The world’s reaction to COVID-19 has significantly altered the business landscape in many ways. As much as the authors are strong believers of infusing technology into all aspects of business, human capital, and thought leadership remain critical to continued success. A 100% full time in-office workforce is unlikely to return. CFOs do not get into the societal implications of such a shift, but they must address the related managerial issues emanating from a physically disconnected workforce.
The authors expect the CFO of the future to at least wear the same diverse hats identified in this column’s debut, “The Five Hats of the CFO” (October/November 2021). Functionally, the CFO’s responsibilities are never limited by the “Tyranny of the Or,” as all new responsibilities must be delivered professionally, timely, and accurately. This article will describe how future CFOs can deliver on their current responsibilities with a view toward changing and increasing future accountabilities while adapting to a faster-changing business climate and increasing social responsibilities on their businesses.
Financial stewardship is what many would consider to be the CFO’s primary responsibility. The CFO will increasingly have a center-stage seat at the table as operational risks and decisions are evaluated, considered, and acted upon. Increased use of data visualization will serve as a key tool to identify issues that impact profitability, from both a negative and positive perspective. The proliferation of dashboards that allow a CFO to monitor key metrics and keep their eye on operations that drive financial results can be expected to increase. Technological changes from an operational and financial perspective will continue to be monitored, with a closer linkage to the chief information officer to ensure that the information technology governance infrastructure is sufficient to identify issues in real time. Return on investment when deploying new systems can be an elusive concept, but it remains an important consideration when evaluating future systems implementations and enhancements. New systems are expensive, both in terms of direct cost and resource utilization. The move toward cloud computing, agile project planning, and modular systems will allow CFOs of the future to be more flexible and faster to deploy more efficient systems and processes.
Communicator of Financial Results
The reporting and regulatory environment is becoming simpler from one perspective—but more complex from another. The actual mechanics of reporting financial results has become relatively easy with the advent and proliferation of enterprise resource planning systems. Gone are the days of multi-day closing cycles requiring numerous manual journal entries. In addition, the convergence of IFRS and U.S. GAAP standards has the potential of simplifying the framework, with more emphasis placed on principles-based accounting for financial reporting on a global basis. By the same token, the increasing complexity of the regulatory environment, as well as the increased information demands from the public, has made it tougher, especially when considering issues of integrity and ethics. In addition, the public has increasing interest in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues and reporting responsibilities as evidenced by the SEC’s expanding attention this arena. Analysts and the financial markets expect more forward-looking information, related to strategy as well as financial results.
The communication role is outward facing, based on both regulatory requirements and demands of the stakeholders. There will, however, always be some level of inherent conflicting loyalties as the CFO works for the company and wants the company to always show its best face while serving outsiders such as stockholders, creditors, vendors, and customers. Increasing oversight, scrutiny, and demands from regulators and government agencies put further pressure on the level and timing of reporting requirements. Future reporting could look quite different, perhaps with the use of technology such as blockchain. Business and investors in general want more information faster. Why remain tied to a quarterly reporting timeframe? If technology has made reporting so much easier, why not report results, or even management forecasts, monthly? The future CFO will be expected to be more proactive. The jury is still out on the path to increased frequency and transparency, but consideration should be given to providing more frequent unaudited data using a public blockchain.
Leader of Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A)
The crux of this accountability is having the data analytics tools, techniques, and knowledge of the business to perform value added financial planning and analysis (FP&A). With less time necessary to spend on the mechanics of compiling and reporting, the focus on FP&A is likely to increase to provide more forward-looking information about a company’s results and its operations. This has always been recognized as an essential element of a successful company, and a vital component of an organization’s internal controls. Improvements in the analysis tools and communications mechanisms, such as well-designed alerts and dashboards at all levels of a company, is apt to empower staff to work towards identifying risks and opportunities.
Driver of Internal Controls and Process Improvements
This role pertains to the overall responsibility of designing and maintaining an enterprise-wide operating control environment that ensures data integrity and ethics are built into the overall business reporting framework. The CFO of the future must continue to lead the company in technology-based process improvements. Understanding process and how new systems and applications continue to mechanize and enhance efficiencies are at the front end of the future CFO’s responsibilities. This forces CFOs to have much more than a passing interest in how technology can be used effectively. Human capital, which allows the technology improvements to be used to greatest effect, must also be a prime focus. It is about understanding what a technology tool is and how to train new and inexperienced staff to inculcate the technology into operations, thus driving them to best practices and process efficiencies. This must be done by a CFO that not only understands technology, but also has intimate knowledge of the underlying business processes.
