The future of the CFO role: Predictions from the experts.
Every month, Airbase’s Path to Becoming a CFO series draws an engaged audience to hear top finance leaders discuss their career paths. Listeners connect with the entertaining, often humorous, personal stories and leave with insights from lessons learned that they can apply to their own career journey. As the series unfolds, it’s also become a valuable resource for information about the state of finance leadership and the direction it’s headed, and we’ve even been told that the content has been included in business courses at Stanford.
A frequent topic is how the CFO role will continue to evolve. Consulting firm McKinsey recently released a report on a similar topic, called Mastering change: the new CFO mandate, which asked CFOs and other finance leaders how they see the role changing. The survey’s findings align well with the predictions shared by our Path to Becoming a CFO speakers.
An ever-growing roster of responsibilities.
One of McKinsey’s findings was that the definition of the role is broadening — a trend our speakers expect to continue. Elena Gomez, CFO at Zendesk, noted the wider scope: “Ten years ago, the role of CFO was quite different. It was all about closing the books.” She explained that, “Now, it’s about figuring out the strategic imperatives to drive growth.”
McKinsey pointed to digital strategies and investor relations as two areas where CFOs are playing a much bigger role than in the past, with respondents reporting that 64% of CFOs are now responsible for investor relations. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many guests talk about the importance of continuous learning to build those skillsets in preparation for change. Khozema Shipchandler, CFO at Twilio, spoke of the transition he faced when joining Twilio after many years at GE. He found the biggest learning curve was with investor relations. “There’s a certain language to investor relations that is quite different than regular business language, and you have to learn it.”
Kate Bueker, CFO at Hubspot, summarized what she sees as the overarching goal of the CFO of the future when it comes to responsibilities:
“I think it’s all very much focused on how you can make the operational processes scale with the business.”
That changes the role from someone who balances the books and provides the numbers, to someone who can make strategic decisions that affect every aspect of a company as it grows.
The role of technology in changing the CFO role.
Another dramatic shift noted by McKinsey was the growing use of robotics and artificial intelligence tools, which have more than tripled since a survey they conducted in 2018. Jason Child, CFO at Splunk, feels that trend will continue: “I think the CFO of the future is going to have firm command of not just analysis and data, but also how to think about some of these newer tools, whether it’s robotic process automation or the AI and ML technology that’s sitting on top of things that used to be pretty manual.”
A majority of McKinsey’s respondents said they’ve experienced a positive ROI from technology investments. For many of our speakers, a big part of the ROI from technology investments is in their ability to focus on other things. “This frees up time for more analysis, more of the fun stuff, moving forward. You should be thoughtful of how technology, like AI, can help you,” said Bill Losch, CFO at Okta.
Doing less manual work is a big part of that — a trend that top leaders celebrate. Ned Segal, CFO at Twitter, predicted in his Path to Becoming a CFO chat:
“I hope that as AI and ML make data easier and easier to consume, our jobs will be less manual. Think back to 50 years ago: Inputting data was a very big part of any finance team’s job. And maybe 10 years from now, inputting data will be 0% of our job.”
The increased reliance on technology leads to another imperative for future CFOs: continuing to learn about the rapidly changing world of data science and analytics. “Things are going to be disrupted by technology, and you have to do what you can to stay ahead of that disruption. Be proactive,” advised Sudhanshu Priyadarshi, former CFO at Flexport, Walmart, and PepsiCo.
A seat at the table.
McKinsey’s survey also found an increase in collaboration with CEOs over the last year, particularly in areas like company performance, strategy, and organizational transformation. Jason Warnick, CFO at Robinhood, predicted that the CFOs of the future can continue to earn recognition as key decision-makers — with the right approach.
“I think that if we, as finance leaders, can bring an owner’s mentality and an obsession for customers, with incredibly high standards and a sense of urgency on doing the right thing for the business, then finance can earn a seat at the table.”
Want to read more insights from prominent finance leaders? Download our ebook, The 21st-Century CFO: Career Paths, Finance Teams, and the Future of Strategic Finance.
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