Expectations Soar for CFOs to Lead Organizations with Clear Communication and Management Skills

by Justin Cowan

The pandemic proved that a company's success hinges on finance leaders providing more than just data on company performance.

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Shepherding businesses through the economy continues to be the job of CFO or the finance leader - with a pulse on the numbers and the ability to navigate what’s next. Amid a pandemic, inflation, supply chain issues, a tight labor market, and concerns of an economic downturn, finance leaders have picked up greater responsibility and wear more hats than ever before. 

Leading the Organization with Soft Skills

According to a recent survey from Oracle NetSuite, 57% of finance leaders say they now spend a majority of their time meeting with executives outside of the finance department. Steeped in financial knowledge, CFOs are advising other departments on staffing, supply chain, product development and more.

Being “good with the numbers,” simply isn’t good enough. It’s a starting point. 

Communication skills are becoming benchmarks for CFOs, even though these skills are not traditionally part of the job. These soft skills don't come naturally to most finance executives, with only 35% saying they enjoy telling the company's story through financial data, while 22% delegate this responsibility to others. Additionally, only 31% of CFOs said they like coaching finance team members; nearly as many, 30%, delegate this responsibility. 

The pandemic proved that a company's success hinges on finance leaders providing more than just data on company performance. They are being called upon to succeed as communicators and collaborators. Nurturing these skills helps create confidence and security among teams and organization, which is urgent and critical as markets shift. The more confident, concise, and informative CFOs are, the fewer misunderstandings, mistakes, and frustration that can result in company panic and distrust. 

Communication is a vital skill for many roles within the corporate world, and it's one that CFOs need to prioritize for their professional growth and development, and for the benefit of the companies and industries they serve. Delivering complex information accurately and effectively is the new table stake for CFOs. 

As economic uncertainty grows and CFOs influence and inform business critical operations, the need to develop soft skills is undeniable. The survey revealed that 40% of non-finance executives and managers do not believe their company's CFO is an expert communicator, and 35% do not believe their CFO is an expert at managing the team. Saying that, 87% of executives and managers surveyed outside the finance team believe the finance group is more vital now than before the pandemic. How can finance leaders go beyond the math?

Going Beyond the Numbers with Automation and Technology 

Almost half of the finance executives surveyed (48%) and 68% of finance managers said their jobs are more complex today than 2019. CFOs are expected to take on a more holistic role and do more with less. Adopting technology to automate day-to-day tasks such as invoicing and full visibility into business realities will enable finance leaders more time to work on much-needed communication and management skills. 

Turning to tech tools as an aid in communication will also serve CFOs well as they assess risk, build strategies for market survival, research new opportunities and partnerships, determine the right time to hire new talent and ensure that proprietary data support these critical decisions. Automated processes help grab and analyze data to make sound decisions and predictions to help proactively work with business partners to identify issues and efficiently solve them. 

Managing Across Generations and Mentoring the Next Generation

CFOs are now expected to be experienced managers and mentors. Most CFOs and finance leaders are trained to make data-informed decisions and manage budgets. In a time when the fight for talent is fierce, CFOs need to hone in on inspiring and motivating others, providing sound feedback, and supporting collaborative teamwork. Developing these skills also takes time and will become essential as the next generation of senior finance leaders is looked to even more than the last.

The best way a CFO can develop strong communication skills is to actively listen to the company and employee needs by asking questions to identify top concerns and pain points. Through active listening, CFOs are more equipped to offer practical solutions, options, and actions. While strong communication skills don't happen overnight, with practice and an open mind, more CFOs can become expert communicators. 

As the finance team’s expectations and responsibilities expand beyond number crunching and data analysis, a new generation of CFO leaders will emerge, and the job will never be the same. They will continue to do so as companies rely more heavily on them for strategic oversight as they spend more time communicating and collaborating up and down the organization.

The data reinforces the need to fill this critical and increasingly complex role. The question is, are they up for the challenge? 

Justin Cowan is the Group Vice President of Strategy at Oracle NetSuite.