The CFO’s role as the financial strategist is to help ensure the CEO and the overall company’s vision is realized. The increasing role of the future CFO is driven by the CFO’s key involvement in all areas of the business, especially as it pertains to the use of technology—from an overall perspective on artificial intelligence, machine learning, or blockchain technology, to a more detailed operational viewpoint on business process automation. The future CFO as strategist is fundamental to evaluating the costs and benefits of different strategic options using forecasting models. The CFO’s role in identifying and measuring costs will continue to be a focus in the globally competitive environment. Companies must have flexible responses to changing business and political environments. The future CFO’s role here is integral to success, as the CFO has the best understanding of cost implications of strategic options.
Future CFO Focus Areas
The discussion below covers the areas the authors expect CFOs to spend more time in. The CFO’s role will only expand in the coming decade. Although some of the weight spent on the areas discussed above will change due to technologies and processes, the accountabilities will continue to be important.
Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)
The CFO has many stakeholders to satisfy, including shareholders, creditors, investors, customers, vendors, and government in its many forms. With the increasing focus on ESG, it is important to add another stakeholder—society. Although society is a broad category, encompassing all the other constituents, it is more complex due to objectives that, at first glance, are not tied directly to financial objectives; rather, frankly, due to the difficulty in identifying a correct path with all the conflicting information available. All the other players are tied in some way to a company’s financial information and an overall ethical and objective analysis. Society’s expectation on companies being more than providers of goods and services has changed the dynamics of how companies are viewed and valued. The demonstration of a company’s ethics is measured not just by following the law; they also must meet changing societal expectations. The CFO plays a key role not only in reporting ESG disclosures, but also in shaping how companies are perceived by the public at large.
The biggest difficulty a CFO must deal with pertaining to ESG reporting is the difficulty in tying financial objectives and driving behavioral incentives. Many of the elements of the environmental and social elements of ESG present the greatest challenges. Traditionally, government stepped in to fill the cost assignment gap inherent in the application of general economic theory through regulations. The authors are not fans of increased governmental regulation, but it does appear to be the best way to assign costs and, by default, financial objectives to concepts not within a company’s cost envelope.
The authors expect it to be a substantial challenge for the future CFO to devise operational metrics to drive company goals and objectives in the ESG area. Capturing data within a company’s systems and processes for new non-financially driven metrics will be challenging. The reporting requirements come down to devising data accumulation processes and methods to satisfy compliance requirements and the needs of new constituents. The SEC is currently attempting to address the growing interest in ESG through increased reporting requirements. If history is any indication, the SEC’s current proposal will merely be the beginning of a potential sea change in reporting content that will impact all SEC registrants in the future.
The expansion of stakeholders to include society as well as the broadening objectives that each of the traditional stakeholders are the basis of the concept of “integrated reporting.” In many ways, integrated reporting is the vehicle for CFOs to report on ESG, as it drives accountants to make sure that the company reports how it makes its money and how it impacts the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economy, society, and the environment (“10 Years of Integrated Reporting Messages from our Leadership,” Mervyn King, 2020, https://www.integratedreporting.org/10-years/mervyn-king/). CFOs can lead the charge in value creation and become more of a “chief value officer,” a term coined by Mervyn King (“Chief Value Officer Accountants Can Save the Planet,” Greenleaf Publishing, 2016) to recognize that the accounting profession is one of public interest and can help people understand the societal impacts of a company’s operations. As planet-wide sustainability concerns become more important to the public, the CFO has to become this “CVO,” the true change maker inside a company. We expect this leadership role to grow in importance with the increased focus on planet-wide environmental and sustainability issues.
The Change Maker
It does not take a crystal ball to see that the role of the CFO continues to grow broader and deeper—broader, given their overall responsibilities to business, consumer, and general population stakeholders; deeper, given the greater reliance technology, integrated systems, and processes to allow them to do a more effective job in delivering on their many accountabilities.
The future role of the CFO will evolve to become a highly strategic position with responsibility for transforming not only traditional finance responsibilities, but also all other functions of the business. The modern CFO needs to speak the language of investors, while being fluent in technology, acting as a change agent, and driving digital transformation—all this while taking on an ever-increasing roster of responsibilities created by emerging risks and societal demands.