Seeking CFOs with Vision — and More

A strategic orientation is important, but so are communication, talent-development and operational acumen.
David McCannJune 3, 2013

The evolution of CFOs from mere numbers-crunchers to strategic visionaries has been going on for decades. But even today most corporate executives think the finance chiefs at their companies would generate more value if they improved their performance in something other than strategic acumen (see chart, below).

Still, among 380 high-ranking executives of all types surveyed by recruiter Korn/Ferry International exclusively on behalf of CFO, a finance leader’s improvement in strategic vision was cited more than twice as often for creating more incremental value than any one of four other core CFO competencies.

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“Certainly the CEO is always going to be the main driver of strategic vision, but the CFO role has also evolved to the point where that vision is a key priority,” says Joshua Wimberley, head of Korn/Ferry’s North America financial officers practice. “There’s also more pressure on the role today from a succession-planning point of view. Most companies want their CFO to at least be a legitimate contender to move up to the CEO’s chair.”

But when hiring a CFO, boards and CEOs weigh communications and talent-development abilities about as heavily as they do strategic vision, Wimberley notes. Clear, succinct and articulate communication is especially vital at the board level, he says. And the finance group is often seen as an important talent developer not only for its own purposes but also for exporting talent into general management, operations and sales roles throughout the company.

The strong weight given to strategic vision in the survey results may reflect the fact that many of the participants are neither CEOs nor CFOs, although Korn/Ferry could not provide a breakdown by their titles.

Most respondents said they based their answer to the question more on the chosen skill’s value to the company than on the CFO being deficient in that area. “The first question puts the onus for improvement directly on the CFO,” Wimberley says. “But I suspect that in answering the second question [the participants] were putting the onus on the entire management team, saying the company needs more strategic vision and long-term thinking.”