Mastering the CFO Trifecta

October 12, 2023 Theresa Rex

dynamic CFO juggling many responsibilities on a teal background

In the last ten to twenty years, the world of CFOs has changed quite a bit. It's not just number crunching and accounting anymore. Today's CFOs wear multiple hats, stepping up as key strategists and decision-makers in their organizations. Want to know what this dynamic CFO role looks like up close? Let's dive deeper into the ever-evolving world of finance, strategy, and leadership in a friendly chat with Jenny Fuss, the Chief Financial Officer at Boart Longyear.

Jenny is a senior executive with a track record of leading business turnarounds and growth at the C-level across Europe, Asia, and North America. She excels in dynamic business landscapes on the brink of significant transformations, rapidly achieving objectives across diverse business scenarios and cultures. With her expertise in unique business models, she has overseen various projects, services, and product manufacturing across multiple industries. In addition, Jenny holds positions as a Member and Mentor at the CFO Leadership Council and as a Member of the Coalition of Global Advisors at LifeHikes.

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Megan – 00:00:31: Today my guest is Jenny Fuss. Jenny drives in a changing business environment on the cusp of big change, achieving objectives quickly in different business situations and cultures with unique business models, projects, services, and product manufacturing in various industries, including oil and gas, energy, renewable, building automation, fire protection solutions and service business, plus cutting edge automotive and e-mobility markets. Jenny adds creative solutions to complex business challenges for global organizations across diverse industries in operational management, sales, procurement, engineering, project management, manufacturing, and commercial contract negotiation in changing and turnaround business environments, optimizing financial operations with strategic digital transformation and strong teams. Jenny is a self-starter with the power to lift a leadership team to the what-if. Jenny, thank you very much for joining me on today's episode of CFO Weekly.

Jenny - 00:01:34: Hi, Megan. Thanks for having me. I'm so excited to be part of the CFO weekly podcast because I'm a big fan of it. So thanks for having me.

Megan - 00:01:43: Yeah, well, that's great to hear. Today, we're going to be discussing the CFO trifecta, finance, strategy, and leadership, and how a modern CFO should be thinking about these three skill sets and how they fit together. And I'm looking forward to learning from you. So, let's jump right in.

Jenny – 00:02:01: Awesome.

Megan – 00:02:02: First, and as always, let's start with you. So you started your career in Germany as an apprentice at Siemens and have gone on to work in executive-level finance roles in multiple industries across the globe. So can you tell us more about your career path and the key experiences that have shaped your approach to finance leadership?

Jenny - 00:02:21: Yes. And maybe for those who are not familiar in the US, what an apprenticeship means, let me maybe add two sentences to that. So in my case, that has been a two-and-a-half-year intensive program, and it evolves into unique combination of classroom learning and rotational assignments within the business. And sometimes you see that also here in the US in a similar way, at least towards the rotational assignment in so-called finance leadership development programs where our early starters into the business world are assigned to a specific department and working there as a financial analyst and by that learning about the various departments. And so that's how you can envision an apprenticeship, just add a bit of classroom, and at the end, you have to pass an exam. For me, those two and a half years were really formative because what I later kind of valued was that I was exposed to learning complete end-to-end processes. So I was in the after-sales, in accounting and payroll, in project teams. So just having this exposure was so valuable for me because it enabled me to connect dots. And I think that is so unique for working in finance because if you are in the engineering trade, you don't get that broad opportunity to really jump through the different stages of an end-to-end process. So it was really a great experience for me learning about how during a negotiation phase, the terms and conditions are very important and crucial to us and enable the team or your co-workers to easily or easily and almost effortlessly also collect the invoices. And just by being able to see that really playing out in the real world was, I think, really important and essential and instrumental for me in that part. And then secondly, I approached my early years always with curiosity. Like when I joined the department, I asked a lot of questions, what are their challenges, and what they were working on. And that helped me also make those connections. Why is that important to have a relationship with the accountants, but also with the project manager, engineering, to procurement, in the end, everything needs to flow through the organization and you can have an influence on how efficient that is. So with that, I think that really laid out the groundwork to my leadership approach and seeing the connectedness, being able to see the value in finance business partnering, learning about how important it is to address proactive risk management, seeing the value in collaboration with other functions and developing a mindset of problem-solving. I think all of those things I learned in my early days were always guiding stars throughout my career to the executive finance roles I took on later and definitely had a big influence on my leadership style and also on how I'm contributing to decision-making.

