The Modern CFO: the culture conversation
Gregg Grobler, CFO of the innovative international executive search firm Marlin Hawk Group, discusses the evolving role of the CFO today.
Once considered a purely number-crunching role, the job description for a CFO in the modern workplace has changed dramatically. Mounting leadership pressures such as disruptive technologies and the increasingly competitive corporate landscape mean that CEOs are often reliant on their finance executive to balance traditional responsibilities with new ones.
With this in mind, the CFO can no longer be focused purely on driving finances. Instead they must seek to establish themselves as a true partner to the CEO and as a business leader with exceptional financial intelligence. Additionally, the ability to demonstrate meaningful strategic leadership and value across an entire organisation has become a critical attribute.
It is important that a CFO transcends the facts and figures and contributes to something that is equally significant: culture.
Culture Fuels Organisations
Culture is the DNA of any business. It is what makes an enterprise unique and sets it apart from its rivals. As the saying goes, “culture is the way we do things around here.” Typically, company culture is driven by other members of the senior management team - usually the CEO, MDs, or HRDs. The general perception is that CFOs are more linear in their skillset, solely focused on finance. But while a rock solid finance strategy is the lifeblood of a business’ success, it’s still only one piece of a much bigger puzzle, so finance professionals need to also be cognisant of the impact they can make in other areas of the organisation, as well as their potential to drive strategy and culture.
The CFO has touchpoints across every function in an organisation, giving them a unique insight into how to ensure the company and its broad strategies remain relevant and successful. Given their responsibility for putting a hard figure to the learning, development, social activities and benefits of an organisation, it is imperative that they have an ear to the ground when it comes to culture. Moreover, a CFO’s analytical skills can be useful for quantifying the effects that having a great culture can have on a business’ bottom line. It is time that CFOs transitioned from being the sponsors of change to the leaders of it.
Recent figures show that top US companies are increasingly turning to outsiders to fill finance chief vacancies. About 43.4% of CFO positions at Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies are held by candidates hired from outside their companies, up by almost 10% on average over the previous decade. External hires offer a fresh perspective and can force substantial cultural changes, uninhibited by the perceived status quo of a business. The onus therefore falls on incumbent CFOs to prove that they can affect this change without the need for their company to look elsewhere.
According to KPMG's 'The view from the top' report, 34% of CEOs say that experience with transformation is one of the most important attributes for a CFO. The ability to lead by example and build a culture of agility is crucial. Digital transformation is changing the way that organisations across all sectors operate at a granular level. It is inevitable that this current era of disruptive technology will have an effect on businesses in a wider sense, as they are forced to adapt both financially and culturally. A forward-looking CFO will look beyond financial strategy when it comes to disruption, focusing on the greater challenge around human capital. When planning large scale transformation programmes, the key is to lead with culture. Ultimately, a healthy culture will drive the change so it is integral that culture transformation is step one of that journey.
As we know, AI and management software is a potential threat to those working in certain areas of businesses, especially where tasks are repetitive in nature and can be easily automated. It’s likely that, as these technologies evolve further, finance experts could be required to run newly emerging areas of the department, whether that’s trend analysis, technology implementation or stronger business partnering and stakeholder engagement to drive other business departments.
It is also inevitable that roles will change within the finance function. Current remits may be automated but will be replaced by new roles and expertise.
We can face this evolving landscape by managing talent in the correct way, upskilling our current teams to fulfil different or evolving roles, as well as constantly assessing whether new roles should be introduced. Increasingly, and especially in larger organisations, roles like Finance Data Analyst are growing in importance as companies large and small realise that it is essential to have someone managing the financial insights that our new technologies are enabling. This is a trend that is only going to strengthen as data and AI capabilities become more sophisticated. Fostering an agile culture in this context will provide finance teams with a different perspective on the business and allow them to prepare for the new chapter which AI and Data will help shepherd in.
The reality is that CEOs expect a lot more from their CFOs than they used to. Besides having the necessary leadership skills to motivate their teams and drive strategy, they want an individual who can tell a story and influence others, as well as crunch the numbers.
Yet, far from posing a threat to current and aspiring CFOs, this is an opportunity to be seized by finance professionals. It is the chance to become a more proactive member of the executive team and shape an organisation in more ways than through finance.
The most important thing for the modern CFO to remember is that cultural transformation does not happen overnight. It can take years to affect real change, but the process begins with gradual and incremental adjustments, first addressing the cultural shifts that are necessary and then and it is up to finance leaders at all levels to demonstrate the agility to move with the demands of a changing landscape. Finance executives can kickstart the process by opening up crucial conversations on where the business is now, where it needs to be and, ultimately, how it can get there.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.