WHEN I started my career, I was, much like my peer group, fairly clueless about the role of a finance director, the CFO term was rarely used, and I could never have predicted the enormous changes to the role that the decades have brought. I chose my sector opportunistically but not with any foresight. Looking forward, I can only speculate what today’s new cohort of aspiring FDs can expect and how the role might evolve in the future.
Although it is tedious to dwell on past events, I will never forget the arrival of our first IBM PC which was given its own altar and advance booking rota. Unthinkable now, but everything changed for FDs at around that time. Punched cards and paper tape were phased out, together with armies of accounting staff who were fired as we automated the basic processing in favour of added-value, business-focused tasks.
Technology advances and the exponential growth of big data, breathtaking in retrospect, became the keys to our power base and we were liberated. I did not know it then, but we were on the verge of a constant evolution of the FD role, placing it at the heart of every organisation, arguably elevating it to the most influential executive position aside from the CEO.
How should we prepare for the future, and what does the next generation have in prospect?
Research on this topic by the large accountancy firms strikes me as uninspiring and no great challenge to the orthodoxy. Deloitte describes the four faces of the CFO as catalyst, steward, strategist and a lean operator, stating that the relative emphasis on each face will constantly change. EY in its publication on the future of financial leadership stresses that the responsibilities of the role can only increase. ACCA teamed up with IMI to report that CFOs of today define their future in terms of regulation, globalisation, technology, risk, transformation, stakeholder management, talent, reporting and strategy. I believe we should aspire towards further expansion of the influence of our roles, with reward packages to match.
I was amused but not surprised to see there is an Association of Professional Futurists. They are interested in technology, over-use of resources, uncontrolled spread of untested ideas, swiftly changing lifestyles, and gridlock of international collaboration. I found their published material unspecific, counter to my own optimistic view of globalisation opportunity and quite useless in terms of visualising the evolving FD or CFO role, although some of their members are employed to provide valuable insight to organisations that are thinking and planning far ahead.
IBM issued a paper on the role of the CFO as a ‘chief future officer’, arguing that the finance role is so central to all the relevant and comprehensive information that it is well placed to predict the long-term future. They define their view in terms of the ‘from’ and ‘to’ point of view – eg, from driving efficiency to creating agility, from managing cash to enabling innovation. I have my doubts about this but I do understand their point.
My concerns, which are informed by historical events (eg, UK Coal), are mainly about the risks to the sustainability of a number of sectors and their FDs. What will happen to the NHS, the university sector, the public sector in general, the businesses under private equity control, and the remainder of UK manufacturing? How will the FD roles in these organisations be affected?
Of course I cannot predict the future shape of the FD role with any accuracy. However, I am certain that if we can avoid drowning in a wave of regulation and accounting standards, the evolution of the role over the past few decades is a fair indication that, in all sectors, it will continue on its current trajectory of importance, influence and scope. However, even Nostradamus gave us no clues on this. ?Last month the Secret Finance Director saw Kate Bush performing an inspirational version of her original concert set for the first time in 35 years