Megan - 00:05:45: That apprenticeship at Seaman sounds like it was an amazing opportunity. I wish we had more programs like that here in the United States. I feel like as an accountant, you don't often get an opportunity to see other parts of the business.

Jenny - 00:06:00: FLDP is what I have seen in the United States, I think is a great investment for companies to really groom excellent finance and accounting professionals for the future.

Megan - 00:06:13: So what qualities do you think are necessary for a successful CFO today?

Jenny - 00:06:19: So I would piggyback on my 20-plus years of experience working in various industries and different regions. And if I look back, I would say there are a few key qualities that are essential for being successful and maybe even being successful as a CFO. We talked about how I started as an apprentice and that helped me to create that foundation in terms of finance and accounting and how processes look like from an end-to-end perspective. And definitely positioned me well to transition into leadership roles. And then I also learned that it's very important to have a strategic vision that actually aligns the finances and the business goals. And then adding to that the leadership skills, right? I think as a CFO, you have to lead teams through very complex and financial challenges. You need to foster collaboration and you still, want to make sure that we are achieving the result or that one shared goal. And addition, I think what's very helpful to be successful is also having a global perspective. And for global, I would say, yes, you should be aware of what is going on in the world. But I sometimes like the 360-degree perspective as a description a little bit better because it's not just understanding maybe different cultures and that there are different laws and others, your restriction is also about working together with other functions and trying at least to get a good 360-degree view on the challenge or the opportunity you're working on and having that ability to see and thrive for 360 degree, I think is a very important quality people in my position can bring to the table, as well as being also effective in risk management, having a very transparent communication style, and then the own willingness to be open for new ways of doing innovation. I mean, those three things I would also describe as very crucial traits for a successful CFO. And I think these qualities also make me able to make informed decisions, drive for financial stability, and most important, also contribute to the success of an organization I've been part of or I am part of today.

Megan - 00:08:49: So when you think of those three traits, finance, strategy, and leadership, is there one of those that are more important than others, or are they all three equally important?

Jenny - 00:09:03: I think it is a question of the balance and the mix of those. You can have good finance and strategy, being clear and working fine, that if you're missing out on the right leadership style or approach. That can really turn down what you're trying to accomplish. I think I had that experience as well in my past, right? When you work together as a finance business partner, and that's how we call it in Stevens, and I like that term actually, right? You are the finance business partner. We were working through the financial challenge and most of the time it goes about or is around being more profitable, but not just deploying the typical cost-cutting measures. And you start with looking at the financial data, pre-identifying where maybe improvement areas are. You work together with your technical business partner, which could be a segment CEO, the CEO, or other key stakeholders to the process, and review the strategy and align the strategy to your own KPIs and so on. And I think the real breakthrough in my experience was actually when you also addressed the leadership aspect. And we did that by first really leading by example and fostering a culture of collaboration. And when your teams are seeing how their leadership is acting with each other, and they are willing to step out of their own, call it a silo or comfort zone, and also make it as a platform where people can participate in strategic discussions and that you're actually wanting, or you want their input, their ideas, that they contribute to the solution and the direction. And usually, that's happening by really forming intentionally cross-functional teams. I think just by addressing that, that's where you need to find the balance. But if one element is missing, I don't think it will be successful.

Megan - 00:11:10: And speaking of collaboration and cross-functional teams, what benefits do you think that CFOs can achieve when they're willing to step outside of their traditional finance and accounting silo?

