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From number cops to superstars

Shyamal Majumdar | November 07, 2003

An IMA India-American Express survey released last week on how chief financial officers spend their time in office has some interesting revelations: an overwhelming number of them will devote more than 60 per cent of their time on strategic planning by 2006 compared to 48 per cent now and 36 per cent five years ago.

The CFOs said that their workload has increased  about 20 to 50 per cent in the past five years and most of them expect this to double in three years.

Compare these findings to another global survey done a few years ago by CFO Research Services and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.

Over 75 per cent of the senior finance executives surveyed said the rest of the organisation did not view finance as a value-added function, only 39 per cent were convinced that finance consistently influenced decisions that drove shareholder value and 59 per cent identified lack of senior management support as a serious obstacle to faster career growth.

The two surveys clearly show how the once bleary-eyed bean counters are graduating to a new position of power shoulder-to-shoulder with the chief executive officer.

In fact, in a growing number of companies, the CFO's position is regarded as a possible stepping stone to the top job.

The reasons are obvious. Even a few years ago, the CFO's function consisted principally of bookkeeping and accounting as per the regulatory requirements. Apart from the knowledge of accounting, a CFO's main attribute was his trustworthiness.

The function got elevated to financial control later.

But the role changed drastically with the dramatic developments in the financial environment: from accounting analysis and control, the CFO's role evolved into a managerial one of making choices and decisions. Management consultants also say an overwhelming number of CEOs have résumés heavy on sales and marketing experience but light on finance.

That means these CEOs give more finance responsibility to their CFOs, elevating them to superstar status. The other reason for CFOs becoming critical players is acquisitions, which have become critical to growth, making finance even more complicated.

Also, more companies are using head-spinning financial instruments, such as futures contracts and so on. It's easy to understand why CFOs have moved centrestage.

For example, just one of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited finance director Ashok Sinha's many initiatives helped the oil major to save 1 per cent of its Rs 46,000 crore turnover. It's an achievement any CEO would be proud of.

Consultants say the regulatory and corporate governance turmoil the world over represent huge opportunities for the person in the corporate finance hot seat.

Companies are obviously leveraging on the enhanced role of the top finance man in strategy formation by setting up core strategy groups that directly report to the CFO.

Some others have posted members of the "CFO's office" in various divisions.

This creates matrix-like structures where finance professionals would work administratively in various divisions, but have a functional association with the CFO's office. The result: a "finance community of practice" within an organisation.

Companies like GE, for example, have made a policy of encouraging its accounting professionals to assert themselves through special training units designed to instill leadership into a finance team and make those skills transferable across the world.

GE's Financial Management Program recruits right out of college and places its highest potential employees in its corporate audit staff, where they travel among the company's units as independent internal auditors.

This gives them both lessons in independent judgement and an overview of the company's operations.

Other companies, including American Express, Proctor & Gamble and Microsoft have also developed leadership and fast-track career programmes for their finance professionals and swear by them as costly, but ultimately, value-building long-term investments.

But with so much going for him, why is it that the onward and upward trajectory of the CFO role still appears to be quite steep?

Although there are no firm statistics for the number of CFOs who actually move into the CEO role, some estimates put the figure at a maximum 15 to 20 per cent.

The CEO magazine recently surveyed 500 CEOs about what they expect in a CFO.

The results of the survey indicate that CEOs expect their CFOs to have outstanding financial accounting skills, integrity, strong interpersonal skills, understanding of all components of business operations and an ability to transfer his goals and vision into action.

When examining these five key traits, management consultants say it is evident why so few financial professionals make it to the CEO level.

This is because the CEO aspirants also need to have at least four very different set of skills: diplomacy, leadership, delegation and networking abilities.

So the road to the hot seat is not necessarily a natural progression for even a super CFO. What is guaranteed, however, is the position of the "CEO's partner."

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