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Are You a Strategic CFO?

As far as they've come, many senior finance executives still have the nagging feeling that they could be doing more.
Lisa YoonJanuary 11, 2006

Bean counter. Numbers cop. Chief financial officers have long outgrown those stereotypes; today a more appropriate description might be business partner, strategist, first deputy to the CEO.

Yet as far as they’ve come, many senior finance executives still have the nagging feeling that they could be doing more. Dan Chenoweth, a Denver-based business consultant and former finance executive, believes there are several reasons why finance chiefs don’t always play a big enough role at the strategy table:

• First is the lingering self-perception of being the “reporter”; some CFOs don’t view themselves as a partner with the rest of the senior team.

• Another reason is the famous finance-chief personality — reserved, reactive, even passive in the strategic-planning process.

• Finally, says Chenoweth, CFOs still tend to view their ultimate responsibility as fiduciary — saving company funds and reining in spending — rather than taking on the broader role of value creator.

That CFOs have these characteristics and self-perceptions is “an increasingly invalid generalization,” maintains Steve Wasko, chief financial officer of Northbrook, Illinois-based Nanosphere Inc. He points to a shift in management philosophy from a model centered around the chief executive, in which senior managers carried out the CEO’s vision, to today’s increasingly team-oriented approach, in which the CFO and other senior managers help shape the company’s direction and run the show.

Melissa Cruz, CFO of Waltham, Massachusetts-based BladeLogic, takes a more abstract view: “The role of the CFO is about imagining the future with the management team,” she explains, “and then translating that into financial action.”

Chenoweth does agree that there has been a “profound change” in the role of CFOs in recent years, but adds that they could “do more to blow their own horn at the strategy table.”

“Do you still see CFOs with green eyeshades?” says Wasko. “Absolutely. But companies that have such CFOs are at a disadvantage.”