The 5 Leadership Traits Of A ‘Rockstar’ CFO

Jack McCullough at CFOLC West
The position has changed, and to be a top finance leader, you need to have not just the following essential skills, but also key leadership traits.

The role of the CFO has been shifting for years, but more recently that pace has accelerated at an unprecedented speed. In a presentation at the CFO Leadership Conference West in Phoenix last week, founder and president Jack McCullough talked about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“From 2000 to 2019, there was a slow evolution—less back office, more strategic thinking,” said McCullough. “But Covid changed an evolution into a revolution and the job has changed more in the last four years than it did in the prior 30.”

Of all the critical aspects of a finance chief’s job today, the biggest, said McCullough, is “the ability to lead their companies through chaos.”

So how does that get done? There are the “essential skills,” of course, and McCullough listed the top five: a strategic perspective, finance and accounting expertise, digital know-how, analytical skills and an innovate mindset.

But today, top CFOs also have five core leadership traits, McCullough said. They include:

  • Empathy. CFOLC ran a program on emotional intelligence back around 2017 and McCullough got some eye rolls over it. But today, he argued, EQ is “critical. Everyone is so stressed they’re looking to you as a leader.” Given high trust levels for CFOs, you have a special opportunity “to connect with people,” from customers to employees to investors.
  • Resiliency. McCullough quoted boxer Mike Tyson in saying, “Everyone has a strategy until they get punched in the mouth. It’s a great quote in business too. Navigate challenges thoughtfully and proactively so when things do go awry, it won’t be a punch in the mouth. Always be adapting.” It’s an important model to provide to the whole organization.
  • Inspiration. “People believe CFOs. You walk in with instant credibility. If a company is coming off a bad quarter and a CEO says everything’s great, that can come off as spinning but when it comes from a CFO it’s different. Always tell the truth, obviously, but you have a unique ability to inspire trust and confidence.”
  • Transparency. “Only say things if you believe them. No spinning. Leave that to the politicians.” To build confidence from all stakeholders, transparent reporting at all levels is critical. “Lay it on the line.”
  • Collaboration. Encourage your team to offer their ideas as much as possible—even if they aren’t good. “Eventually, they’ll come up with something amazing” if they feel safe to offer their thinking freely.

These leadership traits are relatively new for CFOs, noted McCullough. “If you’d asked five to 10 years ago, these aren’t necessarily traits anyone would have associated with a CFO.” But today, “they’re critical.”


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