The Value of Empathy for CFOs

09/25/2023 06:56:21 +0000

As some of you know, I'm in Tonga for a couple of weeks – the first time since the beginning of the pandemic and the tragic volcano eruption and resulting tsunami earlier this year. On Wednesday morning I had the very good fortune of hosting a CFOs Connect breakfast event for 15 of the country's top finance leaders in Nuku'alofa, Tonga.
CFOs are the every country

As someone who spends all day every day thinking of Chief Financial Officers – their challenges, opportunities, skills etc, getting ready for this event – and the event itself – was one giant lesson on empathy for me.

I write a lot on the importance of preparation and planning when it comes to putting yourself, your team or your business in the best position for success. So when it came to preparing for this event, my team and I took the same approach.

But things don't work quite the same in Tonga. Have you ever heard of 'island time'?

When I spoke with the Marcellina Wolfgramm, Country Head of Bank of South Pacific - who graciously partnered with me to deliver the event - and shared with her that the CFOs Connect events were based on the premise of conversation, not presentation, she warned me – CFOs in Tonga don't really like to share and open up.

But hang on, a little voice in my head told me, don't I know best? Haven't I facilitated dozens of events for CFOs and finance leaders encompassing thousands of people – surely, I know how do this?

I was having a vent to my mum, and she got frustrated at me. 'Alena', she said. 'Quit it. You just need to understand that things are different here'.

Being practically scolded by my mum for a work-related issue was exactly the proverbial slap I needed to remind me to approach this event, and all the esteemed people involved, with an enormous amount of empathy.

I might work with CFOs every day, perform research to deliver insights and develop tools and techniques to help them achieve success without limits.

But I don't know their world.

I haven't walked in their shoes.

I needed to slow down and recalibrate my expectations and plans with the utmost respect and empathy.

The shadow of motivation is frustration

It goes without saying that motivation and drive are exceptional leadership attributes of a CFO. It's one of the things I love and respect most about the CFOs and finance leadership teams I work with – their overt passion and desire to help their businesses and people.

And I've often said that CFOs are 'Chief Future Officers' of their business with their ability to see what's coming in the future using their access to forecasts coupled with their commercial acumen.

When you can see the future and you're highly driven to get good outcomes for the people you work with, I'm not sure about you, but I see that it's easy to get carried away with an idea or an action and can inadvertently forget about the importance of bringing people on the journey with you.

So when you talk to stakeholders it can feel like you're coming down to earth with a massive 'thud' when they don't buy-in.

CFOs Connect in Tonga – Insights and learnings

Seeing the remnants of the tsunami are humbling, but it is impossible for me to know how hard it is to rebuild a country from that sort of devastation. The image on the left is where one of the island's few resorts stood.

Ultimately, preparing for this event required me to have a 'beginners mind' – a Zen Buddhism concept that refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.

I was reminded that I need to earn the right to educate someone – being an expert isn't enough. I think this is what we need to get better at when it comes to the ecosystem of stakeholders we work with.

When we need to talk with them, we need to:
  • Know our place: a title doesn't give you license to unilaterally create change in others' worlds.
  • Come with a curious mind: take every interaction as an opportunity to learn something you didn't previously.
  • Balance urgency and humility: you might have the best intentions, but don't confuse intention to be the same as impact.

When we do this work with our CFOs, we use The Stakeholder Insight Framework™ which gives them the tools and techniques to take a stakeholder-centric approach to their leadership and in doing so, a far more effective way to successfully demonstrate courageous influence in their businesses. We use The Guide to Gravitas™ which equips them to show up with an authentic personal brand and a powerful presence so that when they talk, people listen. And we use The Financial Translation Method™ to ensure we communicate with cut-through.

A mindset of gratitude

The event was a resounding success and the start of my business being able to work with, support and give back to the Tongan community on a more regular basis.

As I'd hoped and planned for, the CFOs did open up, share their challenges and experiences and demonstrate vulnerability around their peers. Just as our Australian and New Zealand CFOs Connect community members, they highly valued the ability to have the safe space to share this with their peers and learn from each other.

But I was reminded that it was not my right to expect this without having walked in their shoes and that, in fact, an attitude of gratitude for the group investing their precious time in my event was the way to go.

Where do you want to have more influence?
Where would you benefit from slowing down?
How do you need to shift your mindset to achieve greater success?

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]
Grab your copy of Alena's CFO of the Future!

This is the trusted guide for CFOs to lead with IMPACT and create VALUE.

Grab your copy of Alena's Meaning Matters!

It's time for women in finance to find power in their purpose!

 ⓒ 2023




Let's Connect
Acknowledgement of Country

We acknowledge the Darkinjung people, the traditional custodians of the land on which we live and work and pay our respects to the Elders both past, present & emerging.