December 2021 | 

Excelling in Finance: Short- and Long-Term Leadership

Excelling in Finance: Short- and Long-Term Leadership

A new report from McKinsey says the scope of the CFO role is expanding. “Now is the time for finance leaders to lean into the evolution of their roles and reassert themselves as strategic partners and digital enablers to the business,” it declares. The report examines the many ways in which senior finance executives are increasingly involved in oversight of key areas of their business, including organizational transformation.

For many in the CFO role or on track to take it on, the expansive role presents a conundrum: even recent finance MBAs have a “numbers-heavy” skill set. How then to make the jump from accounting to strategy?

Wharton’s finance experts saw it coming — and developed a solution — more than 20 years ago. The CFO: Becoming a Strategic Partner, an intensive program taught by MBA faculty, helps senior finance leaders strengthen their leadership skills, knowledge of strategy, and strategic decision making. Running online beginning February 21, it is an immersive deep dive that prepares participants to excel in an expanded role.

According to Advait Kotecha, vice president of strategy, financial planning, and analysis for Octave Group, deciding to attend is a “great stepping-stone toward the goal of becoming a CFO.” Kotecha has a Wharton MBA and a background in strategic planning, currently leading the firm’s strategy team and reporting to the CFO. “The program was perfect for where I am in my career, both academically and from a networking perspective,” Kotecha says. “It built on my MBA and allowed me to interact with and learn from other senior finance executives.”

Connecting the Dots

Kotecha says a major takeaway was how to navigate and excel at the dual roles of the CFO — what he terms the microscope and the telescope. “You need to be able to see the ‘back-end plumbing’ that needs to work to support the organization, but also be a strategic partner in the C-suite to move it forward. That was very clear in the program,” Kotecha says.

“As senior finance leaders, we connect the dots between the CEO and the rest of the organization,” he continues. “Ours is the only function that sees across the whole business, so we need to look around corners and help the company see the big picture. Finance has a back-end role to play, but when it is powerful it also plays the role of connective tissue across the organization. Wharton’s CFO program helps you to start thinking about areas you didn’t know about before. It also helps you get stronger, building the muscles you need to have greater perspective to toggle between the microscope and the telescope.”

A New Perspective on Strategy

“I especially appreciated the session on strategy with Nicolaj Siggelkow,” says Kotecha. Professor Siggelkow leads participants in a Strategy Audit, a hands-on exercise that makes clear the importance of cohesion, connection, and buy-in across the organization for successful strategy execution. His work on connected strategy — a focus of his 2019 book and current research — particularly resonated with Kotecha. “He stressed the importance of making choices: you can’t do everything for everyone, so there are tradeoffs,” Kotecha says. “When you acknowledge that and are prepared for it, you can see from an organizational perspective your choices need to be interdependent.”

“It’s very easy to get siloed and think in terms of a marketing choice or a sales choice,” continues Kotecha. “But if you want to differentiate by being number one in a particular area, that choice has to be supported by everyone. It has to be part of a cohesive strategy. And the finance function is the connective tissue across the organization that should bring that to bear.”

A Powerful Learning Community

“Everyone in the program was in a senior finance position, but we have different backgrounds and come from different countries and organizations,” says Kotecha.

“I got to interact with peers who have a mosaic of experiences, with many different backgrounds, from countries like Japan, Dubai, and Indonesia. It is extremely valuable to hear from other people about how they navigate their challenges, especially as they relate to the CEO and the senior leadership team.”

Kotecha says the conversation was especially important in terms of the pandemic. “In a typical recession, everyone comes down. But in 2020 companies like mine had their revenue go to zero. Our challenges were around restructuring and managing liquidity. Others in the program had the reverse problem. Colleagues from Amazon and Reckitt Benckiser, the company that makes Lysol wipes, couldn’t keep up with demand. The pandemic blew up things in different ways, and it was interesting to learn how people handled those challenges.”

Leadership Impact

“In an MBA program, you talk a lot about leadership and the impact you can have,” says Kotecha. “In an executive education program, that level of leadership impact is very different. You are making decisions that affect the short- and long-term future of your organization. Learning and talking with others who have that deeper perspective, who understand the different stakeholders, and who have a lot of interaction with the C-suite is a different level of conversation. It’s what makes attending a program like The CFO so valuable.”