bajaj, you don’t need to be a techy person, you just need to be open to what tech can do:
“You may not be comfortable, or fluent, or be a digital native, but you appreciate what it's trying to do [...] Have the mindset to be open to change, as opposed to the fear reaction of ‘am I doing it perfectly?’.”
It seems the tech-savvy CFOs among us are most likely to come out on top, driving a culture that embraces and harnesses AI and data for the better.
Do you get invited to your business unit drinks? (And no, being invited for the credit card doesn’t count).
That may be a tongue-in-cheek gauge to measure your working relationships, but building trust with departments goes a long way to changing the perception of CFOs as business analysts over bean counters.
“There are cultures and there are businesses where people don't want finance to have access to the data,” says Bajaj “and actually, the evolving role of the CFO and the Chief Future Officer is about changing the reputation of finance.”
While the need for being a strategic partner seems to be the general consensus, it’s a tricky balance to strike.
“One of the hats that the CFO has to wear is being everyone's BFF, because you have to be a trusted adviser, you have to be invited to the table,” says O’Connor. “You are someone who helps and enables other people in the business to make decisions, not there to have scorecards.” Ionita agrees:
“I think finance has to be the advocate for reality and the counterparty challenging things at all times. But you have to be integrated, and accepted.”
What is conclusive is the importance of positioning CFOs as trustworthy and on the side of success for all departments involved, alongside putting finance positions in the right meetings to understand how money is spent to grow the business.
All this might beg the question, just how deep do CFOs need to go into business knowledge?
That all depends on where you see the trajectory of your own Chief Future Officer role going, says O’Connor:
“If your ultimate aim is to be a CEO of a business, then you need to understand those functions [...] Understand the big KPIs that will change those departments’ output, that's kind of the real basis of business partnering.”
The Chief Future Officer is as much about carving out your own path and defining the role on your own terms, as it is about the spirit of collaboration.
“A big challenge for us is getting talent in the first place,” says Ionita. “ I think the run for talent is still ongoing. It's really hard to get the right people that have a certain qualification, and also the right mindset [...] able to do the small operational tasks, but thinking big as well.”
Building the right team alongside you is crucial to having the biggest impact, but the key to inspiring this growth mindset across organisations?
“Leading by example” says Bajaj.
If you would like to watch the full conversation, find it on our community platform here, along with more cutting-edge content.
Chris is the founder and MD of GenerationCFO.com and creator of the Digital Finance Function Model and a contributor to many articles on our platform. Chris focuses on the shift toward digital transformation in accounting and finance, shows you what good looks like, then helps to get you there!