CFOs struggle to deliver their much-hyped role as business partner

19th September 2016

It is often a mistake to assume anything, says Lesley Meall, FSN writer. However, it seems safe to assume that ‘hype’ is not a word you generally associate with accountancy. Even Google struggles to come up with hits that feature the three words ‘accountancy’, ‘profession’ and ‘hype’ – together in a single item – and what Google does find seems to relate to artificial intelligence and blockchain. Clearly the profession is not immune from hype. 




Just ask a CFO. Myriad reports announce that the role is expanding: in addition to the CFO’s traditional responsibilities for financial stewardship and financial risk management, they need to become strategists, catalysts and business partners; they need to use their financial approach and mindset to help other parts of the business to perform better. On the ground, things are different. “The whole CFO role is being overhyped,” says Gary Simon, FSN’s chief executive officer and leader of the Modern Finance Forum. 

When FSN conducted its Future of the Finance Function Survey 2016 among the 47,000 members of its Modern Finance Forum on LinkedIn, many CFOs and senior finance people indicated that they are struggling to balance their traditional responsibilities with the newer demands such as business partnering. “Some have made the transition to a more modern finance function. But it is clear from our research that the majority have not – though many are part way through the journey,” says Simon.


Barriers to progress

So, what is stopping CFOs from stepping into their much-hyped role as business partner? There are many contributing factors. “I am expected to take care of the books and regulatory compliance,” says one finance director, whose CEO has discouraged her from doing more – and who recently lost a valued team member because he wanted to “be more than a number cruncher”. The expectations of the business can impede progress in other ways too. 

Our Future of the Finance Function Survey found that many in the finance function lack the time and the technology resources to expand their roles. FSN considers this in an article that explores how smart software and smart people can help CFOs to overcome some of the associated hurdles and realise their ambitions; the article also highlights why personal qualities and skills such as persuading, negotiating and influencing are vital if CFOs and members of their teams are to be effective business partners. 

In addition the Future of the Finance Function Survey also found that standardising processes, then automating them and then connecting front and back office systems is the most effective route to liberating time in the finance function and giving finance executives a more holistic view of data from across the business. To effectively partner those outside the finance function, those in it need access to data on assets, customers, pricing and other data that is traditionally ‘owned’ (and often ‘siloed’) by operations.


CFO successes

At the Gap Partnership consultancy, replacing Access Dimensions with a FinancialForce system that integrates with helped to bridge data and cultural divides between finance and other parts of the business, such as sales and marketing (and FSN explores this and the benefits of this ‘new power triangle’ here). “My team and the operating teams are working more closely on the back of these systems,” says Nigel Wolfin, Gap CFO.

At Gap Partnership, integration between front and back office systems enables finance and operations to work more collaboratively, more easily, and this has enhanced relationships between operations and their clients, as well as between finance and operations. “When we are talking to operating colleagues, and they have a query on an invoice, we can actually show them that invoice, so that they can improve communication with their clients,” explains Wolfin.

At San Francisco Ballet, adding a dedicated and integrated system for budgeting, planning and forecasting (from Adaptive Insights) to the organisation’s technology infrastructure has enabled CFO Kim Ondreck Carim to shrink the gap between finance and other parts of the business – and create a more modern finance function. The CFO can manage financial stewardship and financial risk management more effectively and step into the much-hyped role of business partner.

Time has been saved: “What used to be a month long planning cycle, I can do in a week,” she says. Ondreck Carim has put this to good use, becoming a more strategic CFO and business partner who can bring insights into the financial challenges of staging art, without sacrificing its quality. “I can help the artistic side of the business to understand the financial impacts of the programming and the decisions that they make in ways that I have never been able to do before.”

Being able to look at P&Ls by ‘show’ has been a key development. “Previously we didn’t know how profitable any one particular show was, because our GL couldn’t handle that kind of detail,” explains Ondreck Carim. Relationships with those on the artistic side have been enhanced and strengthened. “One of the things that’s been fantastic is that my budget managers love it. They were scared of the spreadsheets and of breaking them. Now they are writing their own reports.”

Clearly technology matters. FSN Future of the Finance Function Survey found that on the CFO journey towards modern finance, process standardisation and automation trump integration across front and back office systems, but this connectivity still delivers big benefits. Simon says: “Because your analysis can combine operational and financial data, you know more about what’s happening in the business and you can be much smarter in your forecasting. This is the icing on the cake.”