Jenny - 00:11:23: Yeah, that's a wonderful, great question. And I could talk forever about this. Let me start with to say once upon a time in my corporate world experience as a segment CFO in Asia Pacific, I actually decided to venture beyond my spreadsheet, my financial statements, and my deadlines for reporting, and actually joined a team brainstorming session for entering a new country in Asia Pacific. And I joined the discussion and I realized that with my experience and with my more financial-focused lens, I was able to add a unique perspective to really identifying how we can enter successfully a new country in Asia Pacific. So I showcased that I was actively participating. We asked questions to each other. We shared different experiences. We were able to talk about like, oh, if we do that, that would mean that it costs us maybe X, Y, that. Or we should very much clarify at the very beginning, do we actually have a business license? How long does that take? Because the team I was joining that were from various backgrounds like engineers, project manager, and procurement, and not all of them had yet had the experience of entering a new country. I think that they could see that I was contributing. I was questioning them. That was the clear goal of how we can make this new country entry successful. And I think they were a little bit surprised by like somebody joining and not just very much talking like very finance or accounting language, but more broadly operational and business. And I would say that that surprise just didn't stop there. It was also for everyone an experience of how good collaboration can actually work. It also built a much stronger relationship between me and the colleagues from those different functions. And I think it was even sort of like fun to go through that problem-solving and thinking it through and exchanging experiences towards a shared goal. That hindsight, I will say the most unexpected benefit was the impact that it really had on employee morale. By engaging with those different teams, I was able to break down this finance as an enemy stereotype. Because people were now experiencing me as a partner, not as a gatekeeper. And I think that also helped them to better understand what is their financial responsibility in that whole ecosystem. So I think with my little twisted story here, it is when CFOs or other finance executives are stepping out of their traditional silo, they actually can discover the treasure from working together, making informed decisions, and really also through collaboration, enhancing the employee morale. And I think that's a good positive impact because there's a saying like happy employees will also be more motivated and have also more fun at work if there is a good collaboration and a good team spirit. So there's the additional influence we as finance leaders can have on that element as well.

Megan - 00:14:51: Yeah, thank you. That was a great story. I appreciate you saying that and some really good examples of the benefits that can be achieved when we're willing to, like I said, step out of our comfort zones. So during your career, what challenges have you faced while trying to balance finance strategy and leadership? And how have you or how were you able to overcome them?

Jenny - 00:15:15: Yeah. So one situation comes to my mind where I have been in a segment where we were basically from a liquidity standpoint, underfunded. We discovered we had a lot of unfavorable payment terms. And because of that, we were also not able to leverage certain business opportunities in the region or in that segment. And what it meant basically was we really needed to overhaul our strategy. And I think in the first place, what you will experience and I experienced in that case was the resistance, right, of having everyone in the team and the leadership team understand in line. Yes, we need to make changes to ensure going forward that we have financial stability and achieve our overarching strategic goals. For me, the key takeaway from that situation and learning was that it was also about leading with the enthalpy, embracing change, and then really fostering the collaboration. One other element is when I go into those conversations, which I learned from those situations is really focus at the beginning on the active listening part to what the other contributing partners, stakeholders, and functions are actually telling you about the concern or why things are how they are, why our strategy is not working or why our financials are not where we want them to be. And that has the impact that they feel also involved and engaged in that decision making towards maybe a new strategy or a new alignment on how we lead and enables then also a team to have clear communication about the vision going forward. Once I think a vision is clear and people can articulate that in their own language, was that we were able to overcome certain resistance and get the buy-in from the team towards a new strategy to enable us to be financially more successful. And I think also what I discovered as part of that, and maybe that's one overcome, is we start approaching things like as a challenge, right? But trying to formulate that as an opportunity helps people to maybe also open up to think differently about that. What if, right, is always a good question and helps everyone to think out loud and brainstorm, and then usually you have the right team together, then you will find the right balance in terms of finance and strategy and leadership. And what I also took away from that lesson is that for everyone who wants to become a CFO or is aiming for an impactful leadership role, remember in those moments when it's challenging to work between the balance of finance strategy and leadership, and you overcome those challenges, aka create those opportunities. That's also where people will find their greatest growth and also have the biggest influence. And for me, that's very fascinating. And that's why I'm a person who leans into that challenge to turn it into a team opportunity.

