Earning trust and building credibility and influence as a CFO

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Whether you’ve just secured the coveted role of Chief Financial Officer (CFO) or you’re on the cusp of becoming one, one thing’s for sure: you’re embarking on a high-stakes, high pressure role. You’ve observed how others have approached this c-suite position. But now it’s yours.

The parameters of organisational leadership roles like the CFO have shifted over the past few decades, most noticeably during the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The title, CFO, no longer adequately represents the breadth and depth of the role’s responsibilities. Your financial acumen has and will continue to be your strength. However, it’s just one of many skills you’ll need in your professional armoury. Your CEO, Board and colleagues are also looking to you for leadership, strategy, collaboration and creativity.

Your role starts and ends with people. Without their support and goodwill, you’ve just multiplied and exacerbated every challenge you will ever face in your role.

Establishing yourself as a trusted and respected leader takes time, authentic and open communication, and consistent action. Successful leaders know that before they lead others, they must first lead themselves.

Be a reliable leader first

People will be relying on your expert advice and direction in the role of CFO. However, before you craft and execute your professional plan, take the time to cement your personal one, which includes creating the conditions to achieve a sustainable work-life balance.

Set yourself up for success. If you don’t have a mentor, now is a good time to consider one. If you’re not already part of a professional membership association or group, join one. The support, insights and accelerated career learning you will gain from others can be invaluable. Learn from the mistakes of others to avoid making them yourself and adapt the best of what works to your organisational context.

Success starts and ends with people

Your role already commands a level of unquestioned trust and respect. Don’t take this for granted. People must be your first priority.

Your relationship with your CEO is obviously critical. Establish a working partnership based on clear expectations. It will evolve over time but agree a schedule of regular meetings and standing agenda items to create structure and consistency, and to build confidence in your abilities and approach.

People feel valued when they are seen and heard. Undertake a ‘listening tour’ to capture the issues, insights, and mood of key internal stakeholders in the organisation, such as your Board of Directors, senior executive team, your direct reports and finance team. Ask questions such as ‘how can I support you in your role?’ or ‘in your opinion, what changes or initiatives do you believe could help us reach our strategic goals?’.

Identify key stakeholders outside your company such as auditors, bankers and lawyers, and gather their views and experiences of your organisation. Be the CFO people know. Engage with staff in the lunchroom or walk around the office regularly to check in with staff. By doing this, you’re building relationships while collecting important information that will inform your next steps.

Build your credibility

A sure-fire way to create distrust and disharmony is to enter a new organisation or role with a pre-determined agenda for change. You may have been given a mandate for change, but how you frame, plan, and execute it could either irreparably damage or immediately strengthen your credibility.

  • Reassure staff by moving quickly to understand and demonstrate your knowledge of the drivers of your company, the industry context in which it operates and current challenges it faces.

  • Undertake a rapid assessment to determine if there are any impending cash flow or compliance issues that need immediate action. You may also identify some quick early wins that will support senior executives in their roles while building your trust and credibility bank.

  • Undertake an environmental scan to determine if there are any external threats or opportunities on the immediate or short-term horizon that require action. Getting ahead of and planning for potential crises builds organisational confidence.

  • Review the talent in your finance team. Do they have the competencies and capabilities required to deliver on the company’s strategic plan? And importantly, are they empowered with the resources, decision-making and management support they need to effectively undertake their work?

  • Examine your company from the point of view of your clients or external stakeholders and identify any gaps for improvement.

  • Lean into discomfort and assess your own strengths and weaknesses in the context of the company’s needs and identify areas for your own professional growth. A humble leader is a respected leader.

Hypocrisy is a credibility killer

While the CEO is the ultimate guardian and ambassador for a company’s culture, the CFO has an equally important role to play. Credibility gaps emerge when leaders fail to ‘walk the talk’.

The easiest way for leaders to lose trust and credibility is by failing to align their own values and actions to those of the organisation. CFOs must model the culture and values of their organisation for others to see and replicate.

Good leaders create more leaders, not more followers

Some of the most respected CFOs are ones who advance the careers of those around them. They don’t seek more followers, but in fact nurture and develop more leaders. This leadership approach not only builds the internal capability of the finance team, but also demonstrates organisational confidence in their capability and future.

Identify and realise the potential of your team. Foster ongoing learning through coaching, mentoring and leadership development opportunities. Believe in them and they’ll reward you with their loyalty and respect.

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