Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » What the M&S reshuffle says about the changing role of the CFO

Marks & Spencer (M&S), one of the most well-known heritage retail brands in the UK, recently announced that it was shaking up its leadership team. Its CEO Steve Rowe, who joined straight from school and has spent 40 years in the business, recently announced that he is stepping down from his role after spending six years in the top job.

M&S, seemingly unable or reluctant to commit to one leader, has appointed Stuart Machin and Katie Bickerstaffe as co-CEOs, respectively. What’s more, the company’s CFO Eoin Tonge, is now set to oversee strategy of the entire business in an expanded role. This is an interesting move from the retailer, as it proves that the traditional role of the CFO is changing. Today’s CFO is becoming more involved in critical business decisions and with reason – CFOs have a firm understanding of business matters and more corporations should bring finance to the strategy table. However with this new responsibility, CFOs also need to adapt to the changing demands of their new roles in the business.

Confidence beyond financial matters

M&S’s shake up of its leadership team is part of the business’ transformation strategy to modernise the legacy retail chain and ensure that it maintains relevance for the modern shopper. This is all the more important as more customers shift online amid rising competition from digital pure players. What’s more, M&S needs to ensure that its existing store estate is continuing to attract footfall and remains a compelling destination for shoppers.

It is interesting then, that Eoin Tonge’s new role at M&S, as chief strategy & finance officer, sees this former CFO at the heart of key of decisions at the retailer. In his new role, Tonge is no doubt going to be one of the most senior people in the room making a call on the future of the business. Prior to Steve Rowe stepping down as CEO, Tonge was even in the running to be the person to replace him.

Tonge’s is just a recent example of CFOs growing their responsibilities beyond the finance team. This is a trend we see across sectors, with enormous consequences for the CFO role and what it looks like day to day. It is incredibly telling about the enormous confidence that business leaders and stakeholders have in CFOs. After all, CFOs are more than just finance people and have a firm understanding of business and strategy, and even have the potential to be the wider figurehead and spokesperson for the business.

Setting up CFOs for success

As the CFO increasingly becomes closer to the CEO and at the cutting edge of decision making, it is therefore essential that they spend less time concerned with day-to-day financial calculations and are supported appropriately with the right technology to ensure that finances are accurate. This will allow CFOs to make more strategic decisions with finance data, which will be easier to access and help supplement those decisions. This is especially important for a business like M&S, which has been embarking on its turnaround plan for some time and looking to build future growth.

Ambitious CFOs must have the right technology in place to handle all of the complexities around financial calculations. A sole reliance on archaic systems, such as Excel, are no longer enough, as this can easily result in miscalculations and manual errors. These mistakes can have a damaging impact on budgets and can also impact other aspects within the business, as well as external stakeholders. There is still a role for software like Excel in financial departments, but it is not efficient enough to be the one product that financial experts should place trust into completely.

With a new leadership team in place at M&S, this legacy retail brand is at an exciting new crossroads in terms of its strategy and having the former CFO at the helm of strategic decision making is going to come with further responsibilities and pressure to ensure M&S has a promising future. Keeping manual spreadsheets regularly up to date can often be an arduous task and very time-consuming, especially if a mistake is made, no matter how small.

The role of the CFO is changing and businesses like M&S are evidence that CFOs have huge potential to be business leaders and have responsibility beyond the day-to-day finance job. However, future-first businesses must ensure that all finances are flawless and accurate. This will allow CFOs to dedicate more time to making a real impact on the business and showing the world how successful a business can truly be with a CFO at the helm.