Advice and Information for Finance Professionals

What Makes a Great Modern CFO?

Guest Author

By Samuel Dergel, Principal at Dergel Executive Search, @DergelCFO

Being a great CFO is about much more than just looking at the numbers.

Accounting may be a technical field, but the modern finance department cannot thrive on technical skills alone. Every client I speak with is adamant about this when looking to make a hire: the best CFOs don’t just “get” the numbers, they are also great leaders and strategic thinkers.

I asked a number of advisors which qualities distinguish the best CFOs when writing my Guide to CFO Success, and they narrowed these down to three.

TABLE 1.1 What Is and What Is Not a CFO?

What a CFO is not What a CFO is
Accountant Strategic
Bean counter Leader
Number cruncher Advisor

1. The Strategist

The finance department has been playing more of a partnership role in the organization, and CEOs are increasingly looking to their finance leaders to help drive wider business strategies. It is not enough to simply report on performance at regular intervals; CFOs need to make decisions and shape their action plans based on the company’s ambitions.

What’s more, as the keeper of all the company’s data with a view of every department’s objectives and performance, CFOs must also step up and play an active role in refining and aligning business strategies.

2. The Business Leader

As the CFO steps out from the shadow of the finance department and sits at the right hand of the CEO, they are becoming a true business leader in addition to leading their teams. I liken the CFO’s knowledge to Solomon-like wisdom that comes from years of experience, finely-tuned business acumen and a deep understanding of the number behind sound business decisions.

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With the finance department as a whole shifting away from traditional accounting, CFOs also need to lead by example while broadening their team’s skillset. Versatility is the hallmark of today’s finance professional and CFOs need to find ways of attracting and hiring people that will help strengthen the finance department’s position in the business.

3. The Resident Advisor

Perhaps the biggest change in terms of the CFO’s role in business today is that their advice is not only valued—it is necessary.

Businesses are currently dealing with a wave of disruptive competitors and fast-changing customer expectations, while also managing a global talent shortage and volatile financial conditions. The wisdom and experience of finance leaders makes them indispensable in the boardroom as companies look to tackle one of the most uncertain economic periods in decades.

As part of this, CFOs also need to be able to sell their ideas. It is one thing to develop a robust and well thought-out plan to help the business tackle its challenges, but unless CFOs can articulate their ideas to non-finance experts these plans may never get off the ground.

A quick word on skills

A strong background in finance principles is essential to any CFO. A seasoned finance professional will have developed a large bag of tricks over the years that make them ideally suited to managing complex numerical issues.

However, many of these skills won’t differentiate CFOs from their colleagues with similar backgrounds. It is business consultancy skills such as strategic thinking, team management, and inter-departmental coordination that will set the best finance leaders apart and help them establish the finance department as the strategic core of the business. 

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