The most important qualities for the modern CFO

Vaco Qualities of a Modern CFO Graphic

The CFO of the past ‒ a spreadsheet-driven, number-crunching accounting whiz ‒ is no more. Now, the CFO role has evolved into a more dynamic and complete leader. Today’s CFO should be motivational, inspirational and strategic, deft in their use of technology to understand huge swaths of data, and able to chart a forward path for their organizations while keeping their eye on the present and the future.

It sounds like a tall order, but in reality, these new expectations open a world of opportunities for CFOs who want to excel, lead, and ultimately, ascend to the next level. 

For a recent white paper, Focus Search Partners, a Vaco Company, collaborated with three veteran board members and accomplished C-level leaders to get their takes on what makes a CFO truly successful in today’s corporate structure. According to these board veterans, there are a few key skills and qualities a modern CFO needs in order to level up. 

Let’s examine some of the most important skills and qualities of modern CFOs, according to experienced, discerning former chief financial officers and boardroom veterans. 

Soft skills

For CFOs, the interview process is no longer just about talking numbers and reading from a financial report. Board members are looking for candidates who can become key ambassadors for the company, be strong mentors to team members, and convey credibility to both internal and external stakeholders. 

As a result, CFO interviews are more heavily skewed towards evaluating a candidate’s soft skills. Finance and operations expert Larry Hagenbuch, who currently serves on three company boards, calls this the “fit factor.” Being a good “fit” encompasses how a CFO candidate will mesh with the CEO, the rest of the executive team, the current members of the finance culture, and the wider corporate culture as a whole. 

According to our board member veterans, the most important soft skills for a modern CFO to have include storytelling, humility, team building, and integrity. 

Storytelling

The ability to be a compelling storyteller was referenced by our boardroom veterans as the most important soft skill for modern CFOs. And it’s especially important to display great storytelling during interviews. 

One way board members evaluate a CFO candidate’s storytelling ability is by examining how the candidate handles their own narrative during the interview process. 

How can you display your storytelling skills during a CFO interview?

  • Share examples of personal successes and shortcomings
  • Explain how you would have approached a problem or challenge differently
  • Provide detailed examples of your industry knowledge and business acumen
  • Elaborate on how your colleagues contributed to your past successes
  • Demonstrate a growth mindset by including examples of growth pursuit and forward-thinking

Some things to avoid? Taking full credit for a project that other team members were involved in, being overly focused on the technical aspects of financial leadership, and being reticent to expand on career missteps, just to name a few. 

Take a deeper dive into how modern CFOs can effortlessly demonstrate their storytelling skills by downloading Focus Search Partners’ complete eBook today.

Team Building

According to our boardroom veterans, team building is another soft skill that is critical to the success and growth of modern CFOs. 

In today’s business landscape, the finance division of a company touches multiple departments and business areas on a regular basis. And CFOs need to be able to mentor, work collaboratively, and accept feedback—and they have to be able to display a strong track record of team building in interviews. 

All of our boardroom veterans agree: having a team mindset will only grow in importance for CFOs as the business landscape continues to evolve.

Humility

In tandem with team building and storytelling, humility is also essential for CFOs of the future. 

A “me, me, me” attitude in interviews is a red flag, says Richard Rodgers, a healthcare investor who currently sits on five boards. Candidates who exaggerate or overemphasize their accomplishments and refuse to expand on past missteps or challenges can appear to lack humility, and they may not be invited to participate in the next round of interviews. 

Integrity

The CFO is quickly becoming the key ambassador for the business, whether it’s in board meetings or at investor roadshows. As a result, it is vital for CFOs to demonstrate credibility and integrity when discussing financial plans and strategy. 

Demonstrating this integrity starts during the interview process. CFO candidates should be willing to be transparent and honest in their interviews, while still projecting knowledge, expertise, and trustworthiness. 

What are some of the top qualities of today’s CFOs and how to they compare to CFOs of the past?

Modern CFOs vs CFOs of the past graphic

A pragmatic mindset

There are three types of CFOs, but only one strikes the right balance with the board.

  • There’s the optimistic CFO, who views failures and setbacks as situational or temporary and may overestimate positive outcomes while taking unnecessary risks. 
  • There’s the pessimistic CFO, who thinks negatively and expects the worst, leading to a dampened appetite for seizing great opportunities. 
  • And finally, there’s the pragmatic CFO, the business leader who mixes moderate optimism with a dose of pessimism to maintain a balanced perspective. 

The pragmatic CFO strikes a happy medium between optimism and pessimism, and boards rely on that balance to better assess opportunities and make strategic decisions. This balance allows the pragmatic CFO to be a key player in building resilience while achieving important goals. 

As the role of the CFO continues to change over time, it’s important for forward-thinking finance leaders to display a balanced mindset and approach, especially in interviews. 

Embrace of data and digital

If CFOs are today’s true business storytellers, big data is their primary source material. The CFOs of the past relied on manual processes to cull, report, and analyze data, and it limited their ability to glean insights from their systems and present intuitive solutions to their boards. 

Gayle Crowell, a veteran CEO and current director of five different boards, emphasizes how important it is for modern CFOs to embrace digital finance tools embedded with artificial intelligence. 

Being skilled in using these tools, Crowell says, allows CFOs to unlock the true power of data, identify real-time business situations, proactively translate the numbers for the board, and present preemptive strategies. 

At the end of the day, boards don’t want to have to ask their CFOs about various scenarios; they expect these leaders to proactively examine and analyze data, and be able to present a point of view that is grounded in facts rather than speculation. And this is impossible to do, Crowell says, without financial modeling that uses AI. 

Wrapping up

Today’s CFOs are facing a constantly changing landscape, where the finance function is becoming intertwined with various other business functions. For CFOs who have their eyes on the future, it’s important to have a skill set that aligns with these changing boundaries and expectations.

Thank you to our outstanding board experts for collaborating with us on this content: Gayle Crowell, Larry Hagenbuch, and Richard Rogers. 

Want more insights on becoming a modern CFO? Read the full eBook from Focus Search Partners, a Vaco Company, today. 

If you’re ready, so are we

Are you a CFO searching for expert resources for your personal and professional growth? Join our CFO community, the Focus Forum, for exclusive content and invitations to private events. Contact us today to learn more, or let Focus Search Partners, a Vaco Company, help you make your mark as a CFO in this new era of CFO leadership and ingenuity. We build teams that grow companies, and together, we can create new career opportunities for your professional growth and advancement.

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