Jack McCullough is the founder of the CFO Leadership Council, a professional organization for senior financial leaders. McCullough is a widely-respected public speaker and thought leader who consults with some of today’s preeminent financial executives and innovators. We recently spoke with him about what it takes to thrive as a CFO today and adapt as a CFO for tomorrow.
You write extensively about CFO leadership. What do you think it takes for a CFO to be a great leader?
I had the opportunity to interview 40 of the best CFOs across North America, and I identified several commonalities these elite leaders shared. The best leaders from the world of finance are strategic thinkers, team builders, and proactive communicators, who are able to work cross-functionally. Also, and probably most important, is that they provide ethical leadership; not only in the sense that they maintain high ethics personally, but also by building a climate where ethics are genuinely valued. “Ethics” is not just a buzzword or slogan, but a deep part of a firm’s culture.
Does that involve cultivating new skills, implementing new tools, or embracing new ideas?
Some of the skills are certainly new. Gone are the days when the “best accountant” would become the CFO. To be a CFO is to be on a journey of continuous learning throughout your career. The biggest area of learning is technology, just because the pace of change is so rapid. It is tough for CFOs to keep up with the constant change in technology, but the best ones do, as it gives their companies a strategic advantage.
How does the proliferation of financial data make the CFO’s job easier and harder?
It’s a great question because the proliferation of financial data makes things both easier and harder. On the one hand, more data should lead to better decision making and fewer mistakes. And deployed strategically, it will. However, some CFOs feel like all the data results in analysis paralysis. It actually can prevent decisions from being made in a timely manner, resulting in lost opportunity. One CFO told me that his board made him run 20-something scenarios of the financial plan. Why? Just because you can do something, does not mean you should.
In your conversations with CFOs, do many of them feel like they’re becoming data leaders for the entire organization, at times taking on responsibilities typically reserved for the CIO?
No CFOs have explicitly told me this. The conversations focus more on the partnership between CFO and CIO. Each should be helping the other to be more effective in his or her role.
Do you have any advice for CFOs trying to become more adept with technology?
First of all, congratulations for recognizing the importance of this. Not so long ago, technology was thought of as a way to reduce costs or increase operational efficiency. Now, technology is a true source of sustainable competitive advantage, and CFOs and their teams play a critical role. But the CFO role is very broad, and keeping up with technology is a full-time job. My advice is to develop a great team with intellectual curiosity and passion for your mission and empower them to make changes. And more than a few CFOs have told me to get advice from their kids, who grew up with things we never dreamed of.
How do you picture the CFO role evolving over the next five to ten years?
Well, I was asked this question five and ten years ago, and with hindsight, I missed several things that have happened. So with that said, the role will continue to become more strategic, more cross-functional, and technology will continue to be a competitive advantage. CFOs are increasingly taking on roles formerly performed by CSOs (chief strategy officers) and COOs (chief operating officers), which is unlikely to change. I think what you will find is that controllers in ten years will have taken on 90 percent of the roles that CFOs are performing today, and they will do a great job of it.
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