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The CFO of the future: nine skill sets for today and beyond

Automation has moved the finance function closer to business strategy and decision-making, as basic ‘number-crunching’ is left to software. This has, in turn, altered the CFO’s role. Another key development has been the emergence of ‘stakeholder capitalism’, writes Jeff Thomson, president and CEO at the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA)


The role of the chief financial officer has grown in importance while shifting in function. In fact, today’s CFO has often been referred to as the chief futures officer, the chief performance officer and the chief value officer.

In a recent paper co-written by IMA and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), The CFO of the Future, we assert that the “traditional role of the guardian of an entity’s finances has been superseded by a new reality: one where the CFO has a broader function across the piece, where performance is measured against the three Ps of people, profit and purpose that are increasingly used to evaluate success.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated this trend, forcing CFOs to adapt and re-forecast more quickly and utilise data, while helping to ensure both immediate employee well-being and long-term sustainability. Based on prior research, we developed four hypotheses about the CFO’s future role, proposing that it would involve:

  1. Enhanced stakeholder focus;
  2. More responsibility for strategy formulation;
  3. Increased mandate for growth optimisation, and
  4. A wider view of company performance.

We tested these hypotheses by surveying 1,152 IMA and ACCA members, together with non-member CFOs and chief executives, across the world during June 2020. We also held several virtual roundtables to discuss these issues and gauge opinion. Though there were some disagreements and a degree of regional variation, practitioners by and large concurred with the hypotheses on where the CFO role is heading in coming years.

But what are the implications for CFO skill sets and the types of competencies that companies should look for in elevating finance professionals to the top job? And by extension, what should aspiring finance leaders do to ensure they are equipped to fulfil these expectations?

From our hypotheses and survey results, we determined nine skill sets that CFOs will have to obtain or upgrade to successfully lead finance functions in the 21st century:

1. Technical and ethical skills – financial acumen: Though financial acumen is already necessary for CFOs, they will have to move beyond the traditional focus of the job – reporting short-term profits and losses – and instead work to better understand the issues that lie behind the numbers and disclosures and in fact lead to longer term value creation capability and capacity.

Crucially, they will have to master the issues that impact key stakeholders, bearing in mind the need to remain vigilant when it comes to professional ethics, such as watching out for algorithmic bias, and cybersecurity issues such as privacy rights and protecting the firm’s reputation.

2. Strategy and business acumen: CFOs will need to contribute to long-term strategy and forge a close working relationship with the CEO, aligning the finance function with overall company vision. Our study is unique in that we seek the views of not only CFOs, but also CEOs, for example in discussing traditional and non-traditional pathways to the CFO position in the new world.

3. Risk management and governance: As Covid-19 and other recent disruptive events illustrate, managing and preparing for risk will become an ever more prevalent part of the CFO’s job.

Forecasting based purely on financial trends is no longer enough. The CFO must reflect customer behavioural and environmental trends in their forecasting, and also be anticipatory with sound risk management and business continuity practices in place to support the needs of all stakeholders.

4. Data and technology: The CFO will need a working knowledge of the technological possibilities for the organisation as well as an ability to draw valuable insights from data.

5. Leadership and communication: The CFO must be less of a high-level bookkeeper and more of a leader within the organisation, communicating with senior leaders and key stakeholders about financials as well as strategy and vision.

6. Supply chain management: Covid-19 has exposed enormous risks in global supply chains. CFOs will need to pay closer attention to sourcing as well as ensuring ethical and sustainable practices in complex webs of global commerce.

7. Investor management: With investors scrutinising companies more than ever before – especially on ESG – CFOs should expect to have to answer to shareholder concerns and proactively manage their expectations.

8. Consulting: Increasingly, the CFO will be ‘the ultimate internal business consultant’, acting as a super-connector across various corporate functions.

9. Transactions: When it comes to M&A or divestment of business segments, CFOs will have to participate more fully in post-transaction strategy, whether that is integration of new businesses or restructuring after jettisoning old ones.

Adopting or upgrading these skill sets must be a focus for finance professionals at every level. Professional organisations like IMA and ACCA are continuously upgrading required courses and competencies in equipping finance professionals with the skills they need.

But companies and organisations must also play a role through investment in lifelong learning for finance staff as the roles of the CFO and finance function change and evolve, taking issues into consideration that previous generations never addressed.

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