Megan - 00:18:38: And how can CFOs transition from pure finance leaders to people, operations, and strategy leaders?

Jenny - 00:18:45: My short answer to that is to meet the operations where they are. I learned that very early in my career and being a financial analyst in a manufacturing environment, sitting in front of a spreadsheet and feeling like I'm not able to make sense out of those numbers and then actively going to the workshop manager and saying like, just have me walk for a week with you. Help me to understand this world better. And I think that is the first step to, A, create the relationship, but also to better understand the operations. And I always keep saying, like, meet them where they are, try to walk in their shoes, and then be the translator in terms of the numbers side and help them guide through towards the better or improved strategy to more operational success.

Megan - 00:19:39: And how have you optimized financial operations to drive strategic initiatives?

Jenny - 00:19:46: Yeah. So there's one example that comes to my mind when we talk about financial operations. What is that? That is around maybe collection, right? Or it is around helping inventory management. And I think it's also to make clear at the beginning, why are you doing that, optimizing your working capital? At the end, it should help to get you additional or necessary funds for other strategic initiatives you may have in a business. And so that requires that, for example, we had a situation where I was like, okay, I need additional funds. And so me and my team on the finance side, we looked into the working capital and We figured that we have a lot of cash trapped in inventory. And actually, by talking with the operational people in the warehouse department, certain processes were very inefficient and additional on the account receivable side. It took us a long, long time to actually collect the cash. And we went through a process mapping and identified why is. And that helped us then to also optimize those processes. And not always is that purely on what you're responsible for from a finance perspective, from your accounting, but it also needs that maybe things in the upstream process are being corrected and optimized. And again, I think there it comes again together, right? This collaboration with the different functions. And so I think the next point is probably just like, yeah, we implemented lean inventory management, we reduced excess stock, and improved our turn rates. Also we ramped up our accounts receivable process by streamlining collections and really focused on the outstanding payments, made it like a big campaign, and also provided clarity on why that is important and how people and individuals can contribute to that. Also with outstanding payments, depending on in which industry and which business you are, you may have to work very closely with the operations, which could be sales or your project management to really get the payments into the door. And in my experience, we were very successful with that. So we did not only secure the additional funding we needed. And by the way, I would almost say like, why the way we've really improved our financial health, that it also helped and demonstrated for the entire organization, how optimizing financial operations can really drive also strategic initiatives. And I think for everyone back then involved was then we realized that actually what we all needed to drive more strategic initiatives was actually right in front of us, but it was hidden and inefficient financial processes, which was some degree also related to hidden inefficient operational processes. And then I think it taught me not only to look to the balance sheet but also to all operational levers, which can bring an organization forward.

Megan - 00:23:06: And how do you think the rapid evolution of technology and cybersecurity is impacting businesses? And how can CFOs ensure that the finance function is agile and adaptable to the impact of all of these rapid changes?

