October 2016Senior Leadership

Equipping CFOs to Thrive as Strategic Leaders

Equipping CFOs to Thrive as Strategic Leaders

Finance chiefs increasingly are being elevated to the top role in their organizations — in fact, nearly a quarter of chief executives appointed in 2013 at the United States’ largest listed firms were once CFOs.  “What does it mean to move from the bookkeeper to the C-suite? It means less focus on the three-day close and more focus on customers, markets, and competitors,” says David Wessels, a Wharton finance professor and academic director of The CFO: Becoming a Strategic Partner.

Since 2002, Wharton has helped over 1,000 CFOs and other finance leaders gain the strategic agility and leadership mindset expected of executives being groomed for the CEO role. The CFO: Becoming a Strategic Partner program gives participants a “toolbox” to enhance their leadership skills, better communicate with non-financial colleagues, and find and design growth opportunities for their organizations.

Wessels notes that those who teach in the program have extensive experience with CFOs, and their content is customized to that audience. Some areas of focus include managing risk and uncertainty using optionality, identifying profitable sources of revenue growth, and creating and sustaining competitive advantage.

He compares the evolving role of today’s CFO to the game of chess.  “Much like great chess players, today’s CFOs have to go beyond being linear thinkers — focused on the next step to capture a pawn or bishop on the board — to being strategic thinkers who plan multiple moves ahead and even encourage competitor reaction in a predictive way,” he explains.

According to Wessels, CFOs have always had a place at the table by virtue of controlling the profit-and-loss statement, which serves as a comprehensive ledger of all the firm’s activities. “There are very few if any people in the organization who have as much access and control over this wide-ranging tool.  That gives CFOs the right to play, but in order to have a seat at the table they must go from collecting the data that goes into the P&L to being an expert in each part of their business,” he says.

Another factor in the CFO’s favor is the growing importance of capital markets in driving business strategy, from making a decision to pursue a merger to being well versed in financial instruments that create leverage to move the business forward. “The most successful strategic CFOs excel at taking often highly unstructured and ambiguous situations and putting some structure to it. Their business partners can see what matters and what doesn’t as they create a long-term path forward,” Wessels says.    

A hallmark of all of Wharton’s Executive Education programs is the caliber of global students that participate and the opportunity to apply frameworks taught in class to a real-world problem.   The program includes live case examples where participants learn how CFOs have applied tools to take their businesses forward.

Wessels considers a major highlight of his experience teaching the CFO program the interplay among participants. “It’s not just faculty that provides this critical analysis and direction, it’s the finance colleagues in the classroom who are often high-level CFOs and finance leaders themselves, who challenge each other’s thinking,” he says.