This Is Your Co-Pilot Speaking: The Changing Role of Chief Financial Officers (2024)

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4 min read |Hilary Maxson

And why we’re about so much more than finance and accounting

Hear the words “chief financial officer”, and most non-finance people instinctively think of men (or maybe women) in sober suits who eat spreadsheets for breakfast and don’t open their mouths without mentioning complex financial metrics and regulatory requirements.

No wonder. After all, CFOs like myself, and the corporate finance teams we lead, are responsible for tracking, controlling and processing the money that goes in, out and around an organization—the outgoings to suppliers, staff and tax authorities, the bills payable by customers. We’re the ones who keep tabs on budgeting and audit financial filings. Without us, any company would quickly run into trouble with the investment community, stock-market regulators, vendors, customers, and its own staff.

But the world has changed, and so has the role of CFOs and the skill sets we need to bring to the job.

This Is Your Co-Pilot Speaking: The Changing Role of Chief Financial Officers (1)

From support function to critical glue and strategic co-pilot

In addition to the age-old challenge of making stuff and getting paid for it, companies now face an array of new issues. Accelerating technological change. The climate crisis. Supply chain disruptions. Cybercrime. The workplace changes wrought by the Covid pandemic… And most recently, soaring inflation and a global energy crisis.

All this means companies need to think much more holistically about their business strategies and ways of operating than they did 20 or 30 years ago.

This is where the finance function comes in.

For one thing, our wider scope, aside from tracking money, also spans governance—ensuring adherence to accounting principles and financial regulatory regimes, and legal, taxation and other requirements. We ultimately sign off on accounts, earnings reports, budgets, and spending plans, and so act as the ultimate group-wide governance control point and overseer, often in partnership with key corporate functions like IT, legal, HR, and compliance.

For another, the finance function touches every part of an organization: payroll, supply chain payments and receivables, IT spending, and investment and acquisition decisions. This means we can become a unifying glue, driving the standardization of processes and digital tools across business lines and jurisdictions, and propelling business-critical transformation, streamlining and simplification initiatives.

This is more important than it may sound. After all, when large corporates fail, it’s generally not because their business strategy is faulty. Often, it’s because they’ve become disjointed and unwieldy—perhaps because acquisitions have assembled multiple teams with different existing practices, outlooks and tools.

And so at Schneider Electric, we’re currently making big efforts to simplify how we work, streamline our product offerings, and ensure that our money goes only into technologies and innovations that deliver scalable growth and value for our customers and shareholders.

Shaping strategy, from commercial rationale to sustainability impact

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance is a hugely important part of this. And for CFOs who sign off on investment plans, resource allocation, mergers and acquisitions, it needs to be absolutely front of mind.

This may sound counterintuitive, as ESG is largely about non-financial metrics. However, no company can afford not to meet the ESG expectations of customers, investors, regulators, and employees, or fail to position itself for the long-term challenges—and opportunities—posed by climate change and social inequality. So ultimately, the actions one takes to optimize the value of the company, particularly over the medium and long term, are tied to the right ESG strategy.

Investing in sustainability commitments aimed at sourcing energy from renewable sources, achieving greater gender balance, and making a positive long-term impact on the planet and society, for example, is not simply an act of charity or philanthropy.

It’s about looking strategically to drive value for a company and its stakeholders over the medium and long term. It’s about future-proofing your company, being more competitive, more innovative, and more resilient. It’s just as business-critical as profit-and-loss financials and must go hand-in-hand with them.

The changing role of CFO from number-cruncher to multi-talent

What does this mean about the skill sets we now need to bring to the job?

Sure, CFOs and finance folks need to be adept at spreadsheets or, more and more, software replacing spreadsheets. We need to be able to do accounting and math and understand regulations around mergers and acquisitions or bond issuances.

But we also need to understand and have a voice in diverse issues, from IT system upgrades and digital transformation programs to product development and corporate sustainability commitments. And that, in turn, means we need to think strategically, partner with the business, and manage and collaborate across multiple teams and departments. Most importantly, we need to think end-to-end to drive value across the organization, no matter its structure.

So, next time you think about the changing role of CFOs, think of us as more than sober-suited number-crunchers.

Think of us as enablers, not obstacles to organizational change and company transformation.

And think of us not as just a support function, but as co-pilots of the corporate plane, shaping and steering strategy and group operations alongside the CEO.

This Is Your Co-Pilot Speaking: The Changing Role of Chief Financial Officers (2)

Hilary Maxson joined Schneider Electric in 2017 and became the company’s Chief Financial Officer in April 2020. She was named “Best CFO” at the Institutional Investor’s 2022 Developed Europe Executive Team Awards in September 2022. Learn more about Hilary’s experience in her recent interview with CFO Brew

Tags: CFO, corporate sustainability, ESG strategy, Finance, sustainability strategy

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As an experienced CFO with a demonstrated track record in corporate finance, governance, and strategic decision-making, I can offer insights into the evolving role of Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) in today's dynamic business landscape. The article you've provided sheds light on the transformation of CFOs from traditional number-crunchers to multi-talented, strategic co-pilots. Let's break down the key concepts discussed in the article:

  1. Traditional CFO Responsibilities:

    • Tracking, controlling, and processing money within an organization.
    • Managing outgoings to suppliers, staff, and tax authorities.
    • Overseeing budgeting and auditing financial filings.
  2. Expanded Role of CFOs:

    • Beyond finance and accounting, CFOs now play a crucial role in addressing contemporary challenges such as technological change, climate crisis, supply chain disruptions, and cybersecurity.
    • The article emphasizes the need for CFOs to think more holistically about business strategies and operations.
  3. Governance and Oversight:

