Survey: CFOs Under Pressure to Meld Strategy, Operations

A global survey says corporate finance leaders are being asked to take on more strategic responsibility while continuing to manage their everyday duties. And association CFOs aren’t immune.

Finance chiefs feel pulled in two directions, according to a new survey: They’re asked to think more strategically, but they’re also having a harder time keeping up with day-to-day tasks and new trends in data analysis.

The Ernst & Young study, titled “The DNA of the CFO,” is based on a global survey of 769 CFOs and other finance leaders at companies in 31 countries in a variety of industries. Among the findings:

Execs should sell the CFO position as a strategic plan implementer.

  • A majority (56 percent) say they “cannot focus on strategic priorities because of time spent on compliance, controls, and costs.” Half say “increasing operational responsibilities” are getting in the way.
  • Fifty-eight percent say they need to “build their understanding of digital, smart technologies, and sophisticated data analytics.”
  • Despite those operational challenges, 68 percent say “they will be increasingly asked to take on wider operational roles beyond finance.”

The report identifies four forces disrupting the traditional CFO role: an increasingly digital world, more sophisticated data-delivery methods, a growing emphasis on risk management, and increased scrutiny from stakeholders and regulators.

“CFOs who don’t proactively define their role in response to these major forces could compromise their ability to shape strategy with the CEO and drive the innovation necessary for sustainable growth,” according to the survey’s authors.

Douglas M. Kleine, CAE, president of Professional Association Services, says he sees similar stresses in the association community. Regulatory compliance issues alone can overburden a CFO’s inbox: “Small associations are increasingly faced with new regulation and reporting: Affordable Care Act, state and local minimum-wage increases, mandatory sick leave, longer 990s, ERISA,” and the new rules for overtime pay,  he says.

Even so, Kleine says, the finance heads at associations need to take a more hands-on role in setting strategy. “Execs should sell the CFO position as a strategic plan implementer,” he says. “The CFO of the future needs to be the practical answerer of ‘We can’t do that’ with a ‘Yes we can, and here’s how.’”

In response to these challenges, the Ernst & Young report recommends that CFOs build their personal skill sets—getting coaching and training to fill gaps—and develop a better grasp of coming finance trends, both locally and globally.

If that only sounds like more work, the study’s authors agree. Indeed, organizations may need to better understand the competencies of the entire C-suite so that CFOs can delegate as needed.

The CFO position has “become a job that may be too big for any one individual to do well, given all the responsibilities and the incredible contrast between the day-to-day tactical controllership functions and the very long-term, strategic, executive functions,” says Tony Klimas, global finance performance improvement advisory leader at Ernst & Young, in the report. “It’s now more important than ever for the CFO not just to worry about their role, but also the team that they surround themselves with.”


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!