How COVID-19 is changing the role of the CFO

Mark Lewis

The following article by Mark Lewis first appeared on icas.com.

I wrote a brief article recently in CA Magazine about how COVID-19 is changing the role of the CFO from being more than just the key partner to the CEO. The CFO is no longer simply the mainstay of financial stewardship but is a business leader within their own right, with a strategic and multi-functional remit that historically has been more the domain of the COO and, on occasion, the CEO.

This shift is nothing new in itself and has been a trend developing over many years. However, it has been accelerated by the fact that during the pandemic. CFOs have been thrust into every major decision encompassing business transformation/automation, analytics development and driving operational efficiencies, all with an increased people focus made more complex and critical given the seismic shift to home-based working within most organisations. At Livingston James, we have experienced a major spike in CFO mandates since the pandemic arrived with these key success drivers at the heart of the search process, firmly pointing to this now being an absolute necessity within financial leadership positions rather than simply a nice to have.

However, given the rapid nature of change required, how does the CFO pivot years of normal working methods and approach to focus on these new priorities, especially with so many critical issues arising all at once? More importantly, how does the CFO prepare for the mindset shift that will be required to deliver fundamental structural changes, many of which will be breaking new ground, and be more a test of leadership than technical competence? Below, I’ve highlighted a few key areas CFOs and the organisations they operate within should consider.

There is no other option

A stark but undeniable fact is that the world has changed and, like it or not, there is no going back. For organisations to survive and thrive in the world the pandemic has created, the CFO has to remain in the strategic seat and be an agent for change. Business transformation and automation are nothing new conceptually, but what has changed is they now need to become a reality – and fast. The move to binary thinking is uncomfortable for most of us but standing still has become more lethal than ever.

Build the finance function of the future now

With the CFO spending their time on new priorities, their direct reports, and the entire finance function for that matter, must operate with enhanced levels of responsibility and with greater creativity and business focus. Finance teams need to be lean, agile, and fully focused on the key areas of analytics, scenario modelling and planning to support business decisions in real time. Those people with responsibility for more transactional tasks will see their roles significantly reduced by automation and will need to be upskilled at pace, with analytical and business partnering specialists drafted in to plug the gaps where training internally is insufficient.

Automation, automation, automation

Quite simply, for the CFO to deliver to increased stakeholder expectations and react rapidly to the inevitable market shifts and short-term crisis management modes over the coming months, they must automate wherever and whatever they can. Many organisations had automation underway to varying degrees pre-COVID but delayed initiatives during the peak of the crisis. They now need to restart these projects as a matter of urgency. Automation of transactional processes/tasks and a move to cloud computing will provide foundation for the benefits of advanced analytics and artificial intelligence to be maximised and integrated into new ways of working.

Strategic driver and investor engagement

At the height of the crisis in March, the CFO quickly became the go-to person on the Board and for external investors/funders to help steer organisations through challenging and unchartered territory. Managing cash and liquidity, reducing costs, divesting non-core or non-profit making operations, reforecasting revenues and navigating through government led programmes to provide financial support all became central to survival in those all important first few weeks.

But as the months have progressed, the fixation on finance remains unmoved but has shifted to where CFOs will be expected to create, validate, and implement business strategy alongside and, sometimes instead of, the CEO who must now manage a host of new factors accelerated by COVID spanning major societal changes, environment and health/wellbeing.

Leadership in the virtual world

I wrote in CA Magazine that the CFOs that will thrive over the coming months and into the future will be those that show the greatest leadership at all levels, providing direction underpinned by purpose, honesty, and authenticity. In the virtual world and with many companies only partly or not returning to office working at all, the majority of CFOs are needing to learn entirely new techniques for communicating and engaging with their teams at a time when the pressure and risk of disconnection of individuals from their organisations has never been more acute.

Moreover, with the expanded functional scope of the CFO role during the pandemic, their engagement can cover almost any area of the business and often with employees not previously under their direct reporting control, especially within IT/Technology, HR, Legal and Supply Chain. At times of crisis, organisations will often look to the CFO to set the tone in the same way you would look to an air steward on a bumpy flight (if they look worried, so should you be!), so it is critical that individual provides a solid foundation and present a calm demeanour.

Help is at hand

Safe to say, many aspects that CFOs now face will be new, some of it daunting and, sadly, we may still only be just in the eye of the storm. With increased levels responsibility and accountability, the role of CFO can be a lonely one and with no small amount of pressure given its importance to an organisation’s ongoing viability.

However, what has arisen from the pandemic is increased levels of collaboration, knowledge sharing and an ongoing sentiment that we are all in this together, both professionally and personally. The CFO community is a tight knit one overall and any typical competitiveness amongst peers has been swiftly replaced by an increased desire to advise, guide and support one another. No one has the blueprint for success in the next six months, so cooperating with those facing the same challenges can only engender a more positive result for us all

Mark Lewis is a Board Director of Livingston James Group and Managing Director of Rutherford Cross. In addition, he leads the CFO Services Practice within Livingston James, focusing on Board level finance appointments. Contact him at [email protected]

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