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CFO as a navigator-partner to the CEO

When an organisation wins against severe odds, often the CFO and CEO partake of the sunshine equally. Both the winning strategy and its superior execution gain from the CFO’s vision and insights.

June 29, 2020 / 11:41 PM IST

By Sandeep Jain

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures – Daniel H. Pink

Today, change is the only constant, uncertainty lurks at every turn and plans are not worth the paper they are written on (oops, the hard-drive they are stored on!).  In times such as these, defining the role of a CFO has become even more challenging. In my leadership coaching work, I find that metaphors work fantastically to convey a thought, sometimes even better than pictures. Pictures are static, but metaphors conjure up a series of images.

While coaching CFOs, my go-to metaphor for a CFO's role is the navigator of a rally car. This rally car is specially customised (the organisation) and is navigating a treacherous road rather than a defined circuit (the business environment) to win (and thus, deliver on the organisational vision). The CEO is the driver, and you, the CFO, are in the next seat as the navigator. Now imagine the thrill.

What does a rally navigator do?


The navigator sits in the front seat, reading and conveying the race notes and winning strategy crafted by the rally team. The navigator alerts the driver on what lies ahead; where to turn, the severity of the turn, what obstacles to look out for and, sometimes even interprets the map for them.

The navigator also tells the driver about any incidents or accidents that may have occurred further ahead. The tougher the rally, the more critical it is to have a competent navigator to achieve a podium finish.

Navigators could be in the driver's seat on some stretches and could be the go-to guy on other occasions, perhaps even changing a wheel.

This analogy of a navigator holds excellent lessons for the traits that the CFOs need to display in their roles, especially against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic:

Partner with the CEO: The CFO's position is the closest to that of the CEO and their working relationship also needs to get there. CFOs should be able to partner with and yet, challenge the CEO at the same time. The CFO needs to be their sounding board, their confidante and also, their sparring partner. The CFO may also be in the driver's seat at times, but that should be with the realisation that it is only a temporary role and not a permanent transition.

Stakeholder management: The CEO may be too absorbed with winning and may at times overlook the need to onboard everyone to deliver on their vision. The challenge of carrying all the stakeholders, both the people reporting to them and the Board of Directors, can be daunting and needs support at multiple times, in varying levels and different forms. The CFO has almost as much access to the Board as the CEO, and hence, could play a very defining role in aligning the Board, as and when necessary.

Sighting and mitigating risks before they become a reality: The CFO needs to understand the risks in the organisation's strategy and needs to help the CEO manage these risks. Some CFOs may think that their role ends by highlighting the risk or just conveying the perception of risk. I believe that they need to not only highlight the risk but also assist the CEO in navigating and mitigating these risks.

Winner's mindset: Winning mindset is not the domain of the CEO alone; the CFO also needs to have the same. The CEO may be in the driver’s seat, but there is only so much they can attend to while racing through treacherous terrains; this is where the CFO has to play the role of holding the rest of the elements together. The CFO should be as motivated as the CEO by the vision of the team popping champagne on the winning stage.

Adept at strategy and execution: Not many organisational roles are as diverse as the CFO's. They are both, the strategist working alongside the CEO putting the winning strategy in place and also, the executors of said strategy. The CFO is the one responsible for ensuring that the strategy execution stays the course. Execution is not only ensuring that what needs to be done is done in their own domain but also devising ways for others to know if they are executing in line and in time with the overall strategy. This could also mean an 'on the go' correction for a deviation which may be emerging.

When an organisation wins, a true-breed CFO doesn’t stand in the CEO’s shadow, they bask in the glories of victory together.

(After 25 years in various finance function and business leadership roles across the Asia-Pacific, Sandeep Jain now works as a Strategy Consultant and Leadership Coach, besides mentoring scale-ups and start-ups. He is a Chartered Accountant and a Certified Internal Auditor by qualification and has pursued various executive education and higher learning programs. He is also a Marshall Goldsmith certified coach, an ACC credentialed ICF member and an NLP practitioner. He now runs his own consulting and coaching firm, Value-Unlocked and enjoys playful exploration of all things serious in life and work)

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first published: Jun 29, 2020 03:48 pm
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