The pressure on a CFO’s time and resources has never been greater. To be successful, they need to know what makes the business tick, while also being creative and bold in how they approach investing in and backing growth.

“The times when you could just focus on data and reporting are long gone,” said Natasja Laheij, Senior Finance Director for EMEA at Google. “It’s now about really understanding the business processes and your customers, having that end-to-end view and approaching it from a more analytical, numeric background."

Natasja, who was speaking at Criticaleye’s CFO Retreat 2019, held in association with Capita, Antworks, Brewin Dolphin and E.ON UK, added: “Embracing change is a given. The moment you start fighting it, that’s going to be a lost battle. You need to be as flexible as possible in terms of how you set up your business. Data plays a key role but that’s just a starting point."

At last year’s CFO Retreat, 84 percent of attendees said they were grappling with business model disruption, but only 8 percent had full confidence in the leadership team to navigate those changes successfully. Andrew Minton, Managing Director at Criticaleye, said: “Those figures show there is clearly an issue and that unless businesses get to grips with disruption they will suffer.

“Companies need to be responsive to change. If they can’t adapt to new stakeholder demands, then they will disappear."

With CEOs looking to their CFOs to help drive innovation and transformation, the finance function may be called on to make difficult choices that will affect many throughout the business. This is where leaders must aim to win the backing and support from different departments and teams.

Sree Kurdikar, CFO for UK & Ireland at Bayer, said: "With any change initiative, to be successful you need organisational commitment and employee engagement. Define the vision of why the change is needed, communicate from the beginning and be transparent so you can navigate the changes together, building trust.

"The expectation of leaders is that they will take on accountability for the change in their respective areas, define the business benefits and impacts, be sensitive to employees impacted directly and indirectly by the change and incorporate regular feedback from stakeholders."

Fabian Wong, Chief Creative Officer at Capita Consulting, emphasised the importance of executives being clear about what they mean by disruption. For example, it shouldn’t be confused with a straightforward growth initiative to increase market share. He explained: “I would use the word disruption with caution. You need to think about whether you are simply extending some of your products or services from your core business, or if you are doing something radical and different in the marketplace."

It’s up to the CFO to show agility and be fleet of foot when thinking about retaining a competitive advantage. Part of this is knowing when it’s time to stop an initiative because it’s not right for a customer or the overall business strategy.

Natasja said: “You need a lot of flexibility. Take quick pulse checks in terms of what results are; what you are expecting to deliver at any given time but also being able to make the hard call when it’s not happening.

“That might disappoint a number of people but that is what it is – take the learning from that as well.” 
David Hobbs, Senior Editor, Criticaleye

Next Week’s Community Update will feature a look back at the leadership issues that members have faced during 2019.