From Spreadsheets to Strategies: The Evolution of the Modern CFO

Finance | Insight | Published 16. Dec. 16

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The CFO role is undergoing a massive transformation. Five years ago, the task was simple; oversee the company’s finances – from budgeting and bookkeeping to filing reports and taking care of compliance. Nowadays, it’s as if they’ve become the shadow or twin of the CEOs.

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CFOs Five Years Ago

Traditional CFOs are easy to caricature, they’re the “number crunchers,” “bean counters,” “pencil necks,” and the list goes on. But these stereotypical CFOs are now extinct, thanks to digitization. Today’s modern CFOs are well-rounded, involved, and more personable, showing no signs of the old tight-wad occupying the miserable office at the end of the hall at all.

Josef Eitzenberger, Head of Group Controlling at Wiener Stadtwerke Holding AG puts it this way, “The role of the finance function has been transformed from a nit-picker and the number cruncher to more of a strategic partner, a challenger, a consultant, and an aspiring partner for the channel management and also the CEO.”

The CFO as a Business Partner and Leader

According to Toljan Mirela, Coca-Cola HBC Austria’s CFO, the finance head must shed the numbers guy image and instead be, “First of all a business person. The one who understands what is really happening in the markets, a visionary, a co-driver or a cockpit driver to the CEO on how to move the business forward.” Mirela further adds that in line with being a business partner, the CFO must be an influencer and a visionary – the very person that can translate “technical steps in the business.” She also listed three abilities that modern CFOs must possess:

  • Insight. The ability to really understand and put in a context the overall strategic priorities that the company is trying to achieve.
  • Salesmanship. The ability to sell this to different parties and counter parts.
  • Advanced Listening Skills. The ability to get up-close to every part of the business.

When it comes to leadership, for Canon Oy’s Finance Director Riikka Vahter,  it’s all about the attitude. As what’s required of finance professionals has drastically changed in just a short time, current CFOs might not yet have the skills needed by the businesses today, but  Vahter says, “The attitude makes the biggest difference, because even if you don’t have the skills yet, but have the willingness to develop yourself continuously, it will make a difference.” He further adds, “The more senior you are in your role, the more you should be able to really thrive in the business together with the business leaders.”

The CFO as a Strategist and Value-Creator

CFOs must be savvy strategists according to Czerny Reinhard, CFO of IBM Austria, “the most important and the biggest challenge for the CFO of the future is to be able to assess the financial viability of new business models and deploy them quickly into the markets, and also withdraw them from the market, eventually, if not successful.”

As for Martti Ala-Härkönen, CFO of Cramo Oyj, “Today’s CFOs must focus on strategic value creation and not on budget alone, if the issue is savings. He adds that CFOs must now be a “Forecaster, a coach, a negotiator, and a true partner in all business decisions.” Ala-Härkönen’s also pushing for more CFO involvement in customer relations and customer value creation.


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