    • The finance function extends beyond financial matters to include governance, adherence to accounting principles, financial regulatory regimes, legal compliance, taxation, and other requirements.
    • CFOs act as the ultimate group-wide governance control point and collaboratively oversee functions like IT, legal, HR, and compliance.
  4. Unifying Glue and Strategic Initiatives:

    • The finance function touches every part of an organization, driving standardization of processes and digital tools across business lines and jurisdictions.
    • CFOs become unifying glues, enabling business-critical transformation, streamlining, and simplification initiatives.
  5. ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) Performance:

    • CFOs are integral in shaping a company's strategy concerning ESG performance.
    • Emphasizes the importance of considering non-financial metrics related to sustainability, gender balance, and long-term impact on the planet and society.
  6. Strategic Investment and Future-Proofing:

    • Investment in sustainability commitments is seen as a strategic move to drive long-term value for the company and its stakeholders.
    • Future-proofing the company involves being competitive, innovative, and resilient, making ESG strategy just as critical as profit-and-loss financials.
  7. Skill Sets Required:

    • Besides traditional financial skills, CFOs need expertise in diverse areas such as IT system upgrades, digital transformation, product development, and corporate sustainability.
    • Strategic thinking, collaboration with various teams, and an end-to-end perspective are highlighted as essential skills for modern CFOs.
  8. CFO as a Co-Pilot:

    • The article concludes by redefining the role of CFOs as more than number-crunchers, portraying them as enablers and co-pilots of the corporate plane, actively shaping and steering strategy alongside the CEO.

This breakdown encapsulates the key themes of the article, demonstrating the changing landscape of CFO roles and the broader responsibilities they now undertake in steering organizations through contemporary challenges.

This Is Your Co-Pilot Speaking: The Changing Role of Chief Financial Officers (2024)


How has the role of CFO changed? ›

Gone are the days when CFOs focused only on providing accurate numbers to the organisation. With business and operating dynamics shifting, today's CFOs are required to become more strategic, moving away from the role as financial partner to a more strategic partner to the CEO.

What is the role of a chief financial officer? ›

What is a CFO in charge of? This executive is in charge of a company's financial operations. A CFO's responsibilities include internal and external financial reporting, stewardship of a company's assets, and ownership of cash management.

How do I transition to CFO role? ›

Navigating The Transition: A Controller's Ascent To The CFO Role
  1. Foster Strategic Thinking. ...
  2. Enhance Leadership and Communication Skills. ...
  3. Embrace Ethical Leadership. ...
  4. Develop a Strong Financial Acumen. ...
  5. Commit to Continuous Professional Development. ...
  6. Leverage Technology and Data Analytics. ...
  7. Unleash a Personal Brand.
Feb 4, 2024

What makes a successful chief financial officer? ›

Written and oral communication skills are an essential quality for a CFO, as they must be able to effectively communicate the financial health of the company to all stakeholders. The ability to make decisions on behalf of the company with confidence and assertiveness are good character traits for a successful CFO.

What would be a key goal as new CFO? ›

Building strong relationships from the start is essential if you want a successful tenure as a CFO. Aim to: Immerse yourself in the company's culture, values, and priorities to understand it better. Collaborate with other executives and stakeholders to develop a vision for your company's financial future.

What does a CFO do day to day? ›

If you work as a CFO, you oversee the investment of funds held by the company and assess and manage associated risks. You also supervise cash management activities, execute capital-raising strategies to support a firm's expansion, and deal with mergers and acquisitions.

What skills does a chief financial officer need? ›

Essential CFO skills
  • Communication.
  • Decision-making.
  • Leadership.
  • Management.
  • Problem-solving.
  • Time management.
  • Data skills.
Dec 1, 2023

What are the 4 faces of the CFO? ›

The framework segments the four critical roles CFOs play today—Strategist, Catalyst, Steward and Operator—and organizes each role by the areas of focus, functions and competencies CFOs need to bring to the table.

What makes you the ideal candidate for CFO position? ›

A strong CFO candidate exhibits the ability to develop and execute a financial strategy that supports the company's long-term objectives. They understand how to optimize capital structure, manage investments, and drive profitability.

Is CFO role stressful? ›

Being a CFO, or a business owner acting as your own CFO, can be incredibly stressful, and it just gets more so the larger the company you manage.

Why would a CFO be let go? ›

Withholding information and the inability to communicate simply and clearly are problematic behaviors that can lead to termination. To prevent this, CFOs can do the following: Avoid using technical jargon.

What is a CFO mindset? ›

It is characterized by a willingness to challenge the status quo, a desire to learn and improve continuously and a focus on creating value for customers and stakeholders. In contrast, a traditional CFO mindset is often more focused on financial management and risk mitigation.

What are the four pillars of CFO success? ›

There are four pillars: Accounting, Finance, Treasury, and Leadership.

What is CFO evolution? ›

CFO Evolution Programme

It is designed to complement and support core HMPPS provision, increasing value for money from other projects and better preparing those socially excluded to make a positive contribution to society.

What are current CFO trends? ›

That's why, as the CFO landscape continues to shift, there are five key themes that financial leaders need to know:
  • The use of artificial intelligence (AI),
  • talent and hybrid workforce management,
  • data security,
  • working capital and treasury management, and.
  • tech stack modernization programs and enterprise digitization.
Mar 6, 2024

How can the CFO evolve today to reframe finance for tomorrow? ›

CFOs must balance the need for short-term results with a focus on long-term value. CFOs must balance the need to protect enterprise value today while also enabling future growth. CFOs must find a way to balance traditional responsibilities with new mandates.

What makes a modern CFO? ›

Financial Acumen and Technical Expertise

A modern CFO must possess a deep understanding of financial principles, accounting standards, and financial analysis techniques. This expertise is necessary for effective decision-making, risk assessment, and resource allocation.

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