Many leadership discussions during the last 12-18 months have centred on the human experience during COVID, the impact of this period has had on leaders and the many challenges of managing remote workforces.
James Allen, a Partner for Gerard Daniels in London, believes a missing part of this conversation is the critical role that CFOs and other finance leaders have played in navigating businesses through this difficult time. “Finance leaders have really stepped up to support businesses during this crisis,” James explains.
Here are five ways CFOs have helped businesses to navigate COVID-19.
1. Crisis management and communication
To ensure business continuity during the pandemic, CFOs initially shifted their focus towards crisis management. During this phase many CFOs showed great leadership by putting measures in place to protect their workforce, stabilising the business and positioning businesses to thrive when conditions improve – an achievement that James attributes to effective communication and stakeholder management.
“During COVID there has been a noticeable increase in the rhythm of communication from the CFO to the Board, Audit and Risk Committees, investors and shareholders,” says James. “While avoiding surprises at board level is always crucial, this need has been amplified during COVID. We’ve seen CFOs respond by improving transparency and significantly increasing the frequency of communication to stakeholders.”
2. Cash preservation
Another part of the early CFO response was to tightly manage or improve liquidity. “We’ve noted consulting firms refer to this as ‘creating a cash war room’,” James explains. “In times of uncertainty having a cash shortage is a genuine risk, so CFOs have focused on increasing liquidity in various ways to reduce this risk, and improve the ability to forecast cash flow and quantify accessible capital.”
3. Finding operational efficiencies
Once the immediate business crisis had been addressed many CFOs turned their attention towards operational efficiency. “CFOs have played a really important part in this process, not only in reducing fixed costs, but in finding productivity gains and improvements across the business,” says James. “The more resilient companies that we’ve seen are the ones that took immediate action.”
James also believes that strategically managing operational efficiency has allowed some businesses to retain more flexibility and balance in their cost reductions, and to emerge faster from the crisis. “By not having to cut back so aggressively these businesses can now quickly scale operations back up as the economy recovers,” he says.
4. Turbo-charging financial planning
James recently connected with the Group CFO for a global FTSE 100 client, who spoke of the growing influence of financial planning and analysis (FP&A) teams during the pandemic. This client observed that by providing key performance data for CFOs and boards, these teams were enabling more confidence and accuracy around financial planning, budgeting and forecasting, resulting in achieving a greater influence within the business.
“Some FP&A teams have been able to offer rolling forecasts and collaborative dashboard tools to inform business decisions almost in real time, a far cry from more traditional monthly, quarterly and annual reporting,” says James. “Current employment conditions in some sectors have also created unique opportunities for businesses to recruit some exceptional “external” digital and finance talent to speed up digitisation, and to drive these processes forward.”
5. Enabling recovery
James believes that the swift and strategic approach taken by many CFOs is now paying dividends during recovery.
“Some CFOs are now starting to be more proactive again with their investment portfolios, using divestitures, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) as part of their recovery strategy,” says James. “The companies we’ve seen outperform their peers have always been reasonably active in this space. With many businesses becoming potential targets due to COVID, this has created some unique growth opportunities for businesses that are well placed to invest.”
6. Assessing future CFO talent
During COVID there has been a natural evolution in the role of CFO, and in what businesses are looking for in senior finance talent.
“Today when we run a CFO search process candidates are judged on far more than their ability to increase EBITDA, reduce operational costs and pay dividends to shareholders,” says James. “Businesses want to understand how finance leaders have managed more challenging conditions and markets, and the pandemic provided the perfect showcase for performing under pressure.”
COVID has also driven home the importance of softer leadership skills like communication, empathy and emotional intelligence. “When difficult decisions need to be made within the business, it’s important for CFOs to understand the human impact,” James continues. “During COVID, CFOs have also played an integral part in demonstrating a clear way through the crisis, in quashing any misunderstandings, keeping people motivated and creating optimism – no easy feat during a global pandemic.”
Looking to the future, it’s likely that the role and response of CFOs during COVID will become an additional focal point in the search for executive talent. Businesses will be keeping a close eye on the measures CFOs have taken, and the lessons learned from this unique experience.
To discuss your next CFO role or attract new leadership talent to your organisation, talk to Gerard Daniels today.