“Is the new CFO really a COO in disguise?” asked the CFO Daily News in a September article. It’s a good question: The concept of a chief financial officer as simply a numbers-cruncher is an outdated one.
“Good CFOs have become more strategic,” says J. Peter Bardwick, former CFO of predictive marketing software company Rocket Fuel and currently a corporate advisor and board member. “They’re not just reporting on what happens historically, they’re deep inside the business with the key functions that help the business grow.”
In fact, according to the 2017 CFO Survey from Grant Thornton LLP, 40 percent of CFOs say strategic planning is one of their top priorities—along with the usual tasks such as increasing cash flow and reducing costs. The survey also showed that managing risk is in the CFO’s purview: two-thirds of respondents said they want to reconcile risk management strategy with business strategy.
Today’s CFOs are driving the direction of business, validating strategy and providing guidance on key growth initiatives like new product launches or mergers and acquisitions.
Offering a holistic view on business direction
Thomas Kramer, managing director of Remarque Advisory and formerly the CFO of Opower, says the CFO now assumes a more central role in deciding where a business is heading—what he calls the “chief validator” of strategic plans. In the past, the typical workflow started with strategy, and the CFO ran budgets afterward. Today, the processes are more likely to be intertwined, Kramer says.
“You get a more holistic view of the moves you want to make,” Kramer explains. With the finance department involved in strategic planning at the outset, businesses avoid siloed decision-making. For example, if the engineering department is given sole control of plans to launch a new product, the plan might include a big increase in engineering headcount–without making a clear case for why the headcount is needed, and whether cuts or additions need to be made elsewhere. The result: a failed product launch. By adding CFOs to the strategic planning process at the start—instead of bringing them in at the last minute to run budgets—“you can set achievable goals and therefore be more profitable,” Kramer says.
Gauging the availability of resources
Bardwick sees the modern CFO’s role as guiding resource allocation. This isn’t just about money—it’s about understanding the people, technology and supply chain resources that you can muster to make a venture successful. Today’s CFO needs to know what resources are available in every corner of the company.
“If a product isn’t fully competitive and you want to grow the business, do you hire engineers, or do you buy another company?” Barwick says. “These are all resource allocation decisions. It’s understanding not just the balance sheet but the competitive environment.”
To get this comprehensive and holistic view of an organization, Kramer sees a trend toward placing more functions under the CFO’s wing. When he joined Opower in 2011 as CFO, Kramer was in charge of finance, accounting and human resources. By the time the company was sold to Oracle in 2016, Kramer was also overseeing IT and operations.
“There’s a great benefit in aligning non-front-line jobs,” Kramer says. And by doing so, he adds, “the CFO is in a better position to become a strategic partner to the CEO.”
Becoming the keeper of the trusted, company-wide data
In a logical evolution from the “number-cruncher” view of the finance department, Bardwick sees the modern CFO as a synthesizer of data of all kinds, from many departments. This is much needed, he says, because of the fragmented nature of today’s enterprise applications. As with understanding the availability of resources, the ability to bring together data from sales, manufacturing, marketing and many other departments helps the CFO offer a snapshot of company health.
“It used to be you’d have five big applications,” Bardwick says. “Today you could have 50 applications across the company, in a marketing stack, and adtech stack and so on.” When CFOs are knowledgeable about many business functions, “they can become the keeper of the quality numbers,” or trusted data that has been vetted by the finance department.
With visibility into many departments, the CFO should become the go-to person for counsel on changes big and small–from hiring to going public. “If you expect to be strategic, you have to be seen as an honest broker of information,” Bardwick says. “The CFO brings the data, without an agenda. That’s what helps CFOs succeed–they should only be working for the success of the overall business.”