At the recent “CFO of the Future Summit” — an Accenture Strategy-sponsored gathering of 33 CFOs and future CFOs at Harvard University — the increasingly bifurcated aspects of the job came up again and again.

Christian Campagna

    Christian Campagna

CFOs are being asked to live simultaneously in the present and the future  tending the traditional areas of profit while nurturing future areas of growth. “How do we optimize our current model and at the same time transform?” asked a major retailer’s vice president of commercial and operations finance.

Similarly, an executive in the financial services industry said, “We asked our executive committee: ‘What do you expect from finance in the future?’ And they told us, very clearly, ‘You need to know the business much better to have a seat at the table where we make the business decisions. We need you there. But also don’t stop doing what you’ve been doing.’ ”

These comments reflect the current norm: boards want a stable core business and the windfall of new growth. No longer does business as usual suffice—but at the time, don’t let business as usual suffer as you get to growth.

Call it “dynamic stability.”

But Can You Do It on One Leg?

Dynamic stability is the corporate version of a time-tested children’s game that goes like this: Pat your stomach. Now, rub your head at the same time. OK, now balance on one leg while doing both. In business, it is the art of maintaining a steady core while adding new layers and directions. Time and again, throughout our summit sessions, participants talked the inherent associated challenges.

There is science behind the concept. In 2012 the Harvard Business Review published an article about a study of more than 2,000 firms that had increased their net income by at least 5% annually over 10 years, to determine what made that growth possible. Interestingly, the usual suspects did not come into play.

For instance, neither industry position nor the company’s age mattered. Newcomers and more-established firms both accomplished the growth feat. The type of economy within which companies operated — emerging or established — had no real impact. Likewise, private vs. public ownership was not relevant.

The conclusion of the study? Companies with the ability to be both stable and dynamic were the most likely to show successful growth.

In a survey of Summit participants before the event, we asked what would help them address these areas effectively, their answers expanded far beyond finance’s historical boundaries of accounting and compliance.

We asked: What would help you optimize your current business value? The top three responses:

  • Digitization and automation
  • Human capital
  • Enterprise-wide platforms

We also asked: What would help you generate new business value? Again the top three responses:

  • Best practices and structures for in-house innovation
  • Greater investment of time and resources into value creation and capture
  • New technologies

It’s clear that transformation is necessary to drive business value. Summit attendees felt that the three main drivers of change will be the demand for customer-facing digital technologies, product and service disruption, and the need to digitize the back office.

Customer-Facing Digital

A major media holding company has begun to make a shift—maintaining historic sources of revenue as best it can while shifting its business model to the demands of a digital world.

“Change has happened very fast in the media industry,” says its finance executive and treasurer. “We have not kept up. If you look back to 2010, we earned almost $4 billion in revenue, but a very small amount was coming from digital. In our local markets, revenue still clocks in at about 80% print, 20% digital. But we know the future is digital—and we managed to turn the tide at one of our national publications, which is now generating more revenue from digital advertising than print.”

She credits the publication’s turnaround to the arrival of a chief revenue officer with previous digital experience: “He has worked very hard to rebuild the national sales team. Using just one flagship publication in our network, from a national digital perspective, his team rebuilt our brand and rebuilt our credibility. We had double-digit growth in digital advertising at this publication for every quarter in 2016.”

Product and Service Disruption

A global CFO for a major consumer goods company not only knows disruption — he tries to create it, under orders from his CEO: “We defined breakthrough innovation as an idea worth more than $100 million. We tried to separate it from core innovation, which is mainly the stuff we’re paid to do day in, day out.”

This CFO recognizes the bar is always moving (rub your stomach, pat your head). “What’s been great performance in the past can be average performance tomorrow. So, either we start to disrupt ourselves or without a doubt, somebody will disrupt us.”

No More Business as Usual

Finance’s increasing role in the innovative process is something most of our participants said they are struggling with. Not only does it require more time on their part and new processes, but also an entirely new skill set.

More than one CFO at the summit wondered, given the heightened pace, depth, and breadth of their position, whether success across the board was even possible. Has the bar been raised too high? Can you at once rub your stomach, pat your head, balance on one leg, and ride a bike?

Christian Campagna is senior managing director of Accenture Strategy’s CFO and enterprise value practice.

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