Reshape the role, shape the strategy

Finance leaders who embrace soft skills to become the most valuable voice in the room, writes Donna Williams

Who best understands the universe? Might it be astronomers, or quantum physicists? Actually, it could be accountants, according to famed particle physicist and broadcaster Professor Brian Cox, OBE. Numbers and analysis, Cox declared at finance conference QuickBooks Connect earlier this year, are vital skills when it comes to sensing patterns in our wild, uncertain world.

Certainly, the point can be made for boardrooms everywhere, where finance officers are using their analytical skills – and increasingly being asked to take the helm in today’s choppy VUCA waters. Examples of chief financial officers who have successfully taken the wheel of their company ship include Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, Peter Voser at Royal Dutch Shell, John Dasburg at Northwest Airlines, and the former bean counter whose 23 years at Capita made him one of the longest ever serving FTSE 100 chiefs, Paul Pindar.

They all share and utilize the key tools for deciphering the way forward: steadiness, focus, a finely tuned analytical mind and sharp critical thinking. But what makes them stand out from the crowd is an ability to collaborate.

Skill up or step down

Chief finance officers are natural primary stakeholders of both big data and big decision discussions. They empower decision-makers with salient, simplified, detailed analysis. Facing increasing levels of uncertainty and relying on technology and processing power, leadership regularly turns to the finance function for the voice of reason. Today, the chief financial officer is a leader of analysts, accountants and hyper-intelligent techies. Tomorrow, they may find themselves with the majority stake in any number of business sectors.

The success of the CFO-turned-company-wide-leader is determined by one thing: their ability to collaborate.

The CFO used to be the person in the organization who knew the most about the financial state of the business and could choose how to share this knowledge. Today, the CFO needs to be more transparent and make financial information available to other departments so they can operate more efficiently, make decisions quicker, and do the right thing sooner… CFOs are challenged with turning the numbers into something meaningful… The integrity, flexibility, and speed of that information enable your management and staff to more effectively manage the business.” –– Chris Pass chief financial officer of John Muir Health

Imagine a leader not only in possession of the strongest numeracy and analytical skills in your corporation, but who is also able to communicate valuable findings effectively, extracting information and opinion from the most insightful and experienced representatives of each and every department. Then consider the idea that that same leader could merge all of those resources into a single stream of strategic consciousness. When a CFO truly embraces soft skills, that becomes a reality. Deploying powerful collaboration skills can break down silos and see teams construct creative, cost-effective solutions leading to a competitive edge in the market. But true collaboration is a far cry from the accountant’s abacus.

Don’t go it alone

Business unit specialists and heads of other core business divisions bring years of experience, insight and understanding of performance in their areas, and are able to lend big picture thinking, speed and accuracy to big data forecasts. Collaborating effectively with all of them, however, requires numerous new soft skills, including active listening, problem-solving, relationship-building and – the big one – actually valuing the opinions of colleagues and peers.

“It’s not my style to sit in my office; I will go to where they [colleagues] are and engage them… You want to emphasize the importance of having good interpersonal skills with your fellow stakeholders and other departments. Part of my job is really to coach.” –– Raymond Yeo chief financial officer of Epsilon

As many companies push CFOs towards the very top of the tree, there can be a temptation for those who find themselves bestowed with new powers of influence to ignore the input of their peers. They must remember that those people have ideas and strengths, each with teams reporting into them. They are the leaders of their own core speciality areas. They are deputies to the CFO’s sheriff, without whose eyes, ears and reports it becomes tough to make good decisions. Furthermore, without the willingness and commitment of the deputies to take action, the business will stagnate and may even crash – and the talent disappear.

Automated processes and big data alone are not enough to power a corporation nor attract and retain the best people. The finance officer has to be able to act collaboratively and collectively with other senior members of the corporation. As Maersk’s Anders Liu-Lindberg has said, finance leaders need to “move from the role of commentator about what, where, and why things happen, to what might happen and how to make it happen.”

Search ‘finance-led strategy’ and the trend is obvious: finance’s analytics and critical thinking increasingly sway corporate decision-making. It is well within reason that finance chiefs could ultimately supersede the chief executive as the most impactful C-level position in the company in the not too distant future. But success requires new skillsets. Without great soft skills, finance officers at the helm could spell disaster.

Donna Williams is a consultant planning director working with e-tailers and retailers including Pepco Europe and Aldo