Jenny - 00:23:23: Yeah, I have a big smile on my face because I just had a morning conversation about that. So I have currently a dual role. So I'm the CFO, but I also oversee IT and we were thinking and reviewing or we did an assessment of where we spend our budget in the IT world and discovering how much we spend on cybersecurity and where we have to get better because as a CFO, I also have an interest that my organization in FP&A accounting and in techs is leveraging new AI technology. But then there is this potential risk and when you use an open platform where you upload maybe certain data points, they can be misused and they are out there in the worldwide web and you don't want to block that. So it's a balancing act and I would say I'm with my team still finding out what will work for us because I think so far we have been very focused on the detection of potential cyber-attacks and we all also know that it's not a question if, right? It's more a question of when. The detection is at the end just one part of the equation and we discussed a lot today about how we can create. A more intense culture of awareness, which we identified that we need to do and provide more training for finance teams, but probably also for people working in procurement and in other departments. To have everyone recognize signs of a cyber attack, have there been any suspicious financial transactions too? I think what everyone gets regular emails from the IT department is phishing attempts, but even there they're surprised that we have been getting that for many, many years and still a few people will open those links, which they shouldn't, right? So there's still work to do to create that awareness. And I think in my world, I would say, I'm signing up also to be lead by example. And by just talking about that, that there's a conflict in a way, let's find a way to balance that. I don't want to say to my people, oh, don't use that AI platform, right? Because I think I want them to really think about how to improve our process and be more effective and more efficient. And they cannot reach that if I basically take them away from them, but we need to create a culture where there needs to be more sensitivity. And we realize in today's discussion that it's not only about the technology that we really have to work on creating a cybersecurity mindset. And I think in my role, of course, I can say, well, we are very closely working together with the IT department and having regular communication and aligning also like financial systems protection with the broader cybersecurity strategy and making that actually part of our standard conversation. I work in the mining service industry and we always talk about safety. And so we just recently started like, well, when we have a team meeting, let's talk about cybersecurity. So by regularly talking about that, it will have to create that awareness and exchange what happened maybe in other industries or in our industry, what happened with our maybe customers or a supplier who was impacted. And maybe as much as we can learn about that, how we then think about our own protection detection and questioning ourselves, we have the right level of awareness built around that.

Megan - 00:27:11: And what advice would you give to CFOs who are just starting out in their career as a CFO?

Jenny - 00:27:19: Yeah, I think there are maybe three, or four things coming to my mind. And I will kind of like point back to what I thought was important for my career path. And that's the curiosity. So always stay curious about what is changing in the financial landscape, but also what's changing in the world, our economics. And I think a good way of approaching that is also to always seek learning opportunities and embrace new challenges. That would be one advice. The second is adaptability, being flexible and open-minded towards change is crucial because the role of a CFO is evolving, right? I think in my 20-plus years, I would say, what was maybe in the past more of the chief number cruncher is now becoming more of the chief storyteller and being also in that part adaptable and knowing when you need to switch maybe gears, which brings me to the third element, which is the effect of communication. I think CFOs need really to hone their communication skills because we have a responsibility to translate the complexity of financial data into understandable insights for diverse audiences. So that can be, you know, basically, it's from the boardroom to the break room. Having that skill set will be really crucial to develop and step in when starting as a CFO and prior. And then the last point I would say, what is also important, and I got that advice many, many, many, many years ago, is to build your own board. And what is meant by that, develop a network of mentors and advisors. Like, you know, I have an executive coach. Hi, Alexandra. I have a communication coach, Brendan, and I'm pretty sure he will listen to the podcast as well. And I have a fitness coach and I have a CFO, which is who's my sounding board. And so I also have a sounding board if I have more operational or CEO-related questions. So that is my personal board. And that helps me to get closer to a 360-degree perspective to navigate through my CFO journey.

Megan - 00:29:50: That is some great advice. Thank you for sharing. So last question, what keeps you up at night these days? As you look into the future, what concerns or worries do you have?

Jenny - 00:30:01: That goes back to what we talked about earlier, how can I be a good coach and emphasize and encourage people to go out and play with the new toys, right with AI and the emerging technology, but while safeguarding our financial systems and protecting us as much and as best possible against cyber attacks, because they will be, you know, of significant financial impact if we are getting attacked or exposed to that. And that is keeping me up at night because I don't want to become that CFO parent who just says, no, don't do that. Don't do that. Right. What is the right level of risk versus making sure that people stay engaged on the continuous learning journey?

Megan - 00:30:50: Jenny, thank you so much for being my guest today.

Jenny - 00:30:53: Oh, thank you for having me. I really enjoyed your questions, and I hope I could add my perspective to those topics I think we all think about as CFOs.

Megan - 00:31:05: Yeah, I know that I really enjoyed speaking with you today, and thanks for finding the time to be here with us to share all of your experience and knowledge. I thought this was a very interesting conversation.

Jenny - 00:31:16: Thank you, Megan.

