Are CFOs now CEOs in waiting?

Studies and commentary over several years have reported the now clichéd story
of the CFO’s migration from bean counter to business partner or strategist. A
second recurring theme – and now commonly accepted wisdom – is that all CFOs
want to be CEOs.

As chair of Ernst & Young’s CFO programme I am in a rare and fortunate
position to see the CFO role from many angles.

However, I believe the story needs updating. Role expansion continues to be a
clear theme. With a firm grasp of business and finance fundamentals, and
overview of the business as a totality, CFOs’ unique optic has rightly resulted
in their promotion to the foreground during the recent economic crisis. As such,
the CFO role is arguably unique in the level of increased demands,
relationships, pressures and requirements put upon it.

Increasingly seen as the independent face of the company with external
stakeholders – at least in terms of stakeholder confidence in business
performance – CFOs require communication and influencing skills to an
unprecedented degree, often applying these skills in the
glare of publicity.

The trend towards greater strategic input continues upward. Yet, there is
clearly a diverse understanding of where CFOs contribute to corporate strategy.
Some develop and define strategy, but more often they lead projects and execute
strategy, while critically ensuring that funding is available to fulfil the
business’s strategic vision. Therefore, the CFO now has to connect with a wider
range of colleagues to enable, challenge and co-develop their decision making.

CFOs welcome and are motivated by this expanding role (while maintaining core
responsibilities). They don’t all want to be CEOs; most want to build on their
own remit. They recognise that this is no easy switch, and that many are not
there yet with the full set of skills, chiefly communication… and,
interestingly, often a lack of other CFOs as role models to assist with

We still see a gap between the aspiration and the reality, around the extent
to which CFOs develop corporate strategy, but this is a far cry from the more
limited role definition we’ve been used to seeing.

Les Clifford is partner and CFO programme chair at Ernst &

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