The changing face of the CFO

15th November 2020 |

The C-suite is changing. Specifically, the role of the chief financial officer (CFO), which has evolved almost beyond recognition over the last decade. Now that we’ve experienced a global pandemic, the transformation of the role has been accelerated. Theirs is a function that has changed perhaps more any other within the senior executive team, but what is driving this change and what will the future CFO look like?

A strategic position

The modern CFO should not be seen as bean-counter-in-chief. Rather, this is a reactive role which should sit at the heart of the organisation. Today’s CFO is often viewed as the second-in-command, and the CEO’s most important counsel.

It is the CFO who keeps the organisational strategy on track when stakeholders or circumstances push against them. The role now is less about financial performance and tightening budgets, but is instead focused on shaping the strategy that will help the CEO achieve their agenda.

The role of CFO is broader and more strategic compared to 10 or even five years ago. Now more than ever, the CFO will be called upon to futureproof the organisation, securing the business against unknown threats on the horizon. But this doesn’t mean tightening the purse strings – it means making strategic decisions, confirming the validity of others’ motions and sticking firmly to the organisational objectives.

It also means developing a new set of skills, beyond that of financial savvy.

The emotionally intelligent CFO

Increasing globalisation, remote workforces and prevalence of technology are trends that were already impacting the work of the CFO. Add in a global pandemic to that mix and it becomes even more difficult to make judgements and decisions. Emotional intelligence has never been so important.

Globalisation alone means that CFOs are having to manage a finance function across several jurisdictions, diverse cultures and different time-zones. Understanding these nuances can be challenging and it takes someone capable of ensuring that their teams – wherever they may be – are all aligned and operating with the same philosophy and level of engagement.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten the economy, and see redundancies on the rise, the CFO must make careful decisions which take into account a range of factors. Having a degree of emotional intelligence can make it easier for the CFO to make these difficult decisions, considering the roles and employees which add the most value to the organisation, and measuring value in more than just financial terms.

The transparent CFO

Another trend accelerated by the events of 2020 is the need for organisations to have a purpose beyond profit. Growing pressure on banks and financial institutions to behave more ethically by refusing to invest in things such as fossil fuels, nuclear power and sweatshop labour can cast a damning light on all financial disciplines – whether fairly or not.

This puts pressure on the CFO to be open and transparent with company financials, supply chains and ethical standards. It’s important for retaining the trust of investors, employees and customers and for protecting brand reputation.

While CFO’s have a far greater commercial breadth and influence than ever before, they also have a greater responsibility. The role requires not just technical expertise but the ability to understand, identify and mitigate risk – and this must be actioned in an honest and transparent way.

The flexible CFO

CEOs and their CFOs often become something of a double act, their fates becoming ever-more entwined. When a CEO moves on, for instance, it is highly likely that they will take their former CFO with them; the fortunes of one determining those of the other.  

Naturally, this works in reverse too. When a CFO doesn’t follow the CEO to pastures new, their position can be less certain. A new CEO often instigates a period of change, and the CFO will need to show their adaptability to the new organisational objectives.

If the current CFO fails to adapt or establish an effective working partnership with their new CEO, their position may become untenable. But, just as the CFO will have become agile to new threats and opportunities in the current climate, they should be able to adapt to the new agenda set out by the CEO.

The role of the CFO often undergoes something of a revolution following a period of economic difficulty, but this transformation is ongoing. By adapting a broader set of skills, the CFO becomes the chief strategist, a vital right-hand for the CEO.

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