CFO's New Role: Taking on Strategy

Business meeting
Troeis Graugaard | E+ | Getty Images

The traditional view of a chief financial officer is a bean counter focused solely on company finances. But the finance function is rapidly transforming from just being known for saying 'no' to big projects to taking a proactive role in growth and development. That's because their boss, the chief executive officer, looks for more support in communicating to shareholders and defining company strategy.

"Most look at the CFO as a strategic leader and someone who makes sure there is transparency, and has a lot of responsibility for speaking with shareholders," said Jeanne Branthover, Boyden Global Executive Search managing director and head of the financial services practice. "The visibility and credibility of the CFO is known internally as well as externally."

Branthover said Boyden has had more CFO search requests in the past two years than any other kind.

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In a typical posting for a CFO position on, four of the 10 qualifications listed for the ideal candidate included language about communication and leadership. At financial institutions, where the firms' finances are the flip side of the investments they make, CFOs are also taking on more of the risk management function as well. A financial services firm recently posted a position for a CFO on The first qualification: "Must be able to effective in a small and growing organization where the CFO will be required to wear many hats and interact with numerous different stakeholders inside and outside the company."

Companies are looking for someone in the role who can handle business ups and downs, stand up to more intense scrutiny from shareholders, and in the case of financial service firms, regulators, said Branthover. As the corporate spokesman part of the job has come to the fore, a hard-core accounting background is less necessary for CFOs. Branthover sees CFOs building strong teams underneath them to handle the daily bean counting.

Consulting firm Deloitte conducts a quarterly survey of CFOs. In the fourth quarter of 2012, more than 40 percent of respondents said their top three challenges were related to strategic business decisions -- providing the tools to make them, influencing strategy and priorities, and making sure their efforts achieve the desired business outcomes.

"CFOs are mostly satisfied with their capabilities in longstanding core areas like corporate finance, treasury and audit, but they want to improve in areas that support finance's increasingly strategic role," Deloitte's survey says. More than half of the CFOs surveyed put improving strategic planning in their top three goals.

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"The skill set of the CFO has to be married with the skill sets of the CEO," says Dan Ryan, head of PwC's financial services consulting practice. "The CFO job is a tough job, and it's a little bit all over the place."

Particularly in financial services, CEOs may have a strong grasp of the finance function. These leaders are often looking for more of a partner or a sounding board to help them with strategy.

"They want what they saw was missing before the crisis," says Ryan. "There wasn't constructive challenge in the system. People in the top jobs want challenge and dialog. They're looking for someone who's not afraid to stand up to them in the CFO role."

In the financial services industry, the CFO role has always been a destination job, rather than the on-deck circle for the CEO slot, Ryan says. This is becoming more true in industrial companies as well, says Ryan.

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