How can CFOs stay abreast of the evolution of the finance function and make the most impact in a role that feels like it’s always changing?
Answering this question brought CFO Leadership Live back to Dallas last week, and our guests — Lisa Akhionbare, CAO of Tegus and Melinda Lawrence, CFO of Meriton — did not disappoint. As speakers on one of our most popular panel to date, the two DFW execs brought fresh insights to a familiar challenge with a conversation that was just too good to not share.
So, If you couldn't join us for our quarterly finance leadership lunch and learn, here's what you missed:
- Today’s CFOs are strategic partners and savvy prognosticators at the forefront of the evolution of the finance function
Today’s CFOs are Strategic Partners & Savvy Prognosticators at the Forefront of the Evolution of the Finance Function
In a time when business news and technology news are frequently the same thing, it can be easy to forget that the phrase “the finance function is in constant evolution” is actually an old shibboleth and not news at all — technology simply drives more transformation than it used to.
“I start to laugh when I hear this question,” Akhionbare admitted in answer to moderator Megan Weis opening invitation to describe the real-world changes each panelist had observed in her own role, “I’ve been working in accounting for 25 years and every year I hear ‘how is the CFO role evolving?’ It really speaks to the fact that you’re connected to every part of the business. As the world evolves; as the market evolves; as industries change, the role of the CFO has to change because all roads in the business lead back to that function.”
“It’s one of the few areas in business where you get to see everything,” Lawrence agrees. In fact, she thinks that the multifaceted nature of finance work is what draws leaders to the role in the first place, and informs much of where it’s going.
“When I talk to young people who are thinking about going into finance and accounting, I tell them, you shouldn’t just be a number cruncher. You should really understand where the drivers are, especially in the tumultuous economy that we’ve seen. You need to know where the levers that you can pull to change course are.”
Akhionbare agrees. “We’re starting to become like palm readers,” was her tongue-in-cheek take on the need for CFOs to add keen observation to their toolkits. “The job is no longer about looking in the rearview mirror. It’s about getting in the driver’s seat and looking across that broad windshield, seeing around corners, and predicting what’s happening with the road’s condition so you can help the business in scenario planning for what lies ahead.”
Both execs agree that the most significant change to the CFO role is it’s shift toward strategic partner. “It’s important that we’re deeply ingrained into what’s happening in the business — that we understand it as deeply as the functional partners understand it. It’s our job to help define the strategies that will drive the profit of the business.”
To Build Cross-Functional Relationships, Be Direct — But Stay Curious
Another truism in business — and life, for that matter — is that strong relationships are built upon sound communication. If “all roads lead back to finance”, cross-functional relationships that actually function is table-stakes in executive finance leadership roles today.
“I think the traditional role [of CFO] was more like being the police officer of the organization,” Akhionbare said. “That’s changed. Now, it’s more important to be the mayor. When you’re mayor, it’s important to have these cross-functional relationships. They get the job done.”
Lawrence credits her background in public accounting, specifically auditing, for preparing her to be direct as a CFO without causing undue detriment to foundational relationships. “In public accounting, relationships are everything,” she explained, “so when there was an issue with a client, because no audit ever goes perfect, I had to learn to navigate those difficult conversations. “I’ve learned to just make the phone call. It’s not going to get solved over email and if you’re working with distributed stakeholders like we do, you just have to be intentional, find a time to connect, and be direct.”
Akhionbare has had success creating and sustaining cross-functional harmony through a combination of open-mindedness and deep, active listening. “Be genuinely curious when you ask your questions,” she advises leaders, “It sounds simple, but when you think about it, how many times are you asking questions just to get to your foregone conclusion or to drive home a point? [By] asking genuine questions so that you can be curious about what someone has going on, you can show up as a partner and as a supporter and when you do that, people will seek you out, not shut you out.”
Talent & Tech Success Rely Upon Solving the Right Problems
Increasingly, the CFO acts as a "second-in-command" to the CEO as their role evolves. " I think a couple of things that you see if you look at job postings for CFO position, they almost always have the word 'partner'. You know, or 'partner with the CEO'," Phillips said.
Anderson, who spent nearly a year acting as interim CEO earlier in her career, agrees. "Honestly, [the time I spent as] CEO helped me become a better CFO. I used what I learned about our products and technology and customer experiences to help our executive team and our CEO make better decisions and frankly, work together better."
To build that partnership, Thiel says, CFOs have to start with a solid foundation. "Like any relationship, it just revolves around trust, right? You have to trust that you have the best interest of the organization at heart, that you're setting [them] up for success." When CFOs can establish trust with their CEO, he says, both leaders feel empowered to speak freely, provide guidance, push back when necessary and receive criticism without causing offense.
