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CFOs need “bounce-backability”: drive change by learning

THE PACE OF CHANGE in the global economy and in many organisations, has never been so fast. One indicator is the value of merger megadeals, which in 2015 has already outstripped that of any previous year. At the same time, many companies are driving far-reaching transformation efforts, including restructuring, cost-cutting, and digitisation.

What are the implications for financial officers? As I argued in a previous blog post, current and aspiring CFOs are increasingly expected to play a broader leadership role, coaching and challenging colleagues throughout the business to accelerate growth and innovation.

In a transformational setting such as a merger or restructuring, this ‘change-agent’ role becomes doubly important – and creates fast-track career opportunities for financial officers who are skilled both at complex financial engineering and at effective people engagement.

Dive into change

A specific opportunity lies in the programme management offices (PMOs) and merger integration offices set up in many companies undergoing major change. I’d encourage aspiring CFOs to put their hands up to join these units, which are cauldrons of learning and growth – and places of real influence. This is where the grand vision of change is stress-tested and translated into new structures, new ways of working, and bottom-line impact. The senior financial officer in the change team is typically the lynchpin, integrating all the different work streams.

But it’s no simple matter to succeed in such a role – particularly for someone more comfortable in the traditional ambit of financial management. Becoming a leader of change requires that you “lean in”, which means summoning deep motivation and resilience and being ready to adopt new skills and mind-sets.

Make mistakes, learn from them

In my own work in assessing leadership candidates for future potential, this is one of the key dimensions I look at. I call it “bounce-backability”: does this leader have what it takes to deal with stress and pressure, learn from mistakes, experiment, and find the inner drive to pick themselves up when they fall down?

A high degree of “bounce-backability” is a hallmark of the successful CFOs I’ve worked with. Many of them have told me that taking on a change management role – one in which they truly stretched themselves – was a key step in developing that resilience, and in advancing their careers.

Leading change requires mastery of systems and process, but the human touch is crucial too. Yet for many financial managers, people engagement in all its forms – giving and receiving frank feedback, coaching and motivating others, managing conflict, and delegating effectively – is learned behaviour.

The truly great CFOs have team leadership as a spike in their toolkit: they are adept at mobilising others to change, and at dealing with emotional reactions while maintaining commitment. What better arena to practice and develop this than in the fluid and highly charged environment of a restructuring or merger?

Be curious about others, and yourself

In my previous blog post I emphasised the importance of curiosity, and for a leader of change this quality is all the more important. In many ways, curiosity goes hand in hand with people engagement, because it entails openness to learning from colleagues and team members. But there is also a self-reflective side to curiosity. When I assess candidates, I look for the instinctive drive to seek out new insights about themselves and their leadership styles: do they proactively ask for feedback, and do they act on it?

As a financial manager, it’s all too easy to be boxed into a stereotype as the “money man” (or woman) – a stereotype that you yourself can reinforce by sticking to traditional finance function roles and avoiding uncomfortable terrain. My challenge to you is to put yourself forward for roles that bring you new experiences, build your skills to manage people and master ambiguity, and develop you as an all-round leader.

Driving the organisational momentum for change has really made the careers of quite a number of the CFOs I respect. So go and grab the opportunity if it presents itself.

Cagla Bekbolet leads the global CFO practice of executive search firm Egon Zehnder

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