What Will Future CFOs Need To Succeed? New Research Has Some Answers

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A recent study suggests in coming years, finance chiefs will need a new mindset, comfort with technology and facility with data analysis.

A Chief Financial Officer is central to the success of any organization. As a longtime CEO, I know that for a fact. So any changes to what it takes to succeed in that role—especially ones driven by broader trends across multiple industries and operational models—are important to recognize and understand. 

With that in mind, Billtrust recently commissioned a comprehensive research study surveying 540 C-level executives, including CFOs and other financial leaders, as well as aspiring CFOs, to define the core traits of CFO candidates who will ultimately step into leadership roles. What follows is what the research says about future CFOs and the traits that will help them succeed.

Adopting a Horizontal Management Mindset

Future CFOs will need to manage “horizontally,” working in more direct collaboration with other business units beyond the traditional boundaries of the CFO’s office.

Nearly all of our research respondents (91%) agree that teams will need to collaborate and share ideas across functions to be successful, and future CFOs need to place significant emphasis on the ability to problem-solve across business units. Taking a leadership role in “better data analysis and insights” in support of business/financial goals is central to the horizontal outlook.

Although accounting and finance skills remain a requirement, there is a growing emphasis on people skills, with CFOs expected to have the ability to communicate and make business issues relevant across the organization. “The role is changing” was a common phrase from survey respondents who emphasized the skills and desire needed to both personally collaborate and technically integrate with other functional groups.

Being accessible and relatable was also highlighted—the CFO can no longer be seen as aloof or out of touch. In fact, translating data into stories that illustrate decisions or strategies for peers who are not financially inclined was cited by multiple respondents as an emerging capability or skill.

Several newly minted CFOs spoke of the requirement to drive collaboration across functional leadership and the goal of “using our data to drive innovation.” Success in today’s enterprise cannot be driven “without shared data and partnerships.”

Embracing Innovation, Automation

Many emerging CFOs focus on “envisioning strategy”—seeing a desired future and translating this vision into broadly defined goals or objectives. And much of that future vision involves embracing innovative technology to help them get where they need to go. In fact, most aspiring CFOs place faith in the strategic value of data and technology, as well as a desire to be an agent of innovation.

Interestingly, 46% of current CFOs report that their infrastructure is “very” modernized, which means the majority of processes and systems are automated, integrated and digital. However, future and aspiring CFOs have a less positive view of their firm’s current infrastructure, with only 33% labeling it “very” modern.

When asked what “infrastructure modernization” meant to them, the most popular response from aspiring CFOs was “digital invoicing and payment flows,” with automated payments and reports being incredibly important for the future. Respondents believe that many processes can be automated to free personnel for other tasks, however, it’s important to find a balance that still values individuals as an organization’s greatest asset.

​​According to one food and beverage industry CFO, “Automate everything you can that makes sense. Take the savings and reinvest back in the business.”

The emerging CFO is also keenly interested in digital initiatives that integrate infrastructure beyond finance operations, and allow for better analysis and reporting. While

61% of future CFOs cite “digitizing invoicing” as an example of progress toward modernized digital infrastructure versus just 38% of current CFOs, 45% of next gen CFOs also indicate “digitalize payment flows” as an initiative representing successful digital transformation versus just 26% of current office holders.

Understanding Data and Viewing it as an Asset

A significant number of next-generation CFOs (70%) believe that data and analytics are paramount to the future CFO role adding value in the enterprise. They define “digital success” via technology projects that extend or integrate infrastructure with customers, vendors or partners.

According to one financial executive in the healthcare space, “The CFO role [now] needs better skills and tools for real-time data and analysis. We have a BI team, of course, but anything non-standard or complex becomes an analyst query. Going forward, this [capability] will be a requirement of the CFO role.”

Almost across the board, research participants say that the CFO role calls for computer science/programming exposure but not necessarily at a degree level. An interest or level of comfort in data analysis/analytics is expected, as well as faith in integrated platforms as a path to unlock innovation. 89% of respondents agreed that, as a key future measure of success, financial leaders will need to understand how data moves and is used across the firm.

Finally, CFOs should have the ability and desire to see the “whole picture” instead of just the financial facets of the business. As one respondent said, “We live in numbers, so a good CFO has to be able to analyze—not to the point of paralysis—and make sense of data to see the forest through the trees. Being able to mine data to get the right information to the right people in a timely manner to make decisions before competitors is critical.”

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