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Making the finance team heard

When I was asked to write this article and address the need for chief financial officers to voice their opinions as key members of the leadership team, I thought I had misunderstood the request. In my world, not only are CFOs part of the important discussions of the leadership team, but their feedback is often sought as a valuable guidance tool in key decision-making. So the question of encouraging CFOs to voice their opinions, the most fundamental trait of leadership, seemed odd to me.

However, after discussing the topic with colleagues, I realised perhaps there was something more to this request.

For years, discussions around the importance of cost-based decision-making have been key factors that have driven critical business decisions and will likely continue to do so. On the other hand, sometimes decisions are based on factors that have little to do with cost considerations. Rather, they are the by-product of more political or personal-driven agendas being executed, often leading to poor results.  But I would suggest a hybrid of these two models is likely the most effective strategy today. 

Let’s assume that a business balanced by its political perspectives, while having key financial staff who appreciate the unique needs for sound financial strategy, unite and produce tactics for sound organisational outcomes  So good business thinking, supported by sound assumptions and the courage to articulate the important questions, would be a necessary process that advances a company’s business plan. Right?

Before I go on, I should clarify that I realise some traditional roadblocks to this course of thinking may present challenges for some CFOs. Your organisation may view its financial staff merely as beancounters and, therefore, inconsequential to important decision-making. You may have experienced mixed results in voicing your opinion or been stifled in your attempts to advance a different perspective, which ran counter to opinions of the powers that be.

But I would always encourage you to stand firm. It is worth reminding yourself that as a CFO, it is your particular appreciation and understanding of environmental and financial conditions that is best leveraged to tackle a problem or opportunity, regardless of inaction or erroneous missteps. We are in critical times with a challenging global economy, high unemployment and consumer confidence waning. Critical times require progressive, determined, thoughtful, and vigorous leadership, coupled with forward-thinking, knowledgeable momentum.  And who better to mix the practical thinking with technical skills required of financial managers in business today than the CFO?

While I have a reputation for speaking up, even in difficult times, doing so comes with inherent risks. It can place you in a very painful, lonely, disadvantaged position within your organisation. But leadership is not a perfect art and definitely not for wimps; plus the most important key to leadership is the ability to communicate and know when it is time to speak up, as well as how to deliver a message. Some CFOs just need reminding that in voicing an opinion, the odds are someone will disagree with it – and they should be fine with that.

This reminds me of my recent personal encounter during the town hall meeting in Washington, DC with President Barack Obama. It was truly a unique opportunity: while I thought it would be just a brief moment in time, its impact on so many was amazing. I was among a fortunate few who were randomly selected to speak to the President at this meeting. Our instructions were to ask the President questions that mattered most to us.  My previous plan was to, at best, get the opportunity to send a letter or an email hoping that he might get to see it at some point. But to actually be placed in a setting where I could ask him personally and receive his answer was a little overwhelming – and yet awesome. If ever there was a time when being able to speak up with courage and being ready to hear disagreement was a vital skill, it was that day.

In the same way that the kind of challenges you will take to your board may cause something of a stir, or flat out hostility, the question I had for President Obama mattered a great deal and was a topic on which I had been discussing, in frequently trying circumstances, with a number of people. It was important to convey the importance of the question without losing composure (and we were on TV).

The rest has been well documented – check YouTube! – and outlines the best and worst of what happens when you ask a difficult question in tough times.  But it outlines well what we as CFOs have to do. It is the core responsibility of being part of organisational leadership. It is what we all should require of ourselves. The old saying goes: “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you may very well end up being what is served for dinner.” We as CFOs owe it to ourselves, our organisations and our profession to lead and to ask the important sometimes difficult questions. CFOs must be key players at the table making certain our organisations do not end up being the main course for dinner.

Velma Hart is CFO for AmVets, the US organisation for veteran serviceman and women. See her in conversation with Barack Obama at http://tinyurl.com/velmahart

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