Despite innovation and change in the finance function, many chief financial officers are taking on this critical leadership role only to continue running the finance function as is.

By Dzingira Matenga, MD, chief financial officer and enterprise value for Accenture in Africa

The actual value-unlock is achieved by digitising your finance function to free up your teams to focus on improved capital allocation, identification of growth opportunities and innovation (for example, increased customer spend or omnichannel expansion) as well as the application of sustainability techniques to drive down operating costs and reduce your organisation’s carbon footprint.

CFOs also need to take on a more people-driven leadership role – simply focusing on enabling front office teams (for example, the co-developing and financing of improvements in logistics, sales and marketing) will not unlock the vast potential amongst your finance talent.

It is the CFOs responsibility to walk the walk with colleagues to unlock “Finance-for-client” by moving away from historical reporting, and more toward proactive decision making and pre-emptive change initiatives while leading, mentoring and motivating finance staff to have the same mindset.

The good news is our recent Accenture study found that 86% of CFOs have increased the frequency and scope of collaboration across the C-suite. A separate survey conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic revealed that 75% of senior executives said that different business functions like R&D, engineering, production, marketing, operations and sales competed with finance instead of collaborating on digitisation efforts.

This lack of collaboration means duplicated benefits cases, reduced economies of scale when negotiating with suppliers (for example, technology partners or contractors) as well as transformation fatigue due to numerous, unco-ordinated change initiatives.

CFOs are influencers

The CFO is a senior individual who should drive and support the finance staff’s career and talent development.

The CFO needs to get finance staff to think beyond the CA/accounting qualification and start to match and exceed the level of energy and client-centricity that marketing or sales executives possess.

New character traits are needed in finance to move away from the traditional introverted “management by Excel spreadsheet” leadership style, into people-driven business leadership. Putting people, both finance colleagues and clients at the centre is the future for CFOs.

Data remains essential – but what’s more important is how you use it. With all the valuable financial data at your disposal, the CFO needs to start thinking about data that is structured to talk to and support front office teams. Integrating back office and front office data can support real-time decision making on customer experience, customer churn, spend patterns, customer buying behaviours and platform preferences – the list goes on.

With this, the finance function becomes an important influence on the other C-suite role players in unlocking client retention, satisfaction and most importantly customer perception of the organisation, a key long-term driver of investor sentiment.

Sustainability and all organisations’ contributions to reduced carbon emissions is also now a CFO imperative. Simply reporting on ESG performance will not move the dial. CFOs will be central to identifying improvement opportunities (for example, reduced water consumption or reduced reliance on thermal power), support for the financing and prioritisation of green projects, the raising of green bonds as well as being the dissenting leadership voice that pushes operations staff to think differently about sustainability as a social imperative.

Moving finance operations to Cloud is an easy example of how CFOs can contribute to outside-the-box thinking around reductions in overall organisation carbon footprint.

Pivot your staff without wearing them out

Finance staff need to be motivated to think broader than their function. They need to be excited. But with the day-to-day demands on the finance function, it is easy to revert to traditional bean-counting and historical reporting and neglect more innovative working methods.

Finance staff also suffer transformation fatigue and tired and de-motivated staff don’t actively contribute ideas or initiatives to grow their organisation.

How can the CFO unlock the total human potential of the finance function? The answer is re-orientation. The best finance functions directly involve their finance staff in their ongoing finance transformation programs (like POCs, MVPs and initiative rollouts). Improvements in a finance function (for example, automation, better use of data, upgrades to ERP systems) become a part of finance staff’s learning journeys and their career curriculums.

The best finance functions regularly assess their staff capabilities against the latest technology and business partnering requirements and invest in these learning journeys.

However, change is tiring, and it is important that CFOs also allow staff to stabilise and optimise new improvements to their finance function. If you implement a new ERP system, make sure staff utilise its full functionality and are appropriately trained to drive up technology ROI.

Likewise, changes in operating models or ways of working should be given sufficient time to stabilise and should be assessed against the original value case.

Innovation should be part of the finance function culture

Finally, we have seen that transformation fatigue is also the result of company culture as opposed to new ideas or growth.

Therefore, taking the time to build a culture of continuous improvement can make employees more excited about change — rather than reluctant to take it on.

This is particularly successful when staff can see how their actions can directly improve their finance function and the company as a whole.

CFOs should thus be mindful of their teams’ needs and present change in a manner that inspires.

Overall, companies that embrace a culture of continuous improvement are more likely to handle change and transformation well.