Bad News Bearers

Why CFOs should learn the fine art of delivering inconvenient truths.
Kate PlourdDecember 1, 2008

It’s never a pleasant task to deliver bad news. Pity finance chiefs, then, who have to perform that role with increasing frequency these days. “I don’t think CEOs realize it, but being open with them can be difficult, and the CFO often gets a ‘shoot the messenger’ kind of treatment,” says one financial executive. Many CFOs will attest that one of their biggest challenges is keeping their CEO happy, and today that challenge is more daunting than ever.

“A CEO doesn’t want any unpleasant surprises from the CFO, and certainly not in this economy,” says Rachelle J. Canter, president of RJC Associates, a career and leadership consulting firm based in San Francisco.

The good news is that C-suite candor is a skill that can be acquired without much difficulty, says Canter, even by the most reticent of CFOs. But it takes time; building an open, trusting relationship with anyone requires a learning curve.

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The first step on that curve is to study how the CEO likes to communicate, says Canter. “Take time to talk to [CEOs] about how they like to get information, how often they like to get information, and what mode of communication they prefer,” she says.

One finance chief of a small Tampa-based company learned early in her 15-year working relationship with her CEO that when it came to bad news, he didn’t want to hear about it until absolutely necessary. “I like to make sure people are warned ahead of time about possible scenarios,” she says, “and he likes to worry about it when it happens.”

A difficult situation for a CFO, to be sure. Yet the finance chief and the company have survived the CEO’s head-in-the-sand approach for many years. “I don’t think he wants me to just drop a problem in his lap, so I make sure that when I go in he knows it’s going to be a serious conversation,” she says. “He eventually learned to trust and respect me. But when there are tough times it’s difficult for me, because I know how he reacts to bad news.”

At the American Society of Radiologic Technologists, director of finance Diana Bunnell had a very different challenge: adjusting to a CEO who doesn’t believe in beating around the bush. “From just observing him I could tell that he really likes to get to the point, so I learned that I have to be entirely honest and lay everything on the table right away.”

That style doesn’t come easily to Bunnell, she admits. Her natural tendency is to hold back and to be careful in how she presents things. Many CFOs, in fact, may be wired that way. “I think [in finance] our inclination is to think about it and analyze the best way of saying something,” she says. “Now when [the CEO] asks me a question, we just start the conversation.”

Candid Culture

Canter reminds finance executives that they don’t have to figure it out alone. For those who question their ability to communicate effectively with their chief executives, it can be very helpful to observe others on the management team who appear to do it well. “Take them out to lunch individually and say, ‘I see you can deliver difficult information well. How exactly do you do that, and what are your tips?’”

Ray Stewart, CFO of Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom, recommends engaging the boss in informal settings to establish a comfort factor. “Your CEO is not your best friend or drinking buddy, but it’s important to have some social events,” he says. Last year, for example, Stewart, his CEO, and six other friends and colleagues traveled to Morocco to climb the Atlas Mountains.

Getting to know each other in a relaxed setting makes it easier to initiate open and frank business conversations at work, contends Stewart, who has been at Belgacom since 1997. “You have to be able to have an open debate, because at the end of the day you have to make a decision that will move you forward.”

Stewart learned in 2000 how a trusting relationship can facilitate precisely the kind of communication that keeps the business on track. At the time, nearly every European telecom company was bidding for government-issued 3G mobile phone technology licenses, but Stewart didn’t see how the investment could pay off. “I couldn’t get the numbers to work,” he says, and since he had already fostered an open relationship with his CEO, it was easier for him to oppose the idea.

Stewart made his case to the CEO in numerous meetings and finally they reached an agreement. Belgacom hedged its risk by bidding for a license in the Netherlands through Dutch company BEN (in which it owned a 70 percent stake at the time), a move that turned out to be a very good deal for Belgacom. While Stewart says that CEOs look to their CFOs for the kind of financial analysis that he delivered, “If all you ever do is go to your CEO with numbers, I don’t think that will work. There has to be a fairly good relationship that goes beyond supplying data” to address broader strategic issues.

Learning how to deliver grim news won’t just improve your relationship with your CEO. It can also promote a more open atmosphere in a finance team and demonstrate to the entire workforce that frank discussion of a company’s challenges needn’t be personal. “You’ve got to practice with everyone,” says Bunnell. “You have to learn how to say what you need to say and say it in such a way that [staffers] know it’s not personal. When you’re confronting a crisis, you can deal with it better and with less stress if you have a culture that’s more candid.”

Kate Plourd is a reporter at CFO.