Why CEOs Need Their CFOs to Step up and Speak Up

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

One of my clients, Scott, is the CFO of a global professional services firm with three co-CEOs. Can you imagine having to navigate those relationships! We've spent the past 12 months positioning him as their trusted partner, and for eight months now Scott has secured his seat at the table for every executive and board meeting. At first, he would get frustrated with the direction these meetings would take, thinking, 'This is the wrong conversation to be having! You're missing the point. We need to proactively address this problem!'

But over time, as he has become more and more comfortable speaking up, they have come to really value and seek his grounded opinion and his ability to steer them back on track when they focus too heavily on operational issues at the expense of strategic thinking.

So how did Scott move from frustrated spectator to valued guide?

As a CFO, you're in a unique position of intelligence. You can see the writing on the wall before others, and often know exactly what needs to be done. The tricky thing is getting those others on board, and that's where most of the frustration builds. As bestselling author and marketing and leadership expert Seth Godin says, "Honking at traffic serves no purpose other than to express a need to control the uncontrollable." However, the best way to get others to see your point of view, is to see theirs first.

No one needs to say 'no' like a CFO does

One of the consequences of holding the purse strings of the business is that CFOs have to say no or 'slow down' a lot. Unfortunately, there's some perception/brand damage that comes along with that. For the sake of the business you'll often be making judgement calls that are unpopular, so your influence with those around you needs to be high. You have a responsibility to learn how to say no in a way that maintains a relationship.

CFOs provide the critical piece that holds the rest of the team together

Why managing politics is the CFO superpower

CFOs hold together all the parts of the business in large part due to their birds-eye view of the financial performance and position of the organisation. That's a real testament to the value you bring to your organisation and speaks to the way your CEO or board perceives you. It's also a huge challenge, as you are expected to balance the different priorities, pressures – and oftentimes egos
– of many different parties. You need to be able to unify people and move them forwards, instead of sitting by and watching them be dysfunctional.

This is where a solid company vision and the ability to think strategically are key: the vision is a common anchor point to galvanise people around, and strategic thinking helps you be creative in how you connect each party to that vision.

Imagine you're sitting around the executive table watching a stand-off between two colleagues. Each party has a reasonable point and you don't know who is more correct, but you do know that the conversation isn't constructive and, without intervention, will continue to eat up meeting time. Next thing, one of your colleagues is driving forward with an idea. The other colleague isn't saying anything, but you know from their body language that they are disengaged and won't support the initiative. You can see the problems and costs this will entail down the road.

Maybe you don't have to imagine! Many of us have found ourselves in situations like these.

So what do you do? Speak up or shut up?

As CFO, you'll often find yourself balancing these two options or like Scott, 3 options. And all too often, we lean to the side of saying nothing. Maybe you're worried about upsetting the parties involved, or how it might impact your reputation or relationships. Whatever the reason, you decide it's easier to just keep your mouth shut.

But here's the thing.

CEOs want their CFOs to step up and speak up

If you want to be the left hand to the CEO's right, the voice of reason to the CEO's voice of vision, staying silent simply isn't an option. In fact, this is playing into the organisational politics that your CEO needs you to cut through. If you've found yourself staying silent, chances are it's for one of two reasons:

Self-preservation: When we avoid speaking up to protect our own reputation, we are as bad as the people overtly playing politics. Really, it's quite selfish. As the saying goes, 'the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.' A good leader puts their team, not themselves, first.

Not wanting to pick sides: Especially when you're new, you don't want to put people offside – people that you're trying to establish yourself with as a peer and partner. But while you might think you're shutting up for the benefit of the team, what you're really doing is denying them the expertise you were hired to provide.

As CFO, your role is to use your expertise to move the team and the organisation forward. And a big part of that is communicating your ideas and opinions. Like Scott, if you want to be seen as a leader, you need to actively lead – and that means speaking up. To help get past the social barriers to being loud, come from a place of 'we', making it clear that you are putting the team and organisation's interests first. Focusing on the organisation's vision – the highest-order common goal and talking through that perspective is how you diffuse politics, galvanise your executive team (or 3 CEOs!), and unite rather than polarise.

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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 ⓒ 2023




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