COVID-19 Pandemic: Changes To A CFO’s Responsibilities & Expectations

Fatihah Ramzi, DigitalCFO Asia | 24 May 2022

Kelly Stanley

Chief Financial Officer – Asia, Middle East & Africa, Mercer

Businesses and individuals had to adjust to a new method of operation and work in the midst of official lockdowns and social distancing at the commencement of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Day-to-day operations were severely disrupted, but businesses had no choice but to move quickly and adapt. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on every organization, affecting how they operate both internally and externally. The role of a CFO has certainly become more difficult in these times of uncertainty and volatility.

Dealing with crises on a daily basis has compelled business executives to rethink how they would lead their companies ahead, and CFOs and the finance function played a vital role throughout this time. Now that COVID-19 is treated as an endemic rather than a pandemic, restrictions are lifted and businesses are going back to operating like their pre-covid days. The changes in the post-covid era will affect the needs and focuses of a CFO.  So what do CFOs need to know about the near future and what can they do to better prepare the company to move back to its old routine? 

DigitalCFO Asia spoke with Kelly Stanley, Chief Financial Officer – Asia, Middle East & Africa, Mercer on her professional journey, how the pandemic has affected financial operations, the responsibilities of a CFO as well as the impacts of accelerated digitization on talent retention and acquisition. 

Kelly Stanley: Professional Background & Journey To Becoming CFO

Kelly Stanley began her working life in professional services and spent her initial years learning through different roles in management accounting, audit and consulting before moving to corporate in-house finance. Throughout her career, the one thing she has always pursued is opportunities to learn and grow. This could be taking on roles to develop new technical or personal skills, seizing opportunities to work with and learn from different leaders or developing a broader understanding of different businesses and cultures by working in different locations around the world. 

“Always embracing a growth mindset and new challenges has served me well.”

Kelly Stanley, Chief Financial Officer – Asia, Middle East & Africa, Mercer

She also mentioned that her outlook has really given her vast exposure and learning across various disciplines from traditional finance and operations to strategy and commercial excellence and allowed her to bring a unique perspective to her role as CFO of Mercer across Asia, the Middle East & Africa (AMEA) today. 

Working in a region as diverse and as fast-growing as AMEA is as exciting as it is challenging. The cultural complexity puts traits like collaboration and communication front and centre, while the divergent economic environments can prove challenging in steering the organisation through both risk and opportunity. Beyond managing the finance deliverables, one of the greatest highlights is the opportunity to build a strong finance team and nurture next-generation talent to support our growth ambition in the region.

Impacts of The Pandemic On Financial Operations

The pandemic has, without a doubt, had a positive influence on driving change. It has not only accelerated focus on automation and transformation but also highlighted the importance of having accurate and timely financial information that is relevant and critical to making agile management decisions on a day-to-day basis. 

Through the pandemic, CFOs learnt important lessons about speed and agility which has fast-tracked the automation and standardization of key manual processes as well as the adoption of real-time predictive data analytics for strategic insights and competitive advantage. But technology alone is not enough. One other critical change the pandemic has brought about is motivating finance teams and stakeholders at large to embrace digital transformation and related upskilling which has accelerated change adoption.

As people become more digitally savvy, they are also more open to a self-service model and reaping benefits of increased productivity, efficiency and transparency. The silver lining has really been the awareness that digital transformation is no longer just a nice-to-do. Those who continue to lag in this respect risk not just their organization’s future but also their own.

Impact of Digitization On Talent Retention & Acquisition

The pandemic underscored the need for companies to be able to deal with real-time dynamic market shifts and uncertainty and CFOs and their teams are increasingly relied upon for their insights to steer strategic decisions. 

“In my view, this couldn’t be a more exciting time for finance professionals – new and seasoned – with technology giving businesses levels of insights that would typically require much longer timelines or larger teams,” commented Kelly Stanley, Chief Financial Officer – Asia, Middle East & Africa, Mercer. 

As with all change, it’s crucial to ensure that organizations encourage all employees to come on the digital journey with them and have a voice in the outcomes. To drive the business forward, it’s important that businesses have talent with good corporate knowledge coupled with digital skills. For new entrants (younger generations), many of whom have grown up in a digital first world so the expectation is that companies have the right tools and technologies for them to be successful. 

Impacts Of The Pandemic on Responsibilities Of A CFO

The early days of the pandemic saw CFOs largely in crisis management mode with a shift to providing more pro-active and real-time insights as businesses grappled with the fast-evolving economic circumstances. As companies seek to maximise their rebound from the disruption of the pandemic, the CFO’s role has become more expansive and more strategic. 

From leading transformation efforts within finance and the entire organisation to driving enterprise growth, CFOs now value business strategy, operations management skills and data analytics as much as traditional finance skillsets. 

Kelly Stanley, Chief Financial Officer – Asia, Middle East & Africa, Mercer, shared her opinion on the matter stating that, “We need to go beyond numbers to understand the business, people, operations, process, competitors as well as external market trends”.

These new demands have required that CFOs think differently about the capabilities of their teams to meet these new challenges. Kelly Stanley recounted that in working with her  team during this time, she was really proud that they have focused on processes and tasks that add value. They had to simplify, be clear on what they need to stop or continue doing to keep everyone on track. Apart from staying positive and practicing empathy, close communication and collaboration has really helped her team to remain nimble and resilient while supporting the business in navigating the crisis. 

Evolution Of Today’s CFOs & Their Key Competencies

As mentioned earlier, while CFOs were more focused on meeting the shorter term needs of the business (monitoring performance, costs and productivity, etc) during the pandemic, organisations are also now leaning on their expertise and insights as they seek to capitalize on opportunities for long-term growth in a post-pandemic environment. The pandemic has accelerated CFOs focus on digital and business transformation, among others, and finance needs to be a trusted transformation partner to identify and assess the growth opportunity these trends hold for the business. 

This calls for a deep understanding of the economics of the company’s model, the trends that shape the industry as well as digital savviness to connect the right tools and technologies with people to drive business success. Soft skills such as collaboration, the ability to drive a culture of innovation and learning as well as keeping employees engaged and connected are equally important. 

The digital revolution, speed of change and level of uncertainty in business environments have upped the ante for CFOs. To be an effective business partner, CFOs will have to be fluent in the languages of people management, the business as well as technology. It’s no doubt challenging but also a great opportunity to step up and take a prominent leadership role. Kelly Stanley’s advice would be to stay curious, to continue to experiment and pursue opportunities to learn and grow.