Are you an effective communicator? Would your CEO, board, cross-functional partners, and others agree?
CFOs, deservedly so or not, are often perceived as having poor communication skills. This reputation, considering the traditional CFO’s education, personality, and career assignments, is not surprising.
We often concentrated our studies on highly technical accounting, finance, and related topics in college. We kicked off our careers in public accounting, then transitioned into the industry, often into internal audit or controllership roles. Due to the nature of our work, we buried ourselves in the numbers, closing the books, preparing analyses, and issuing financial reports. We were expected to be hardworking, no-nonsense professionals with strong technical skills. In college and earlier in our careers, communication skills were just not the priority. But is this reputation fair?
There are, of course, finance and accounting professionals who are more comfortable hiding in their offices crunching the numbers than interacting with their cross-functional peers. But successful CFOs have always had strong communication skills. Whether engaging in one-on-one conversations with our team, sparring with our CEO and cross-functional partners, or delivering a critical presentation to the board or at a conference, being able to communicate effectively is essential to our survival.
Considering our success, even survival depends on being able to clearly convey our thoughts and insights, the following are CFO strategies to become more effective communicators, thereby breaking the stereotype.
CFOs, of course, need strong technical and analytical skills. Your ability to solve problems, provide meaningful insights, and facilitate more effective decision-making, though, requires a full understanding of the business, including internal operations, vendors, customers, competitors, and industry.
To build general business acumen, leverage your natural curiosity and inquisitive nature. Go on customer visits with the business development team. Visit your manufacturing locations and walk the production line. Participate in operational reviews. Understand the role and challenges of each department and function. Finally, consider pursuing the Certified Management Accountant (CMA), Certified in Strategy & Competitive Analysis (CSCA), and/or other relevant certifications to underscore your credibility.
Business partnership naturally requires communication. Cross-functional partners are more likely to pull you into relevant discussions as well as consider your advice and respond to your requests to the extent you have established personal relationships built on trust.
To do so, ensure your onboarding in a new role includes meet-and-greets with all key stakeholders. Then deepen these relationships over coffee, lunch, and other touchpoints. Offer your team’s support, proactively identifying challenges partners are facing and ways your team can be part of the solution. Finally, periodically ask for feedback on your team’s performance (what’s working and what is not) and respond accordingly.
CFOs are uniquely positioned to see the bigger picture. We understand the ins and outs of our companies and can map the best paths to success. As such, CEOs and cross-functional partners have high expectations when you engage in the discussion, so do your homework and adequately prepare for important meetings.
Think through your key message and desired takeaways. Brainstorm and prepare for anticipated questions. Create talking points. Practice your remarks. Do a dry run. In short, know your stuff!
CEOs and cross-functional partners are looking for us to take on a greater role in defining business strategy, identifying and managing risk, and generally driving the business forward. They appreciate our ability to prepare relevant analyses and create ‘what if’ scenarios. They value our input.
Whether the team is discussing long-term strategies, capital investment opportunities, or day-to-day operational challenges, though, you need to be at the table to influence and participate in making critical business decisions. In short, you need to be there.
CFOs must be able to engage in courageous discussions and be willing to challenge the status quo. At times, you may be the only voice in the room challenging the group consensus, so you need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
As finance executive for Campbell Soup’s largest supply chain operation in Northwest Ohio, we hosted numerous dignitaries and other visitors. They often asked how much product we made. To give perspective, we noted that, if we lined end-to-end all the products manufactured during a typical day, the line would stretch from Toledo, Ohio, to Dallas, Texas.
In short, we produced a lot of soup! When conveying a message, whether, in a conversation or a major presentation, you want it to stick. By painting a picture with your words, leveraging imagery, emotion, analogies, metaphors, humor, and the other ingredients of storytelling, you are more likely to succeed.
Whether you are engaging with others in a team meeting or as the keynote speaker for a conference, it’s important to be true to yourself. For example, if you have a reserved personality by nature, you should strive to smile and make eye contact during the presentation. But if you present yourself as a bubbly, highly expressive extrovert, you’re likely to come across as insincere or downright silly. The audience will see right through you, so be authentic.
Building effective communication skills is a journey. In the spirit of continuous improvement, we can always get better. Observe others, read about best practices, take a class, or join an education program such as Toastmasters. Then stretch your comfort zone, putting yourself in the spotlight like never before.
During these times of uncertainty, CFOs must take a leading role in bringing structure to the decision-making process, providing CEOs, boards, and cross-functional partners support in clarifying and executing business strategies. Enhance your impact by building your credibility, deepening relationships, knowing your stuff, telling stories, and otherwise becoming a more effective communicator. In short, earn your seat at the table.
Steve McNally, CMA, CPA, is CFO of The PTI (Plastic Technologies Inc.) Group of companies and Chair Emeritus of IMA (Institute of Management Accountants).