Nowadays, companies expect them to have the ability to manage volatility, navigate complexity among other things

Suparna Goswami Bhattacharya

October 17, 2014: When someone mentions “CFO”, the first thing to hit the mind is – a guy managing finance in a company.

However, with time, the role of the CFO has evolved. Today if you mention about the ‘managing finance’ bit to any CFO worth his salt, he will probably laugh out loud.

Once focused on cost containment, accounting and compliance, the position has evolved into that of a true business partner – someone who delivers insights and provides decision-making support.

Today, companies expect CFOs to have the ability to manage volatility, navigate complexity among other things. In fact, a recent Accenture report* — The CFO as Architect of Business Value: Delivering Growth and Managing Complexity — states that the expanded role has resulted in their growing influence, especially as a result of their involvement in growth-related and business transformation activities.

“The role has evolved over time internally because of the increasing importance of financial data and insights and externally as a voice of the company to various stakeholders,” said Christian Campagna, lead managing director, Accenture Finance & Enterprise Strategy Group.

And the biggest drivers of this change in the scope of the role of the CFO are the global financial crisis of 2008, wherein the CFO emerged as a trusted partner to the CEO and other member of the C-Suite.

The role of the CFO at present has clearly expanded. The Accenture study calls it ‘Value Architect’. Here the CFO acts as the guardian of the economic value agenda for the company and provides guidance for key decisions made across the enterprise. “Now the CFO has the responsibility to drive profitability and growth while managing constant volatility, complexity, globalisation and emerging technology. The CFO is arguably one of the most powerful executives after the CEO,” says Campagna.

“This view that the CFO is the owner of cost control, and someone else in the business is the owner of revenue growth, is not the case,” says Margherita Della Valle of Vodafone. “The CFO has a role to play across the whole of the P&L and the balance sheet. It is essential that the CFO convinces the CEO that finance has a role to play on more than just costs.”

Thanks to the expanded role, the CFO now often finds himself in middle of a wide range of internal and external stakeholders, including other members of the C-suite, the rest of the management team, the board of directors, investors, regulators and analysts. Each has their own demands, and the number of stakeholders continues to expand.

Mike McClellan, CFO, North America at Sanofi, believes that bureaucracy should not mushroom in a company in order for things to run smoothly. “The CFO’s role is to really make sure that we’re not allowing processes to become too complex. We’re really trying to keep things effective and efficient, not only from a cost perspective but also from a way of doing business,” remarks McClellan.

Industries embracing change in role of CFOs

Research by various firms shows that the role of CFO is expanding. “The role is expanding but the focus may vary from industry to industry in order to address industry-specific challenges,” says Campagna. For instance, a CFO in financial services must focus more on regulations and cost control while a CFO at a consumer goods company may be more concerned with managing complexity.

In fact, in most industries CFOs are putting a special emphasis on digital. Hugh Morris, finance expert and vice-president of business development banking at GENPACT LLC in his statement earlier, had said that technology continues to change the way business gets done.

“CFOs need an understanding of emerging technology, but also where things are headed. They must remain agile enough to change course as technology changes and be committed to governance as a way of ensuring that the organisation uses the technology as efficiently as possible,” he said

David Rowland, CFO, Accenture believes that technology is central to finance strategy and agenda. “Organisations can’t have optimal efficiency and effectiveness without focusing on enabling technologies. In today’s world, where there’s an abundance of data, it’s particularly important that organisations raise their game in managing, analysing and presenting data in a way that yields the greatest value for the business.”

*The Accenture 2014 High Performance Finance Study was based primarily on an online quantitative survey conducted between January and April 2014 among 617 finance executives.