The role of the 21st century Chief Financial Officer is drastically different from its traditional book keeping function. Deloitte have tried to map this transition with their article “The Four Faces of the CFO”, but their failure is that they stop at the theoretical and haven’t gone the extra step to put figures to their ideas. I wanted to see if I could do just that. As such, I got in touch with 449 Chief Financial Officers in Australasia and asked them to put this model to the test. How did they feel their role as a C-Suite executive had changed in recent years and did it match any of the following ‘faces’. The following is an outline of the different perspectives as advocated by Deloitte:
The ‘Responder’ CFO supports the company’s strategy development by helping business leaders to quantitatively analyse financial implications of different strategy choices. This CFO is usually evident in decentralized businesses where the CEO drives accountability for strategy and performance to business-unit leaders.
The ‘Challenger’ CFO acts as a steward of future value in the strategy process by examining the risks to, and expected returns on, different strategy alternatives. Being a ‘Challenger’ is sometimes equated with being a “Dr No” as the CFO seeks to minimize risk or ensure adequate returns to future capital allocations and investments.
The ‘Architect’ CFO shapes strategy choices and applies finance strategies to complement and maximize the value of particular strategies. ‘Architects’ go beyond the ‘Challenger’ in enabling the financing of innovative initiatives. ‘Architects’ thus work to find “A path to yes” on key business investments.
The ‘Transformer’ CFO becomes a lead partner to the CEO in shaping and executing future strategy. The CFO is key to the execution of “Real operational and financial options” for shifting the product market mix, delivering value and creating distinctive capabilities. In short, CFOs as ‘Transformers’ proactively engage in addressing the core questions in a strategy process.
If that seemed like a lot of pseudo-business bullshit bingo to you, here’s my quick breakdown of Deloitte’s not so concise model:
The Responder provides those at the top with financial information so as they may all create an informed strategy for the future.
The Challenger asks as the opposite side of the yin-yang spectrum to the CEO to make sure that the business has thought about all of the possible ways to develop itself. Is the CEO pushing for X? Perhaps the CFO proposes executing Y or Z instead because the company will look to be greater profit in doing so.
The Architect serves to take the direction the CEO wants to push and find out how to get to that point with the resources to hand. If the Pharaoh CEO wants a pyramid, it’s up to the CFO to strategise how resources can be allocated to achieve this dream.
The Transformer normally acts as an arbiter of change. A business wants to enact some sort of change; the Transformer uses their financial knowledge and skills to execute that change.
The results that returned from my survey showed that the respondents felt that they suited the following categories:
21% No one category applied more than the rest.
Having looked at these figures, I wasn’t surprised that the majority of respondents found themselves to be Transformers as I have, in my own experience, often been assigned searches for individuals with the ability to execute on, as the CFOs themselves fittingly put, “The financial and operational detail across the business”. What did surprise me however, was the number of CFOs that couldn’t decide between the four categories and saw themselves as operating as each of the roles in relation to the day at hand. One respondent gave me a poignant explanation for this indecisiveness in that “The modern CFO will inevitably move between styles” depending on “The needs of the organisation at a given point in time”. In that case, it makes sense that these CFOs would see themselves as Transformers as a lot of New Zealand companies are currently seeking drastic change in order to expand and capitalise on their growing market.
To conclude my little experiment, I would have to say that I disagree with Deloitte’s idea that there are four sides to the Chief Financial Officer – at least Down Under. My results certainly prove that the CFO has moved away from “Traditional…accounting…morphing into a strategic role” (Wayne Goodall, Oracle, 2017), but I would argue that, like the Roman god Janus, there are only two faces for the CFO:
Arbiter of Change
Acting as a partner to the CEO, this CFO is close to Deloitte’s ‘Transformer’ category. Once the C-Suite have set a direction for big change, the CFO will utilise his financial skill set and resources to make this big change a reality.
Whilst this may seem almost a carbon copy of Deloitte’s idea, I feel that there is subtle enough difference for this Arbiter of Change category to exist as a concept. The Deloitte author seemed to imply that the CFO simply acts as the King’s Hand with little emphasis on their input in the creation of a roadmap. My experience grants me that CEOs are usually clever enough people to take input from the rest of the board, including our modern CFO, in informing whichever overhaul the business needs rather than simply playing the Great Dictator. This might seem like splitting hairs on my part, but I believe in minding the details.
Unlike the original Deloitte article, I don’t feel that there should be a distinction between the ‘Challenger’ and ‘Architect’ category. Trying to find an optimal strategy is all part of being a successful business leader so playing “Dr No” or “Finding a path to yes” is all one and the same; hence I feel that the Devil’s Advocate suits this category best. Inevitably, a great CFO will find a way to execute to the best of their ability a business’s roadmap so this category essentially encapsulates a confident modern CFO who is willing to advocate and challenge opinion in order to best serve the greater good.
What’s the difference between the two? It seems with the Chief Financial Officer that it is less down to the individual themselves, but the team around them and the business that they serve. In industries where there is great room for expansion or the ability to implement needed or wanted change, Arbiters of Change come into play; where a CFO simply needs more to add their input to help guide the ship as best as possible, you have the Devil’s Advocate.
These ideas only serve the now though. What waits around the corner will, I’m sure, interest us all as I think there’s big change in store for all executives as the century goes on.