Accounting | The Profession

Have your sights set on the CFO’s office? What you need to know

The role of chief financial officer has evolved considerably over the past few years. Here is what to expect from the position today

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Mature businessman delivering a presentation to his colleagues in the boardroom of a modern office.Being the head of finance for an organization requires a solid combo of technical and human skills, along with a good deal of foresight (Getty Images/Hiraman)  

For many CPAs, becoming the chief financial officer of an organization remains their ultimate career goal. But today the position looks very different from the way it did even 10 years ago. Now, more than ever, the decisions made by the CFO are likely to affect the performance of the entire organization.

“Increasingly, CFOs are seen as ‘chief performance officers’, given that their role is so broad,” says Geneviève Provost, CPA, managing partner for Quebec and the national capital region, at Deloitte. “For someone who wants to work with senior management, to be a catalyst for decision making, this is a prime position.”

Naturally, it takes a certain amount of experience to become head of finance, but CPAs have the right set of skills to do so. Here are some of the ways the position has changed—and what you can expect if you want to become a CFO yourself.

TAKING A STRATEGIC VIEW

Traditionally, CFOs have been seen as financial gatekeepers whose role is to support management by focusing on areas such as financial reporting, audits and regulatory compliance. But now they need to deal with many more departments—and interact with many more people—than was previously the case. “CFOs are expected to be strategic partners not only for the organization’s finances, but for all of its departments, including human resources and operations,” explains Provost.

CFOs also need to be comfortable with technology and have an interest in robotization and process automation, says Provost. And they should be well versed in integrated management software packages. “By implementing a more efficient and effective management system, they will be able to implement a strong overall strategy, which will make them key business partners in senior management.”

The role of key business partner is one that Judy Adam, CPA, also plays on a daily basis as the CFO of Fire and Flower, a cannabis company with more than 100 retail outlets across Canada. In CPA Canada’s Foresight: The CPA Podcast episode entitled Roadmap to the modern CFO’s office, Adam points out that the role is about “leveraging your financial expertise to be able to drive value within the organization and really being that strategic business partner to the CEO and the leadership team and also to the board.”

Ingy Sarraf, CPA, CFO and corporate secretary at Guru Organic Energy Drink in Montreal, further underlines the strategic importance of CFOs. “CPAs aiming for such positions need to know more than just the finances of the organization. They need to make connections and inferences that systems don’t naturally make. They need to be creative—to open their minds in order to be seen as architects who understand what others are doing and how important those contributions are.”

Sarraf knows this first hand. She arrived as CFO at Guru in 2017, when the company wanted to go public. She built her team, adjusted processes, overhauled strategic and operational planning, became familiar with sales, and worked with KPMG, lawyers, a PR firm and more. Result: in five years, the company’s annual sales grew to $30 million from $10 million.

MEETING CHALLENGES OF ALL KINDS

As Sarraf can attest, the economic instability of the past couple of years have made it more important than ever to manage finances in an efficient manner.

“Not only do you need to take increases in raw materials into account, but you also need to make room for higher salaries,” she says. “When there are labour shortages, it’s essential to offer competitive salaries in order to keep your staff motivated and committed—or even to keep them at all.”

One important way to attract and retain staff is to invest in internal systems and processes for performing routine financial tasks such as record keeping, compliance, approvals, and so on. “Companies that make these investments are not only more efficient, but are in a stronger position to offer challenging and strategic roles,” says Provost. “And here again, CFOs have a major role to play because they are directly involved in the purchase and implementation of these systems.”

DEVELOPING HUMAN SKILLS

For CFOs as well as other senior leaders, it’s important to build your own brand in an organization. “A CPA has to be authentic and inspiring,” says Sarraf. “Younger people are very sensitive to that. They expect us to have a strong work ethic, to be consistent in our actions even when they are not watching, and to be vulnerable when needed.”

As Sarraf also points out, you need to know yourself first before you can serve as a model for others. “Once you’ve earned your CPA designation, you sometimes forget to think about what you want in your career and what you like,” she says. “That’s crucial, though, as is working with people you admire. That will help you to be your best self.” [See ‘As CPAs we need to think past the numbers in decision making’]

Also, whether you have come to the CFO’s office through internal promotion or an external hiring process, you must take the time to familiarize yourself with current issues in the organization and consult others when needed, Provost says. This means listening to the various teams’ needs, assessing the impact that a decision could have on them, and obtaining feedback from various stakeholders. You must be open-minded and accept that you don’t have all the answers,” she says. “You also need to surround yourself with trusted individuals who can contribute to the success of the team thanks to their leadership, critical thinking or technical skills. This kind of collaborative approach will allow you build high-performing teams.”

Adam also points to the importance of looking for feedback and advice from senior leaders both within and outside the organization. “I’ve had … some amazing mentors in my career who have really guided me and pushed me and encouraged me to take on different roles and continue to broaden my skill set,” she says.

A ROLE THAT WILL CONTINUE TO EVOLVE

While the position of CFO has already changed considerably, that evolution is bound to continue. And thanks to technological advances in areas such as automation, robotics, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, megadata, blockchain and more, the pace is likely to keep accelerating.

“This is an extremely favourable time for CPAs who want to take on financial leadership roles,” says Provost. “The profession is changing and adapting, which makes it very relevant,”  she says. “The CPA designation is really like a passport, a starting point to a multitude of possible careers.” 

As always, the nature of a CFO position will vary according to the size and type of organization you join. “In a large company, a CPA will be close to the top, whereas in an SME, they will be in contact with more teams at various levels and will have to be more versatile,” says Sarraf. “They will need to be able to understand the entire organization, to lend a hand when necessary, while being strategic when needed. It requires an entrepreneurial spirit, but that’s the beauty of the job: it's never humdrum or predictable.”

FOCUS ON THE FUTURE

Learn more about Adam’s journey to becoming CFO and the evolution of the CFO position in CPA Canada’s Foresight: The CPA Podcast, Roadmap to the modern CFO’s office. Find out more about why CFO’s role is even more important during a crisis and why it’s important for them to consider the ethics of the choices they make.

Plus, discover how the CPA profession is evolving to meet new marketplace demands and the types of jobs CPAs will have in the future.