When I entered the accounting profession three decades ago, chief financial officers were most often viewed as overseers of the accounting and treasury functions whose focus was to keep the lid on expenses and explain performance to shareholders and analysts. Today, it is more broadly understood that their role has extended well beyond those functions, confronting a dizzying array of challenges in a rapidly changing business environment.
Those challenges will continue growing in scope and complexity as many companies aggressively pursue growth strategies to stay ahead of the competition. In fact, in a recent KPMG survey of chief executive officers, 84% told us that the CFO is the role that will gain the most importance in the c-suite during the next three years.
In addition looking to CFOs for the traditional responsibility for managing costs and driving operational efficiency, CEOs are relying on them to provide strategic direction, including planning growth and ensuring the right balance between organic growth and acquisitions.
We’re also seeing a rising appetite for risk in the marketplace that could create a volatile operating environment. The combination of market uncertainty and a pursuit for return have the potential for unwanted surprises if companies don’t ensure they have appropriate controls over their important processes, including financial reporting.
Fifty-four percent of the CEOs told us their companies are not taking enough risk, which means CFOs who understand the relationship between the organization’s risk appetite and its growth strategy, and the need for appropriate controls, will emerge as increasingly significant and trusted leaders.
Seventy-four percent of the CEOs surveyed told us their companies are planning more aggressive growth strategies over the next three years, and 95% said growth is more important than focusing on operational efficiencies. Against that backdrop, today’s CFO must remain focused on avoiding waste, supporting the growth agenda, and making sure that growth efforts are strategic and related risks are carefully managed.
Thirty-eight percent of CEOs told us they are targeting geographic expansion, and 77% said significant capital will be devoted to expanding in foreign markets — which means CFOs will need to manage the risk of fluctuating foreign currency exchange rates and compliance with international tax laws and other government regulations.
Companies increasingly are doing business in an ever-expanding number of jurisdictions where they face a myriad of laws, regulations, and enforcement. A one-size-fits all approach to compliance doesn’t work very well. For example, a program designed to comply with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the United States is not sufficient to avoid running afoul of the United Kingdom’s Bribery Act.
Amid the rising appetite for aggressive growth, it is especially important for corporate boards and management to be on the same page when they set goals. The CFO must work to ensure that the entire organization and the board of directors have a clear view of the company’s risk profile and that it is accurately communicated to investors.
Apart from concerns about risk, today’s CFOs, who ideally have visibility across the entire enterprise, must focus on areas that haven’t historically been major considerations of the finance function, including the customer experience. With companies and their leaders subject to increasing scrutiny from the news media, social media, and shareholders, successful CFOs must look beyond the financial perspective and consider customer behavior, public perceptions, and other considerations as they help shape corporate decisions.
The elevated role of the CFO demands an increasingly sophisticated set of skills and capabilities. From supporting strategic decision-making to demonstrating strong financial stewardship, CFOs need to be more diligent than ever. This much we know for sure: CEOs are expecting much more from them, and the environment is likely to be more challenging than ever.
Scott Marcello is vice chair of the audit practice at KPMG LLP.