Megan - 00:31:17: To all of our listeners, please tune in next week. And until then, take care.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Key qualities of a top-tier CFO

  • Balancing finance, strategy, and leadership

  • The power of CFOs in cross-functional collaboration

  • Transitioning from pure finance leaders to people operations and strategy leaders

  • How can CFOs ensure that the finance function is agile and adaptable to the rapid evolution of technology?

Key Takeaways:

Key Qualities of a Top-Tier Dynamic CFO

Quote Top-tier dynamic CFO

With over twenty years of experience across various industries, Jenny specifies the essential qualities of a successful CFO. From her early days as an apprentice, she realized the importance of aligning financial strategies with business goals and leading teams through complex challenges. For Jenny, a successful and dynamic CFO should possess a 360-degree global perspective, not just understanding various cultures but also collaborating across functions. Furthermore, effective risk management, clear communication, and an innovative mindset are essential.

“As a CFO, you have to lead teams through very complex financial challenges; you need to foster collaboration, and you still want to make sure that you are achieving the result or that one shared goal.” Fuss said. - 06:13 - 08:50

Balancing Finance, Strategy, and Leadership

Quote Jenny Fuss the Chief Financial Officer at Boart Longyear

When evaluating finance, strategy, and leadership, it's not about which is most vital but rather the balance among them. A strong financial foundation and a clear strategy are essential, but without effective leadership, goals can remain unmet. As a finance business partner at Siemens, Jenny dove into financial data to identify areas of growth. Working with key stakeholders, she aligned strategies with the company's KPIs. The real game-changer, however, is leadership. By leading by example and fostering collaboration, you create an environment where everyone is encouraged to contribute.

“It is a question of the balance and the mix of those. You can have good finance and strategy, being clear and working fine, but if you're missing out on the right leadership style or approach, that can really turn down maybe what you're trying to accomplish.” Fuss said. - 08:50 - 11:10

A Dynamic CFO Breaking Silos

Quote CFO breaking silos

In terms of collaboration and cross-functional teams, CFOs can unlock significant advantages by moving beyond traditional finance silos. Drawing from her experience as a CFO in the Asia Pacific, Jenny recounts stepping beyond her usual financial responsibilities, which not only fostered stronger inter-departmental relationships but also boosted employee morale. It shattered finance as the enemy stereotype, transforming finance professionals into partners. By stepping out of our comfort zones, CFOs can promote informed decision-making, elevate morale, and underscore the importance of teamwork.

“When CFOs or other finance executives are stepping out of their traditional silos, they can discover the treasure from working together.” Fuss said. - 11:10 - 14:51

From Liquidity Challenges to Leadership Growth

Quote leadership growth

Reflecting on the interplay between financial strategy and leadership, Jenny recounts a challenging period marked by liquidity issues. The company's unfavorable payment terms not only set back its finances but also limited business opportunities. Convincing her team to adapt was initially difficult. Change is hard, but the key was empathy, collaboration, and, most importantly, active listening. She concludes that challenges often bring opportunities. For finance leaders, remember: in confronting and transforming these challenges lies your most significant growth and influence.

“Focus at the beginning on the active listening part to what other contributing partners, stakeholders, and functions are actually telling you about the concern, or why things are how they are, why our strategy is not working, or why our financials are not where we want them to be.” Fuss said. - 15:05 - 18:37

Balancing Innovation with Protection

Quote dynamic CFO balancing innovation and protection

The rapid advancement of technology and cybersecurity is reshaping the business landscape. CFOs, especially those like Jenny, who manage both finance and IT, face a unique challenge. The focus isn't just on detecting cyber threats but on cultivating a proactive cybersecurity mindset. It's crucial to train teams across all departments to recognize and combat threats, especially as cyber attacks are inevitable. Jenny believes in leading by example and promoting the use of innovative AI platforms while ensuring cybersecurity awareness. So, regular discussions with the IT department and incorporating cybersecurity into daily conversations have become essential.

“We realize in today's discussion that it's not only about technology. We really have to work on creating a cybersecurity mindset.” Fuss said. - 23:06 - 27:11

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