The Four Faces of the CFO

Following the Path to “Catalyst” Requires a Clear Strategic Vision


Some leaders are born, some leaders are made, and others — well, they haven’t got the time to categorize their own transformation. They just know what needs to happen.

Such is the case with modern-day CFOs, who may have begun corporate life as Clark Kent, but are now progressing toward more closely resembling the mild-mannered reporter’s high-flying alter ego. Unlike Superman, however, finance executives aren’t rescuing trapped strangers from the threat of oncoming locomotives. Instead, they are applying their financial muscle to not just ensuring that the business protects its vital assets, but to also shaping a strategic direction that will drive long-term performance.

It’s often not a natural transformation, nor is it a complete one. CFOs don’t have the luxury of shedding their existing responsibilities; the company’s core finance tasks remain as vital as ever. But they must also find a way to transcend their number-crunching origins, rising to meet company-wide concerns. Their increased clout, fueled by better forecasting, improved risk mitigation and actionable business insight, requires that they play leadership roles, driving the urgent need for change across the entire enterprise.

To successfully fulfill their roles as companywide catalysts, finance executives need to elevate their thinking, constructing a solid strategic context from which they can make decisions about where best to investment for growth and how to effectively align with other senior executives to drive and execute corporate strategy. From process improvements to innovation initiatives, CFOs must discipline themselves to scrutinize every activity through the lens of what will add value to the company. It’s up to them to look for innovative methods for measuring progress and for providing data that will support management decision-making.

Executing such initiatives represents a departure from the other roles that CFOs occupy. As “stewards,” CFOs focus on managing risk, overseeing accounting practices and preserving assets; as “operators,” they take responsibility for maintaining an effective and efficient finance function; and as “strategists” they frame the plans and align the resources that will drive future performance. In their guise as “catalysts,” however, CFOs are much less strictly analytical; they are leaders who actively work to push the company to reach a higher level of performance.

The obstacles to providing such leadership are plentiful, ranging from the volatility in customer behavior that routinely upends priorities to the growing complexity that can obscure visibility into corporate performance. But as they demonstrate their capabilities across a range of strategic areas, CFOs have earned themselves a platform from which to lead the charge toward transformation. With a capable team around them, they can focus their abilities on bulking up the leadership tools they have already flexed, sharing insights and overcoming organizational resistance. By upgrading technology and nurturing partnerships with other members of the management team, they can move beyond their supporting role of aligning finance processes with corporate strategy.

As strategic thinkers—with the ability to focus on delivering results—finance executives may not rank with superheroes. Still, they are increasingly valuable. With their broad perspective and their capability to engage in enterprise-wide transformation projects, there’s no telling how many times a CFO-turned-catalyst may rescue the company from making mistakes.


Four Faces of the CFO Framework, Deloitte LLP’s CFO Program

Strategist CFO: Four strategic orientations for engaging in the strategy process,” CFO Insights, Deloitte LLP’s CFO Program


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