The Strategic CFO 2.0 : Remaining Agile In Periods Of Economic Volatility
Omar Choucair, CFO, Trintech, has spent 20+ years leading financial and administrative organizations for public and private companies.
The 2020 Covid-19 disruption, as well as the following inflation period, coupled with supply chain issues and rising interest rates, have redefined what it means to be a successful CFO. I had previously reflected on the evolving role of a “strategic CFO” in 2021, but after a record-breaking inflationary year, a looming recession ahead and more market volatility than previously seen in decades, I’ve come to realize that the CFO role is evolutionary by nature and business leaders, in general, must be strategic and nimble—ready to react quickly to constantly fluctuating economic circumstances. With budget season arriving, and as leaders begin to look ahead to 2023, economists are predicting more of the same volatility. So how can you best plan ahead and prepare yourself, your team and your business for this ever-changing economic landscape?
As the C-suite tackles one macroeconomic crisis after another, short-term objectives often take precedence over long-term growth. At this point – as we near the end of another year spent in “crisis mode” – we simply need to adapt. Businesses must pivot to focus on the long term in this prolonged period of economic volatility, and our roles in the C-suite need to align with these unique economic circumstances. For businesses looking ahead to 2023, here are three key ways the role of the CFO should be shifting to drive transformational business growth in these challenging economic times.
Remain Agile And Business-Oriented
As the economic environment continues to fluctuate, with continued rising inflation and higher interest rates, finance teams are preparing various 2023 planning scenarios. Operational costs are expected to trend higher, and CFOs are tasked with the responsibility of identifying offsets to minimize potential losses. Additionally, foreign currency volatility has also impacted Q2 earnings and cash flow, forcing management teams to reduce H2 financial guidance. Meanwhile, management teams are looking for ways to tighten operating expenses and capital spending for the year ahead in anticipation of a potential recession. CFOs will need to leverage a strong financial background with a strategic business mindset to make the necessary adjustments and plan for 2023.
Planning for a potential financial crisis requires more than “brass tacks” and sticking to a fixed annual plan. Having a strong financial background remains essential, but we also need CFOs to look at the business from a broader perspective and define what it needs to grow beyond the possible challenges in the next few years. In fact, according to a recent survey of CFOs at Fortune 500 companies, more CFOs surveyed had an MBA than a CPA in their background, pointing to a shifting need for CFOs to play more of a strategic business role than an accountant’s role in these companies.
In this prolonged period of volatility, we are entering a new economic environment—the old ways of doing things may not be working. It will be necessary for management teams to be more agile than ever before. To quote Tim Ryan, U.S. chair and senior partner at PwC, C-suite executives must have “the humility to embrace the fact that the world is changing and be okay with it” and have the “courage to change.”
Prioritize Human Capital And Enhance Digital Training Line
Talent recruitment and retention efforts are expected to remain one of the biggest challenges in 2023. A recent report by McKinsey shows that people are still quitting their jobs at higher than usual rates, and more often than not, many of those in finance are leaving the sector altogether in search of more meaningful work elsewhere. I’ve shared some insights on retaining and recruiting talent in the finance sector before, but it bears repeating: Investing in technology and employee engagement should be a top priority of CFOs.
Human capital can be the most valuable asset in the office of the CFO. A research fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management’s Initiative even went so far as to assert that human capital is the new KPI that CFOs need to be thinking about, beyond the more traditional financial KPIs such as cash flow and a balanced scorecard. Especially in this volatile period, it’s important to invest in a team that will think critically to tackle business challenges and continue to drive profitable growth for the organization. This also requires upskilling your team and providing the tools and resources they need to thrive.
Accelerate Digital Transformation As A Key Advocate
The modern CFO is running a business supported by modern operational infrastructure. According to The Hackett Group’s 2022 CFO Survey, the number one priority for CFOs this year was to accelerate digital transformation. Today’s CFO should lead the charge on digital transformation projects designed to scale and grow the business. Recent research conducted by Sage also further solidifies the point that the evolving CFO mandate requires tech-savvy business leaders with a more diversified digital background and skill set to successfully lead the company’s digital transformation efforts.
Embracing and integrating new technologies to improve operational efficiencies in the finance and accounting team is an important first step. Modernizing financial reporting processes with supportive technologies can reduce hours spent on tedious manual processes, improve reporting accuracy and free up time for finance teams to focus on more value-additive work. This could boost employee engagement and further drive business growth initiatives. Particularly as leaders look ahead at 2023 through the lens of preparing for a potential recession, digital transformation strategies should be top of mind for CFOs to stay competitive in the long term and improve profitability.
Planning for 2023 will not be an easy task, as macroeconomic forces continue to impact operational costs and company capital. The role of the CFO must evolve so that finance leaders are more agile, business-oriented and tech-savvy, as well as focused on key talent retention and engagement efforts, in order to ensure that the business continues focusing on long-term growth in the year ahead.