Does your CEO really trust you? (7 attributes CFOs must exemplify)

03/01/2024 13:30:00 +0800

The relationship between an organisation's CEO and CFO is one of the most sacred and critical. Get that partnership right alongside a purposeful vision and the business has the key ingredients for sustainable success.

I say in my book 'CFO of the future' that "the CFO is the voice of reason next to the CEO's voice of vision". By this, I mean that the CFO needs to position themselves as the 2IC to the CEO, such that the CFO is more than the role of the Chief Financial Officer, but really the trusted confidante and guide. For this level of corporate intimacy and reliance, the CEO must have absolute trust and faith that the CFO has their back.

I'd like to share with you the 7 attributes that CFOs must exemplify for their CEO to be able to have this level of implicit trust in their CFO.

1. Competency and capability: the CFO needs to have the skillset and toolset to fulfil the role of the 'modern' CFO. Your CEO needs to have complete confidence that 'the job' will get done. Because if not, you will find your CEO leaving you out of conversations so that you can focus on performing your core role.
2. Credibility: As the CFO you cast a long shadow and have been around the block a few times. You have a reputation, whether you like it or not. CEOs want observable evidence that their CFO has credibility in the market, with Boards, and even within the industry.
3. Consistency: think about someone who you know that is different one day to the next. Do you approach them frequently with ease, or do you take half a moment to ask yourself whether they're the right person to talk with. This 'half a moment' can be enough to plant the seed of doubt and thus quickly erode trust between you and your CEO.
4. Authenticity: Are you truly showing up as yourself? Are you using your voice to express yourself in the way you want to be fully expressed? If you have #1-3 above covered, then if you haven't already, this is the time to embrace your uniqueness and bring your authenticity into everything you do. As Maya Angelou famously said, "...people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." This level of trust we're talking about between you and your CEO transcends words and actions. It's about how you make your CEO feel.
5. Responsibility: At this level, you must recognise that you have a responsibility to use your voice as a force for good. Your CEO needs to be confident that you will ask the tough question, make the tough decision and conversely speak up to inspire, make visionary decisions and praise loudly. You must put yourself out there to show your CEO that you're willing and capable of 'being out there' shoulder to shoulder with them.
6. Empathy: The widely accepted definition of empathy is that it's about walking in someone else's shoes. A CFO must have deep empathy for their CEO. They must be incredibly discerning and not only do the work as a CFO, but ask the question 'what would my CEO think about this?'. In order to create this sacred relationship, CFOs need to make it about their CEO, not themselves...warts and all.

As you can see, there is a natural order of attributes 1-6. The effect of them compounds and it's what happens at step 7 that really galvanises the relationship.

7. Safety: This is really what is at the core of an unshakeable CEO/CFO partnership. The CFO must make their CEO feel truly safe. The CEO's role is to be visionary about when to bring new products to market, when to shift markets...with the confidence of knowing the CFO will make sure it happens. The CEO must know what to expect from their CFO and they must have the confidence that it will come from the lens of keeping the CEO safe. When a CEO knows what to expect from their CFO – even, and especially when – they are expecting an argument, there will be nothing that will hold them back from bringing their CFO in as the voice of reason to their voice of vision.

The impact of these characteristics in numbers

It would be remiss of me to not acknowledge the Taylor Swift phenomena that has roared through Australia in the past month. Like her or not, she exemplifies all 7 of these characteristics. And it's made her wildly successful, to the point where the term 'Swiftonomics' has been coined to refer to her impact on local economies she tours.

Revenue from Taylor Swift's Australian shows
How Taylor Swift exemplifies these attributes with great success:

1. Competency and capability: the woman is talented. We've known this since she was a young country singer...even if we don't like country music.
2. Credibility: She's won major music awards including 12 Grammy Awards and her fan base of Swifties is said to be in the 100 million range.
3. Consistency: Swift has released 14 albums at the mere age of 34, and around 200 songs. She shows up. She does the work.
4. Authenticity: You don't need to like Taylor Swift to know she meets #1-3 above. But even if you choose to not like her, I dare say you have respect for her. And guess what? People resonate with her and the stories she tells through her songs. Her fan base follows her for being her.
5. Responsibility: Swift has grown to learn the power of her popularity and as a result, the impact of her voice. She knows she has a responsibility to use her voice as a force for good.
6. Empathy: I went to the concert this week and I must admit, I wondered what to expect, given all the hype. I had the best time. It felt like she gave it all on the stage so that her audience could have the time of their lives. Nothing about that concert felt like it was anything other than about me and my 83,000 new best friends. Taylor Swift made us feel like we were the most important humans in the world. She was there for us.
7. Safety: Taylor Swift can tour for 2 years and sell out stadiums for reasons #1-6 above. For bookers and event organisers, she's a safe bet. As the first act to perform 4 nights in a row at Accor, those organisers would have had a pretty high level of certainty that it was going to pay off. And looking at the table above, I dare say they were right.

As Stephen Covey says, 'nothing is as fast as the speed of trust', but CFOs need to understand that when we're talking about the partnership between a CEO and CFO trust takes on an additional level of meaning and importance.

In this fast paced world full of distraction and uncertainty, CFOs need to be intentional about curating this trust by exemplifying the 7 attributes above.

How much would your CEO say they 'experience' these attributes from you?
Which one attribute could use improvement?
How safe does your CEO feel with you?

Love to hear your thoughts...

Author: Alena Bennett

Alena works with leaders and their teams to connect technical and leadership skills so they can deliver to deadline without killing their people.
She is a mentor, trainer, facilitator and coach. Contact her today on [email protected].
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