Belshazzar's Feast, Rembrandt van Rijn, c.1635-1638, National Gallery, London
Ideas for Leaders #161

CFOs Reborn as Agents of Organizational Change

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Key Concept

After the financial crisis of 2009–10 and the subsequent global recession, CFOs have suddenly found themselves thrust under the spotlight like never before. They are no longer being seen merely as ‘chief number crunchers’ or even as senior accountants; organizations now want more out of their CFOs, and expect them to act as agents of ‘organizational change’. In this idea, some guidance is offered on how to effectively undertake such change management.

Idea Summary

Discussing her return to PwC as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) in 2012, Carol Sawdye said she would be spending much of her first year on the job focused on “change management.” In saying so, Sawdye acknowledged that the role of a CFO has now transformed; they need to assume bigger responsibilities and play a crucial role in effecting change inside and outside their organization.

In order to better understand this new role for CFOs and what it means for organizations as a whole, Egon Zehnder interviewed the CFOs of large corporations, and organized panel discussions with a select group of CFOs working in global companies from India. Analyzing the findings, Pablo Sagnier and Luis Baón from the firm discovered certain challenges faced by CFOs and published their thoughts in IESE Insight

According to Sagnier and Baón, CFOs have much more to consider than just spending decisions, which makes their relationship with CEOs a complex one. The CFOs interviewed did not seem comfortable with this new role as an ‘ally’ of the CEO, while holding the company’s purse strings at the same time. Yet it remains a fact that they are becoming highly sought after for their advice on areas not traditionally considered part of their job description. So how can they meet the new demands being placed on them and successfully complete the challenges they now face? A healthy balance between the following four facets is a good starting point:

  1. Collaboration: work side-by-side with the CEO on matters relating to corporate strategy, such as investor relations, compliance and regulation, etc.
  2. Influence: without this, collaboration will be ineffective. Forge ties with the rest of the management team and extend networking activities to all areas of the organization.
  3. Independence: this should be one of the CFO’s core values, rooted in the CFO’s traditional fiduciary duties and reinforced by current regulation.
  4. Results: finally, collaboration and influence combined with independence should translate into tangible results. It is not enough to simply offer unchallenging advice or object to every risky business plan.

Business Application

According to Sagnier and Baón, the key to getting results lies in changing the organization; CFOs are now change leaders too, and must push their organizations to work more efficiently and come up with solutions that lead to better performance.

How does a CFO transform into an agent of organizational change? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Get business savvy: switch focus from accounting and financial statements to business fundamentals and value creation. Delegate routine accounting tasks and thereby free-up more time for decision-making and strategy.
  2. Speak the CEO’s language: present a united front alongside the CEO at all times, and aim to become the CEO’s most trusted source.
  3. Be a talent manager: dedicate time to hiring, motivating, developing and offering the right training to members of the finance department.
  4. Think beyond finance: hone some essential soft skills, such as communication, problem solving and public relations.

The need to move from traditional functions towards strategy will become greater, and Sagnier and Baón predict that the CFOs of the future will become key partners in setting the strategic direction and tone of their organization’s business.

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Idea conceived

  • January 2013

Idea posted

  • June 2013

DOI number



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