The tenth annual Global Ethics Day will be celebrated tomorrow (Oct. 18, 2023). Traditionally, CFOs are expected to be beacons of ethical behavior for our cross-functional partners and throughout our organizations. We and our teams of finance and accounting professionals are known for integrity and trust. Professional ethics is in our DNA.
In the spirit of Global Ethics Day, here are eight practical ways CFOs and their teams can inspire trust.
Ways to Inspire Trust
As finance and accounting professionals, we start building our own ethical awareness in the classroom. We solidify this awareness by joining professional organizations that require adherence to their respective ethical codes — for example, the IMA Statement of Ethical Professional Practice and the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct. To maintain our professional certifications, we must abide by these codes and participate in ongoing ethics training.
Over time, once we have built our solid ethical foundation and defined our personal values, we can begin inspiring trust in others in numerous practical ways.
1. Build Relationships
The first step in building trust is building relationships. Get to know your cross-functional partners and the members of your team. Show a genuine interest in their background, hopes, dreams, and goals. Learn about their hobbies. Celebrate their work anniversary and other milestones. And share about yourself with them too.
Whenever you assume a new role or someone joins your team, ensure the onboarding plan prioritizes one-on-one “get to know you” sessions.
2. Actively Listen
When we are busy juggling multiple deadlines, it can be tempting to block our calendar, close the door, and remain focused on the task at hand. We’ve all been there. For example, the corporate controller stops by our office to give an update on the closing process. We waive them though, in reality, we are still thinking about what we had been working on.
But to inspire trust, we need to be available when our team needs us, and we need to actively listen to what they are saying. Listen without interruption. Paraphrase and repeat what you heard to ensure understanding. And read their body language to ensure verbal and non-verbal cues are aligned.
3. Always Tell the Truth
As CFOs, we are the arbiters of ethical and effective business practices. To inspire trust, we must always tell the truth, even when — indeed especially when — the truth is not what others want to hear.
Maybe, for example, your CEO publicly announced a significant new product launch before the supply chain team could verify if production was feasible. Unfortunately, the technology is just not there. During the next quarterly call, when asked about the launch, you will need to give a truthful update. Communicate information fairly and objectively. Provide all relevant information. Be clear and concise, whether communicating good news or bad. Admit mistakes vs. bluffing. And, if you don’t know the answer, admit as much.
Honesty truly is the best policy!
4. Earn Respect
We must earn the respect of others through our actions. If, for example, you are invited to participate in a strategic planning session with other cross-functional leaders, but remain silent and disengaged throughout, others will question why you are there.
But if you are highly engaged, leveraging your inquisitive nature, prior experiences, and end-to-end understanding of the organization to drive new thinking, your presence will be deemed invaluable. To inspire trust by earning respect, be prepared, on time, and fully present. Be honest and tactful. And add value!
5. Meet Commitments
A key aspect of inspiring trust is to meet our commitments. It’s imperative the CFO of a small business struggling to meet its bank loan covenants, for example, submits reports to the bank timely and communicates with their banker consistently, whether business results are good or bad. If they do, their banking partner is more likely to help them manage through short-term challenges. If not, their banker may quickly escalate default proceedings, severely impacting the probability of overcoming difficult times.
When it comes to both workplace and marketplace expectations, only make commitments that you can keep. In short, keep your promises!
6. Honor All People
Part of inspiring trust is celebrating diversity and honoring all people. Take, for example, a global work team, where members come from two or more national or cultural backgrounds. Such teams are inherently diverse in every sense, including ideas, thinking, and solutions. To derive the benefits of diversity and to honor all people, proactively engage all members of your team, ensuring each of their voices are heard. Avoid generalizing, stereotyping, and/or making assumptions. Focus on outcomes, not a team member’s work style or approach. And for globally diverse teams, in particular, respect different time zones and unique customs and holidays.
7. Take Responsibility
Inspiring trust means “the buck stops here.” You are accountable for your and your team’s decisions and actions. On the other hand, when the team is successful, you must share the credit, whether celebrating small victories along the way with a “shout out” or recognizing the big wins with a formal award ceremony.
8. Lead by Example
During my career at a Fortune 500 consumer goods company, we were instructed in the company’s leadership model and were accountable to live those core values beginning Day One. To inspire trust, you must “walk the walk,” ensuring your actions reflect the expectations and behaviors expected of the broader organization.
Tone at the top matters. If you expect others to be on time for your meetings, for example, you need to lead by example and arrive on time as well. Actions speak louder than words!
Call to Action
As CFO, you can be the beacon of ethical behavior for your organization. But, first, you need to inspire trust in your team and across the organization. In honor of Global Ethics Day 2023, take action to inspire trust today!
Steve McNally, CMA, CPA, is CFO of The PTI (Plastic Technologies Inc.) Group of companies and chair emeritus of the Institute of Management Accountants