Innovation & Financial Discipline Aren’t Diametrically Opposed
In business, being innovative and being successful often go hand-in-hand, and the around the most successful businesses tend to share a narrative that favors the moonshot. But taking big risks hardly guarantees big rewards and without some measure of control, unchecked experimentation can put profit and livelihoods in jeopardy.
“Financial discipline comes first,” Akhionbare advised. “So first and foremost, you have to make certain that you’re setting objectives for your team that are aligned to company goals. Once you have established that operating rhythm, it’s all about leaving space for cultivating curious questions and creativity. It can really be that simple.”
Lawrence weighed in on the importance of setting boundaries and knowing when to take a flexible approach. “It’s not that people don’t want controls,” she explains, “they just don’t want red tape. They don’t want to go through six people to get an answer.” To maintain the entrepreneurial culture that has made Meriton successful and minimize the associated risk, Lawrence works to foster a better understanding of the impact and importance of control processes. “We want to be institutional quality support, so when we need explain why it’s important, I will call those business leaders and have that discussion and build that relationship and support.”
To Battle CFO Role Creep & Burnout, Find the Right Balance - Evolution of the Finance Function
Smart resource allocation can be challenging no matter the market conditions or scope of the work. While modern day CFOs are hardly new to the concept of doing less with more, the rapid pace of evolution within the finance function has made this aspect of the role even more demanding.
For Akhionbare, balancing priorities means revisiting reliable solutions. “Sometimes old tools work. Everything can’t be urgent. So, when you’re trying to differentiate between what’s important and what’s urgent, lay it out on the matrix.”
Organizational alignment and transparency can smoothen the process, says Lawrence, whose team uses the “Big Rocks” concept popularized by Steven Covey to set goals, emphasizing the importance of “alignment and sharing what your priorities are so that everybody knows. Then they can say ‘I’ve got this big rock, and this is going to take me away from it. Is that okay?’ Getting people to use that language has helped us do more with less. Sometimes you’ve got to let the roof leak a little.”
Akhionbare agreed, adding that working in a CFO role can be a juggling act and encouraging attendees to embrace the metaphor. “If I’ve got balls in the air, some of them are rubber and some of them are glass. I don’t want to drop the glass ones, because I’ll break it, and I’m not going to be able to fix it. Are there regulatory timelines I’m going to miss? Internal deadlines?” Am I going to stop a big sale from happening? Those are the things I think of as urgent. The things that I think of as important are the ones that, when the ball drops, what will the impact be on the organization?”
When it comes to the place where an evolving CFO role evolution ends and full on role creep begins, Lawrence manages the spillover using the maxim of transparency, alignment, and accountability, crediting all three for the partnerships she’s cultivated at work and the partnerships themselves for keeping role creep in check.
“It’s okay to say ‘I need help prioritizing’ or even ‘I can’t do this’ . We help each other. We check on each other. As far as burnout goes? I’m a big walker. I’ll get out and just go walk and take a lap around the parking lot. [My team] all know that I’ll be out there in 100 degree weather. I’m not staying chained to a desk.”
Akhionbare says that recognizing the reality and impact of burnout was a key moment for her, and warns that finance leaders can be especially susceptible. “For a long time, it was like a badge of honor to be able to say ‘I work 100 hours a week’ or brag to friends that you didn’t get any sleep. You don’t have to do that.”
Effective delegation can help keep role creep and burnout at bay, she advises, and that starts with a strong team. “Make sure you have the right people in the right seats and then empower those people. Give them the tools and give them space to be creative so they can solve the things you need them to solve.”
To Be Effective as “Chief Everything Officer”, CFOs Must Master Perspective-taking
To be successful, CFOs don’t need to take everything on. It’s far better to take new perspectives on — specifically, that of the CEO, says Akhionbare. “As you’re sitting in your role, think about that role from that traditional CEO seat. What are they thinking about? What are the problems they’re solving? What’s important to them on a daily basis? A lot of those types of roles that are getting into that CEO seat are funneling from the CFO’s. That’s because they’re good problem solvers, they’re good at dissecting and analyzing data and offering solutions.”
Lawrence’s advice to her finance executive peers was to set firm boundaries as a CFO to remain effective in the role. “We tend to lose sight of our boundaries until we’re checking email at all times and working all weekend because we just can’t turn it off. Find a way to recharge. Find an accountability partner and use your network. You’re not alone, so find the people that will keep you accountable and enforce your boundaries.
Interested in attending our next event? Check our calendar to see where we're headed next quarter. In the meantime, browse our helpful resources for finance professionals looking to prepare for the evolution of the finance function, including even more thought leadership from finance experts with our award-winning CFO Weekly Podcast, also hosted by the moderator of CFO Leadership LIVE panel discussions, Megan Weis — VP & General Manager of FAO Services at Personiv.