Wharton: Vision Quest

CFOs will learn how to hatch strategies for profitable growth.
Jennifer CaplanApril 2, 2002

Numbers, apparently, are no longer enough. More and more, CFOs are being called upon to help sketch out the future direction of their companies’ operations.

Indeed, CEOs are increasingly demanding that finance chiefs be exemplars of the strategic-vision thing. “CFOs today really need to have a nose for business if they want to move up the ladder,” says Peter McLean, head of the CFO executive search division at Spencer Stuart. “Over the last few years, CFOs have essentially had to become COOs without the title.”

Alert to the entrepreneurial zeitgeist in finance, the developers of Wharton’s executive education program are offering a new crash course called “The CFO: Becoming a Strategic Partner” in Philadelphia from July 28 through August 2. “We were getting feedback from finance executives wanting a program that would help them feel more comfortable dealing with the people who are mapping the future of the company,” notes John Percival, a Wharton finance professor and a leader of the program.

Besides lowering CFO anxieties about meetings with CEOs and COOs, Wharton profs are looking to help CFOs transform finance into a “strategic asset” that can produce company profits as well as growth. “Investors and Wall Street these days want to see impressive growth,” says Pat Steele, director of executive education program development at Wharton, “but managers are responsible for making sure it is profitable and increases the overall value of the company.”

In particular, the finance chiefs will meditate on cases in which particularly strong relationships between CEOs and CFOs have spurred company growth. “One example we’ll be using is General Electric and how Jack Welch worked with the finance people at GE to grow the company,” notes Percival, who has taught specialized programs to executives at GE Capital, as well as IBM, Chubb, and other companies.

In its case-study work, the class will chew on how well companies in transition produce real value, as well as information technology’s strategic uses. “It’s bricks-and-mortar retailers who want to become Internet companies; chemical-based pharmaceutical companies that want to become biotechnology companies,” says Percival.

Participants will want to catch up on their sleep before starting the course, which will cost them each $7,650. The intense program uses evenings and lunch hours to pack the equivalent of a much longer program into a five-day experience. Focusing on case studies, the finance executives will work in small groups to sharpen their strategic decision-making and teamwork skills. Then they’ll have a chance to apply what they’ve learned directly to some of their own current business challenges.

Another case will tackle the challenge of whether or not to make what Percival calls a “you-bet-the-company investment decision,” one that can potentially change a company’s overall strategic direction. The class’s decision could, for instance, involve the hypothetical case of whether a company like Boeing should invest a huge amount of money in manufacturing a supersonic passenger jet.

Even though such a move may run counter to the company’s recent strategy, competition and the depressed state of the airline business might dictate “that it should bet the future of the company on the supersonic airplane,” he points out.