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Leadership qualities for stormy times


Written by Cagla Bekbolet and Frank Heckner, Egon Zehnder

IN a world characterised by uncertainty and volatility, what are the leadership attributes that will define tomorrow’s successful CFO? This is the question posed by my Zurich-based colleague Frank Heckner in this month’s post. His answer is that the technical expertise that senior financial officers have acquired over the course of their careers will not be enough; rather, you need to cultivate the much more personal qualities of centeredness and resilience. That’s how you’ll rejuvenate yourself as a leader – and mobilise the finance organisation for the transformation needed to navigate wrenching change.

Frank Heckner

Companies today are faced with unprecedented uncertainty, ever-increasing complexity, and rapid change in their regulatory, technological, competitive and customer environments. Senior executives, including the CFO, must summon extraordinary strengths of leadership – almost as if they were in a time of war.

In my own counsel to CFOs and senior financial officers, I’ve realised that the knowledge and competencies they have gained over the course of their careers do not typically equip them for the leadership challenges of this new environment.

Instead, all of us who wish to be effective leaders today must cultivate several deeply personal character traits, including centeredness and resilience. As the poet Rudyard Kipling wrote, you must learn to “keep your head while all those about you are losing theirs”. That way, you can sustain your own motivation and that of your team as you guide the finance organisation through the radical transformation needed to adapt to new realities.

In a time when none of us can predict the future, senior financial officers must move beyond their traditional role as the experts who know all the answers. In an environment marked by greater ambiguity and volatility, financial leaders need to focus more on listening, adapting, and learning constantly. They also need to be comfortable making clear decisions with the long-term goal in mind even when there is too little information – or too much.

Indeed, the CFO of the future must simultaneously exercise two seemingly contradictory personality traits – humility and decisiveness. Humility includes genuine interest in seeking feedback on your leadership effectiveness, ongoing commitment to learning about yourself, and the ability to “zoom in and out” on your own performance and mental state in the moment. Decisiveness is just as important, given the tsunami of noise that organisations are faced with. As a leader, you must summon the will to make decisions that have a positive influence on your environment and society, and root those decisions in personal integrity and strong values.

By cultivating these leadership qualities, you will be able to serve as a role model for the people in your team – and build an engaged, listening, and learning organisation that can drive fundamental change based on a bold long-term vision. Nothing less will do; the era of incremental improvement is over.

There are many financial leaders who exemplify these leadership qualities already. One CFO I know saved his company from bankruptcy after it suffered a massive market disruption. He stayed calm, mobilised his team, renegotiated debt financing with multiple banks, and steered the company through a rapid turnaround.

In your own career as a senior financial leader, the disruptions and challenges are likely to be no less daunting. Invest in yourself, build the qualities of broader leadership, empower your organisation to more quickly respond to an ever more quickly changing environment and you will be able to guide your team successfully through the stormy times ahead.

Cagla Bekbolet leads the global CFO practice and Frank Heckner is a core member of the global CFO practice and co-leads the European Health practice of executive search & leadership advisory firm Egon Zehnder.

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