“The CFO once stood for Chief Finance Office, but not anymore. Instead, they function as the Chiefly Finance Officer,” says Atif Hafeez, a seasoned CFO, Corporate Treasurer and Board Member.
Atif, who describes himself as a ‘PwC-trained financial specialist’ with a strong background in private and public equity spaces, has managed much change within the finance function over the past 20 years, but none so sudden as the last 18 months.
In his view, CFOs have faced dramatically changing expectations since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It created two distinct challenges: one, to analyse the crisis and assess its likely economic impact on the business, and two, to deliver decision-ready information at speed.
“High-quality executive decisions cannot be made without the availability of dependable, management information,” Atif explains. “However, the luxury of having 24, even 48 hours to collate, scrutinise, interpret and provide the information is eroding fast. At the height of the pandemic, CFOs were expected to share a business-first mindset while delivering financial, as well as operational, intelligence in nearly real-time.”
The CFO role is changing
Moreover, CFOs are now expected to play a vital role in wider strategic and innovation initiatives across the business, not just finance. Hence Atif’s description of the CFO ‘chiefly’ managing finances while also delivering elsewhere. This changing mandate has been evolving slowly for years but has become crystallised more during 2020.
“At the time when organisations are experiencing uncertainty to varying degrees, finance chiefs are expected to increase their effectiveness by delivering actionable insights with the numbers, being more customer-focused, getting more involved in business level issues and partnering with the rest of C-suite, the board and the other stakeholders.”
Such a shift mostly comes down to the CFOs ability to pivot, now more than ever. Atif believes CFOs now have to learn how to ‘switch gears’ very quickly from ‘headwork to legwork’. It’s about being grounded and getting involved with the wider business. It may not be a behaviour every CFO is happy adopting, but Atif insists it’s one that is essential, especially in the wake of the pandemic. “As such, CFOs must understand what’s happening on the ground of their organisations, so they can distil that knowledge and drive the business strategy at all levels, rather than from a siloed position.”
Because of this cross-enterprise leadership, CFOs are, in many ways, the ‘shadow CEO’, as Atif puts it. “CFOs must also have a “people strategy” for the future state of their departments. This will naturally involve working with the HR Department to upgrade the overall talent acquisition process to meet the challenges of tomorrow.”
This is all necessary for future-proofing. The coronavirus pandemic will not be the last crisis businesses will face.
Preparing for the future
“Being future-orientated, future-ready and future-fluent is crucial,” Atif explains. “Crisis begets chaos if mishandled. Therefore, it requires a collaborative, top-down approach to deploy an adaptive leadership-followership framework to improve crisis response.”
Atif himself comes from a tech-led business environment, so he is acutely aware of the role technology plays in transforming the finance function to enable a business-wide approach, focused on resilience and futureproofing. There is a growing need for a tailored version of a business continuity plan (BCP) for the CFO’s span of control, which clearly outlines how financial operations will continue to function during an emergent crisis or unexpected disruption. “In the new Distributed Virtual Environment, ICT should predominantly feature in such plans,” he says.
Proactivity is an essential skill for the CFO of the future, Atif says. “A CFO must learn to anticipate. This is an essential future trait. It helps CFOs to adapt and respond to business challenges or crises, not just as they happen but as if they expect them and are therefore adequately prepared. We can see this in emerging essential areas of focus that may be incumbent upon CFOs, such as mental health, hybrid working, digital upskilling and non-financial disclosures.”