More Than Just Numbers: The Post-Pandemic Era CFO

5 mins read

Fabian Tan | 15 August 2022

The changing role of CFOs in the post-pandemic landscape by Fabian Tan, Principal of Heidrick & Struggles’ Singapore Office.

2022 has not been a smooth ride. Even as many countries have started to live with COVID, the recent Russia-Ukraine war, oil and gas price surge and market volatility continues to make the waters turbulent – pushing the finance function to innovate further. 

In a 2020 Heidrick & Struggles survey  done in the United States of America, two-thirds of CFOs surveyed commented that new responsibilities such as real estate evaluation, managing new reporting requirements and cost optimization have been added into their teams’ work scope since the beginning of the pandemic. This elevated role requires CFOs to work with CEOs in a more strategic and transformational manner, by ironing out contingencies, providing accurate and timely information to internal and external stakeholders, and most importantly, assuming responsibility for business change—be it digital transformation, Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) or driving Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) initiatives. 

How else has the role of the CFO changed in these uncertain times?

1. Emerging As Empathetic Leaders And Communicators

The market now sees an increased anxiety among stakeholders like board members, investors, and employees who have concerns about the resilience and future growth of organizations. Consequently, finance leaders have had to emerge as empathetic leaders and communicators to tide over crises.  The job is no longer simply about “the numbers” – instead, CFOs now need to think about areas like people management and involvement in co-creating purpose for the business. This also involves working more closely than ever with the rest of the executive team and customers, which necessitates a higher degree of empathy and better communication skills in order to inspire and influence teams.

2. Increasing Expectation For Finance Leaders To Play A Bigger Role In Business

The pandemic has led to a big push in digital transformation, and finance departments now have access to more accurate and insightful information than ever before, which they can analyze and contextualize. With greater-than-ever access to data-driven insights, CFOs gain a strong understanding into where capital allocation is best used, which can then be aligned with strategic priorities for the business. With that knowledge, finance leaders must also be able to communicate this to other C-suite executives and stakeholders and convince them to buy in to new strategies and shift the status quo of business performance.

Companies like P&G and Jardines are providing their finance talent with opportunities outside of the functional space to gain a deeper appreciation on different pillars of the business and to build rapport with the other functions. This would make them more-rounded executives when they eventually come back to finance to take on leadership roles.

3. Strengthened Forecasting Abilities

Planning for unforeseen circumstances has become crucial for organizational resilience and resource allocation; but accurate forecasting is difficult in the current times. One interesting trend we are seeing is the incorporation of dynamic forecasting which is the use of real-time data updated on a rolling monthly basis. More software companies are offering this feature which provides more agility in budgeting and planning, shifting away from the traditional approach of completing this task on an annual basis and depending on manual spreadsheets. For this model to work, the company needs to have a robust demand and sales forecasting team to input accurate data into the financial models. An increasing number of FMCG companies are adopting this new way of forecasting, which has been incredibly helpful considering the recent supply chain disruptions.

4. Talent Hunting Beyond The Conventional Pool 

With the evolving finance needs, talent concerns remain top of mind of CFOs. To broaden the pool and increase the pipeline of finance executives coming through the ranks, finance functions are increasingly looking to hire graduates from computer science or related backgrounds to further augment their current capabilities. Some CFOs believe that finance and accounting can be taught on-the-job, but the ability to come up with AI-driven, digital solutions would be beneficial for efficiency, accuracy, and predictability.

How the role of CFO will continue to evolve?

The expectations of stewardship, custodianship, and governance will continue to be the bedrock of the role of CFOs. Finance leaders are expected to optimize processes to ensure stronger integrity in the numbers, particularly when cybersecurity threats and fraud risks continue to grow in the region and are still high in specific APAC markets. However, additional skillsets are needed from CFOs as we continue to navigate the changing market conditions. 

1. Mounting Importance Of Digital Capabilities

In terms of digital capabilities, Heidrick & Struggles analysis shows that finance leaders fall towards the low end in the characteristics that have been identified as being important to digital dexterity. Finance leaders may therefore look to become more curious and open-minded, experimental, and adopt new technologies to work more efficiently and drive better outcomes. CFOs will play a key role in pushing the digital agenda forward, developing the right formula to balance the upfront cost, ROI, and achieve buy-in from stakeholders.

2. Linking ESG With Finance And Business Strategy

There is an increasing number of CFOs taking more proactive roles in the ESG agenda within organizations, with some having ESG divisions directly under their remit. As it is difficult to quantify the true impact of these programs, linking ESG initiatives to the bottom line is complex, especially when topics spanning energy transition, decarbonization, green financing, climate disclosure and social impact are relatively new issues which CFOs have to grapple with. Understanding ESG trends and reporting requirements will help CFOs make better decisions on risk-management, employee engagement, resource allocation and investor relations, which will ultimately lead to business impact. 

3. Diverse And Agile Leaders

To operate in the VUCA environment, CFOs today need to be agile to tide over the tough times and be in the best position to thrive in future. Heidrick & Struggles has found that agility, which is highly crucial for CFOs today, requires four skills: adaptability, resilience, learning, and foresight.

Apart from agility, having access to varied skill sets, knowledge, and experience are other important aspects. While it may be more comfortable to hire executives from the same industry, this could perpetuate group-think and a conventional approach to problem-solving. With digitalization and the pandemic creating new levels of uncertainty and risks, a wealth of perspectives across gender, generation, experience, ethnicities, and more can strengthen the function’s resilience amid the fluctuating circumstances. Filling the CFO role with diverse talent will bring unique perspectives on risk management, accounting best practices, budgeting, tax etc., which in turn, builds a more robust and innovative finance organization.  

In the post-pandemic world, CFOs continue to be under pressure to juggle new hats in their increasingly multifaceted position. Above all, qualities that are pivotal to succeeding in the role include digital capabilities and dexterity, agility, and foresight. In succession planning for an organization’s next CFO, companies should also consider candidates from diverse industries and backgrounds. The CFO that best succeeds in the post-pandemic era might not be the conventional profiles, but rather ones who can bring new and innovative ways to transform the function.    

Latest from Blog