Here is a set of questions boards can use to explore and define the attributes they might want from a CFO.
Having worked with boards for many years, I considered the board, particularly the audit committee chair, to be a critical relationship, second only to that with the CEO. Since retiring, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with board members of various organizations, and I am often asked, “What qualities and experiences should board members look for in a CFO?” With the average tenure of a CFO between five and six years, along with faster turnover and the dramatic changes business face, I can understand why boards are asking.
The role of boards and the issues they oversee have expanded amid the accelerated rate of change, disruption and transformation that defines today’s business environment. The CFO’s role also has evolved from operator and steward to catalyst and strategist, and with that their responsibilities. New business models, technology innovations, shareholder activism, and cyber threats are a few of the many developments that are reshaping the worlds of boards and CFOs alike. And with these developments boards increasingly recognize the CFO’s role in supporting them with their broader, and more challenging, mandate to build shareholder value.
So when I’m asked, “What qualities and experiences should board members seek in a CFO?” I often reply with a set of questions boards can use to explore and define the attributes they might want from a CFO for their particular organization and industry. While there are baseline skills, such as accounting and finance, and even operations and international experience, the requirements generally are broader and nuanced, depending on what the company is experiencing and its strategic direction.
Can the CFO take care of the blocking and tackling? This question might be obvious, but as a director I would want to know first that the CFO has a handle on the systems, ensures the books are accurate and closed on time, and is on top of accounting, compliance and other issues that can get companies in trouble. Having confidence in the CFO to manage the basics, as well as strategic matters, is critical for boards and CFOs to have a trusting relationship.
Does the CFO understand the big picture and know the details, and know when to shift from one to the other? In my view, no one on an executive team is positioned to understand the company as well as the CFO, both broadly and in the details. A CFO with strategic vision is vital to boards. From my experience, directors need to know that the CFO is looking out for the obstacles that could put the organization off course, and to do that, CFOs need to understand the strategy. I found that high-level, fact-based discussions on strategic matters could provide directors the insights they sought to do their job.
Is the CFO a partner to the CEO and the business? Being an effective business partner means looking for ways to support the business while standing ready to challenge plans and, at the same time, maintaining the trust of the CEO and business leaders. For me, knowing the details of the business operations was critical to being an effective business partner and challenger, when needed.
Does the CFO attract and develop future leaders? Boards expect CFOs to have finance leaders-in-waiting and succession plans. Having a strong bench was one of my priorities, and I regularly communicated my succession plans. I also showcased high-potential finance team members to the audit committee to foster familiarity with future leaders.
How well and how often does the CFO communicate and engage with the board? CFOs have to be great communicators to the board, the CEO, employees, Wall Street and others. I maintained open lines of communication with the audit committee chair, with monthly discussions. I found directors value discussing issues more than reports and pre-reads. I focused on providing the essential information and prepared for rigorous questions, and I valued directors who asked questions and offered their perspectives. I also sought out directors to learn from their experience.
Is the CFO transparent? As CFO, it was my fiduciary responsibility to be the truth teller, to be candid and to have informed opinions on a range of issues, even if my opinions differed from others’ views. When I explained a decision, I discussed the issue at hand, as well as the road to that decision and the process going forward.
I mention transparency and communications last because they are so essential to a CFO’s ability to gain and hold the board’s trust over time. And only with that trust can a CFO provide directors with knowledge and insights to help them fulfill their responsibilities.
The author serves as an independent senior advisor to Deloitte LLP and as CFO-in-Residence of the firm’s CFO Program. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.