BEFORE I became a chief financial officer, I had only one boss. Now I have too many to count (a rather telling statement for an accountant). All my working life, I have reported to one individual at a time. And on each occasion, that individual was my boss, who called the shots, set the agenda and assessed my performance.
Although I lived in the corporate goldfish bowl, and sometimes suffered the confusions of matrix organisations, it was mostly just one boss that I had to impress and satisfy.
My ambition was always to rise to the dizzy heights of chief financial officer. I achieved this some time ago, but I was unprepared for the shock when I realised that I no longer had only one person to whom I reported.
Nearly everyone now seems to have a vote and assume some authoritarian right to make demands upon me. There are shareholders, lenders, works councils, trade unions, pension trustees, the board, key customers, key suppliers, merchant banks, registrars, regulators and a host of others. To a lesser extent, certain others also want a piece of me when they are dealing with what to them must be a top priority. This is true of brokers, public relations advisers, auditors, lawyers, headhunters and various people who sometimes forget that they are actually being paid only to be advisers.
The agendas of all these parties are inconsistent with each other, but they all want to assert themselves and make their often conflicting demands for attention, information, decisions on the CFO: me. They all have legitimate positions, of course, but it is all too easy for them to forget who is in charge. Many of them ignore the fact that I and my colleagues have a business to run, and assume that we can do that in our spare time.
There is no place to lodge a complaint about this. Chief executives often suffer the same fate, and they have to deal with responsibilities and issues of their own.
Additionally, my chief executive creates his own legitimate demands upon me as that partnership is, above all, a professional one.
The chief executive is not in any position to change these demands on the CFO as the priorities are all too complicated. He can and does lighten the load by sharing some of the stakeholder tasks, but he is usually as much a nuisance as a help. He needs a full briefing beforehand, is not available at the right times, and finds himself technically out of his depth at some of the meetings, but still insists on talking too much. Frequently, this calls for a subsequent follow-up and correction. More than once, I have had to unwind promises made by the chief executive – most recently when he promised the wrong bank a significant piece of business that I had already awarded to another bank in our lending syndicate.
Does all this sound familiar?
What is the answer?
I have concluded that it goes with the territory of being a CFO that you must answer to a mind-blowing variety of communities, many of which behave in a superior manner to their (assumed) subordinate, the CFO. My advice is to manage all these stakeholders with patience, make them feel important, bite your tongue, and swallow your pride.
Your job as CFO is not only to serve these communities, but to run the business well. Make the chief executive aware of these issues to avoid unpleasant surprises, but recognise that it is sometimes more trouble than it is worth to accept too much help from the chief executive in dealing with all these other bosses. And you should always remember that it is the chief executive who will recommend your bonus each year. ?
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