When we predict the future of the C-suite, the chief financial officer (CFO) looks set to be pivotal. In this choppy economic world with workforce and investment priorities ever-changing, their brief may even become more influential, and more powerful, than that of the chief executive.
But many believe not enough is being done to find and equip the best new talent for this critical boardroom position. In a survey for ACCA, the global body for professional accountants, 45 per cent of those questioned believed insufficient attention was being paid to developing the skillsets of next-generation CFOs.
Others question how important traditional accounting should be when elements, such as innovation and change, cybersecurity, environmental, social and governance issues, and cryptocurrency, may all have increasing importance. The need to offer the whole business insight into granular data could even push the CFO more into the sphere of a chief information officer.
So what skills should be nurtured and how can the diversity of future candidates be improved?
Izzy Dawood, CFO at global online payments company Paysafe, says: “If you ask many CFOs, very few started their careers saying they wanted to be a CFO. Instead, they focus on building their skills, growing their experience, seeking mentorship and building high-performing teams. That’s certainly the mindset you are looking to identify.
“The next generation will obviously need to be highly competent in several technical areas, not all, as well as three other core areas: leading teams, mental agility, and the ability to simplify complex items and articulate this information to multiple constituents with varying company and financial knowledge.”
Softer skills, such as commercial acumen, communication, problem-solving, negotiating and influencing, would support this, Dawood adds.
Alina Ciocan, finance operations manager at Kani Payments, agrees the CFO is no longer just a number cruncher. “They drive business values and risks, money-saving initiatives, procurements, external investments and other elements that help a company look to the future and plan its next market moves. Because of this, CFOs often come from within the organisation after moving through the ranks; those who live and breathe the company,” she says.
Look outside the traditional sphere to boost CFO diversity
External talent acquisition is also important though and Ciocan suggests scouting beyond the UK’s financial hubs as potential candidates could come from anywhere.
She adds: “As a way of further encouraging diversity, the finance industry needs an image rebrand to become more open and approachable. If a business hasn’t already, it should begin promoting its own diversity programme and work with networks that support women and BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] individuals in finance. It can then progress to direct mentorship programmes to support individual development within the company.
“This is a way to lift those who will struggle to find their footing in the finance sector before they even begin.”
Bernard Huger, CFO of security platform OneLogin, also believes there is no single track to becoming a CFO. He says: “The best candidates are the people with something to prove. They may not come from typical backgrounds and may have been overlooked in the past. In fact, I think non-traditional backgrounds may yield candidates who are better than, say, people on the CFO path with a traditional accounting background.”
Huger adds that CFOs will ultimately be the “chief truth-tellers” in an organisation. “They need to arm others with the facts and make sure conversations and decisions are based on the facts. By owning the data and making it available as appropriate throughout an organisation, a CFO can fulfil that role. This is a problem that is increasingly important to solve,” he says.
Debbie Bowen-Heaton, partner at consultants Oliver Wight, believes future CFO candidates will need a strong backbone. “The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of the CFO’s role in combating the CEO’s state of denial. They need to be even more of a number sceptic and yet be brave enough to challenge their CEO and board when they need to. CFOs will be evermore valuable to the CEO as a mirror to highlight and show up errors the CEO makes.”
A new way for the future CFO to learn
Sarah Danzl, skills expert at Degreed, predicts the future finance leader will learn and train differently too, using newer methods such as video content and TED Talks, blogs and articles, online courses, podcasts and peer-led learning.
Degreed’s State of Skills 2021 report makes interesting reading, finding advanced data analysis and mathematics, and quantitative and statistical analysis were lower down the list of top-ten skills most in demand for finance leaders than advanced communication and negotiation, and entrepreneurship and initiative-taking.
Danzl says a greater focus on skills will reduce bias in the recruitment or promotion process. “For a finance leadership position, someone who can show they have the majority of the most in-demand skills will have more of an advantage over someone with less of a skill profile. This approach strips away other factors, such as educational background, gender identity, race and sexual orientation, and so can help to boost diversity.”
But Dan Wells, founder of GrowCFO, points to one issue for future progression, acknowledging many in the next generation of CFOs may feel uncomfortable discussing career aspirations with their boss, “making them less prepared for any opportunities that arise”.
However, Wells believes the increasing use of technology platforms for numbers-based facets of a CFO’s role means the nature of the job is changing hugely, arguing this is a good thing for widening the pool. He says: “GrowCFO analysis shows the non-financial element of the CFO’s role will increase from 60 per cent to 95 per cent during the next 20 years, in particular towards driving strategy and change. The role has become a lot more collaborative by nature and should appeal to a wider range of candidates.”
Meet the future CFOs
Three finalists from the Future CFO of the Year Award category at the TARGETjobs 2020 Undergraduate of the Year Awards share their insights
Mary Letey, studying mathematics at the University of Cambridge
The pandemic has shown that rigidity and overly structured corporate ideals won’t hold up long term. Chief financial officers will have the challenge and responsibility of motivating future employees in a way that’s agile and strategically adaptable as the world becomes more complex, without sacrificing wellbeing. My generation is also more acutely aware of social issues such as representation gaps and inequality, and I believe we have a great capacity for driving meaningful change in these areas.
Vaishnav Rajkumar, studying European politics at King’s College London
What attracts me to become a CFO isn’t just the financial aspect. A major platform of mine during the award application was the renewed focus on environmentally aware actions. CFOs don’t necessarily need to have a finance degree, simply a genuine interest, backed by extensive background reading. No one is inherently ineligible to become a CFO. The word “financial” in the title often discourages many from aspiring to this role, bringing to mind intimidating spreadsheets and data-processing.
Chwas Rostam, studying business management at the University of Surrey
To encourage a more diverse selection of candidates, I recommend establishing partnerships with charities such as Social Mobility Foundation and SEO London, and specialist recruiters. This will create new opportunities for under-represented groups, giving boards a more diverse pool of candidates to assess when selecting the organisation’s next CFO. Mentoring and sponsorship programmes will empower under-represented groups to further pursue their ambitions as they learn from the invaluable insights of their superiors.