The CFO Renaissance: what the rebirth of the role means for businesses

The role of the chief financial officer (CFO) is rapidly evolving beyond traditional financial management to encompass strategic business partnering and expertise across various domains. Embracing automation is key if CFOs are to master their new-found responsibilities

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It’s hard to imagine  a more challenging period for UK businesses than the last five years. They’ve had to contend with the aftermath of Brexit, Covid-19 and the associated lockdowns, as well as soaring inflation and rising borrowing costs following the war in Ukraine. In truth, however, every era has had its challenges. The 2000s saw the global financial crisis, and back in the 1990s businesses had to navigate a severe recession and 15% interest rates.

Today though, executives have one big advantage over their predecessors: significant advances in technology. Ones that are not only changing our productivity at work but are also unlocking a level of digital transformation that brings much greater visibility and control to business leaders. They certainly need that visibility too, as Sean Moylan, head of financial reporting at Pleo, explains: “An incredibly small number of UK businesses – just 28%, according to a 2024 Pleo survey – believe they have strong visibility of their financial health across the business.”

According to Moylan, this could mean that budgets are being overrun, which is serious for any business but particularly for venture-capital-backed startups. The problem, he notes, lies in the fact that finance departments have traditionally been viewed as a back-office function, with little input into the business’s key strategic planning. They’re often thought of as raking over old paper receipts and expense claims looking to make cuts, when the truth is today’s finance teams are dynamic, technologically proficient and future focussed.

The increasing availability of real-time, accurate data – powered by digital transformation programmes – means that the role of the CFO and of the wider finance department is changing significantly. In fact, 98% of business leaders surveyed in Pleo research agreed the role was undergoing a transformation.

What’s driving this opinion is the addition of key priorities that include non-financial reporting, such as Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), and compliance in a rapidly evolving regulatory environment.

The intelligent use of technology is essential to…allow the modern CFO to act as an efficient and strategic leader

Modern CFOs are also expected to be proficient with emerging technologies such as AI, machine learning and blockchain, which all help to automate routine financial tasks, enhance accuracy and enable more sophisticated financial modelling. It’s a full plate but Pleo’s ambition is to ensure that CFOs have the means to execute their new responsibilities effectively and are finally able step out of the back office to occupy a key role in strategic decision making.

Today, Pleo is Europe’s leading spend-management solution, enabling 33,000 companies across Europe to run their finances efficiently and in doing so, promote business success without compromising on control, transparency or financial safety. With its forward-thinking solutions, Moylan says Pleo can play an important role in “enabling CFOs to add value in other areas. Plus, with access to more accurate and timely information, they’re able to make better, often real-time decisions.”

Integrating solutions like Pleo across an organisation can have compounding benefits, believes Moylan, including helping to connect critical areas and “ensure the accounting system talks to the payroll system, the expense management system and the tax authority – all of which is critical to effective decision making”.

Smart spending is not only crucial to business outcomes but collaboration too. Blanket cuts can be devastating to businesses and throw off the equilibrium in-house, meaning the only thing you’re balancing is the budget. It’s far more important to understand the priorities, resource requirements and opportunities of each area of the business, so that your CFO can allocate finances effectively and redistribute them as needed. This means outgoings are signed off with one eye on ROI and support long and short-term strategic objectives.

The need for collaboration doesn’t stop there though. Finance leaders need to find ways to ensure that all the data and insights they are collecting are effectively communicated to all levels of the business. Across the organisation, they need to show their workings because trust and control, particularly in the workplace, come from communication – whether it’s the C-suite or the junior team.

This is true of those at the very top of the business too. CFOs are key communicators with investors, analysts and the board of directors, and they need to be able to effectively convey the financial health and strategic direction of the company. This is how trust and confidence is not just built but maintained – something that is impossible to do without clean, insightful data.

Modern CFOs need to master a rapidly evolving skill set, ever-expanding remit and be able to apply forward-looking, strategic value across their organisations. Essentially, they are the renaissance employees of the modern workplace: proficient in a range of fields and capable of changing the status quo.

But, as Moylan observes, picking the right partners to enable success is key, believing that “the intelligent use of technology is essential to support the decentralisation of finance and allow the modern CFO to act as an efficient and strategic leader.” Done in this way, the CFO renaissance won’t just result in the rebirth of the role – but how businesses operate as a whole.

Find out more about the CFO renaissance with Pleo