There’s persistent chatter circulating through the business world that, in general, financial executives are not strong communicators. I don’t know how it started (probably in HR), but it’s a common conceit that when you take the spreadsheets away, your average CFO/controller type will be at a loss as to how to order takeout, let alone communicate a company’s vision to its teams.
That is an inaccurate and ungenerous portrait of most of the financial leaders I know. They are no more or less able to communicate effectively than are their CEOs or peers in other functional disciplines. In fact, many came up in environments (such as the Big Four accounting firms) where developing the ability to communicate to a diverse group of stakeholders early in a career was necessary to be successful.
That leaves us with a few questions: Why does finance suffer this reputation. Can it be an obstacle in a financial executive’s career path? And, what can be done to overcome it?
For the first question, I think the answer may not be that CFOs are bad communicators, but rather that some of their audiences are generally uncomfortable in dealing with the subject matter.
I’m often amazed to see, when interviewing non-financial executives, how few of them understand what drives their companies’ financial performance. Consequently, it may be easier for that audience to blame the messenger in a monthly operating review than admit that they don’t know how to interpret a P&L statement.
To avoid that knock, financial leaders would be well served to learn their audiences’ capabilities and motivations. If there are weak links from a financial-acumen standpoint, make sure to give them structured reviews before important meetings, presentations, and deadlines. Better to be prepared than hear later from a stakeholder that you didn’t communicate a concept well enough for them.
As to whether such a perception derail a career, the short answer is yes. If you’re perceived to lack effective communication skills, particularly to a cross-functional audience, you will hit a ceiling before you make it to the CFO chair. That also applies to your ability to effectively communicate to your own team.
Again, I believe this applies to leaders in other functions as well, but it seems to be a more sensitive issue when assessing the potential of financial leaders.
So, what can we do about this perception? I suggest a few key strategies for an up-and-coming financial professional.
The first one is simple: put yourself in positions where your communication abilities are on display. Lead a cross-functional team, join an affinity group at your company, speak at a conference, or seminar, or write an article for CFO. What’s the use of having and developing these skills if they’re not being observed? Get out of your comfort zone and put yourself in positions where they can’t help but be noticed.
Another helpful strategy is to engage a coach. Working with a trained professional who can give you actionable feedback will only add to a financial executive’s career potential.
As you progress into more senior roles where your success is predicated on the ability to effectively work through people rather than based on your own functional competence, your communication skills become as critical as any technical skills you possess. Many forward-thinking companies understand this and will bring in coaches to work with their high-potential executives. If you don’t work for one of those companies, enlisting the services of a good coach may be one of the most useful investments you’ll ever make in your career.
Financial leaders get a bad knock. It’s not fair or accurate, but perception can be reality, and your ability to maximize your career potential could be at stake.
Rather than be a scapegoat for business-line managers who can’t grasp how their return-on-assets ratio impacts their bottom line, make sure your communication skills are in good shape. That way, you’ll be able to educate them in a manner that they will understand.
John Touey is a principal at executive search firm Salveson Stetson Group with 20 years of experience providing executive search, human resources, and management consulting services to organizations in the healthcare, financial services, utilities, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. Follow him @JohnTouey.