Enemy Number One: The Clock

So much to do and so little time is a common CFO lament, according to a recent survey.
Alix StuartJuly 6, 2011

CFOs face plenty of hindrances in trying to get their job done right: office politics, sluggish staff members, and a never-ending set of new regulations demanding compliance, to name a few. Which one is most vexing, though?

In a recent survey, CFO asked more than 300 finance executives at small and midsize businesses to name the single-biggest obstacle to doing their job in a professional manner. While the question was a free-response one, with no specified choices, it elicited surprisingly similar groups of answers.

A terse “time” was the most-popular answer, with some finance executives elaborating on that theme in detail, such as adding “too many roles.” All told, about one-quarter of the respondents answered along these lines, underscoring how broad and vast the CFO role has become at many companies.

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Feeling overwhelmed is common among executives, but it’s a manageable problem if they’re willing to be more proactive about planning and managing schedules and, in particular, meetings, experts say.

“It’s not about managing time; it’s about managing events,” says William Staats, an executive coach with Peak Performance Plus and a certified instructor for Franklin Covey, a well-known time-management consulting firm.

Staats suggests several practical steps to make meetings more effective, including always having an agenda for them (published ahead of time so people can prepare), always starting meetings on time, and always ending them on time.

Naming meetings can also be very effective. “Is it an update meeting, a forecast meeting, a jump-start meeting, or a clear-the-air meeting? It shouldn’t be a surprise to people when they arrive,” says Staats. Pushing for a decision at a meeting is critical, as well as keeping notes to record that decision and any associated deadlines, so that people can refer back to them as needed.

Outside of meetings, CFOs also need to protect their time to focus on what’s important and most urgent. Using the phrase popularized by Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Staats says, “You’ve got to stay in Q2,” referring to Covey’s four-quadrant diagram that puts activities that are “important” but “not urgent” in the second quadrant. CFOs, in fact, should make a door hanger that says “Q2” that can signal to others they’re not available at certain times, he advises.

Above all, it’s important to acknowledge that in almost any given amount of time, some work will have to fall by the wayside. Finance executives may take some comfort knowing that even the CFO of Franklin Covey, Steve Young, shares that pain.

Young follows many of the steps recommended by his firm’s consultants, planning out each week to address the most-important items and checking in with his staff to help them prioritize weekly as well. Yet, he confesses, “I can’t remember a time in the last 11 years that I could get everything on my plate in a given week done.” Given that, he says, “it’s all the more critical that you focus on the things that are important.”

Better scheduling may not fix all of the problems finance executives named in the survey, however. Many may need to make major IT upgrades or better hires before they can feel more in control.

After time, the second-most-frequent response to the CFO survey, offered by 19% of finance executives, related to IT problems and/or lack of or delayed data, making financial analyses and ensuing decisions more time-consuming than they need to be. Staff issues came in third, with 18% saying their support staff was a problem, either because they were understaffed or because the people they have were unmotivated or incompetent.

Only 9% said the biggest headaches came from misbehaving CEOs (and other executives). Other answers fell into several additional buckets, such as compliance/government demands, corporate-culture problems, and the presence of constant interruptions or “fire-fighting” projects.