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6 Steps to a Better CEO—CFO Relationship

by Dan Wywrot, on Apr 9, 2019

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If your company has looked to a chief financial officer (CFO) to help improve, reshape or rethink your business, then your business has already taken the first step in quite a meaningful transition. But hiring a CFO is not enough. CEOs and other C-level executives who ask CFOs to work their magic must be willing to communicate and to relinquish control—and that’s easier said than done.

For this article, we sat down with Paro’s freelance CFO Craig Schwimmer to discuss the hurdles new CFOs often face and how CEO-CFO relationships can be smoothed to improve the performance of both personnel and profits. Read on to discover six steps to a better CEO-CFO relationship.

1. Remember Why You Hired a CFO

Even the most skilled leaders need to surround themselves with a diverse group of problem solvers. Remember that if you’ve chosen to hire a CFO, it’s because your company yearned for a new way of solving financial problems.

Says Schwimmer: “A CFO is hired because there is a complexity within the organization that can’t be solved by the skillsets of existing employees. Maybe your business has grown increasingly complicated and you’ve been relying on conventional wisdom—and it hits you in the face. Or maybe, out of nowhere, financial risk has skyrocketed. And now, bringing on a CFO is necessary.”

A CFO is typically responsible for a long list of financial duties, including developing a financial and operating strategy and rolling out a long-term plan to monitor, validate and improve that campaign. These strategies are nuanced and require an executive-level financial officer.

“If you’re going to make the decision to move from a controller’s skillset to a CFO’s skillset, then that’s because your CFO is offering you some sort of enhancement, whether that’s enterprise value, reduction in risk or increase in cash flow,” Schwimmer says. “Once you’ve hired a CFO, you’ve got to let them do their thing. You need to understand their value.”

Related: When and How You Can Enlist a Remote CFO

2. Ensure You’ve Made the Right Hire

If you’re positive that your company truly needs a CFO, but the new relationship just isn’t working, Schwimmer suggests that poor chemistry could be to blame.

“When hiring a CFO,” says Schwimmer, “you need to make sure you’re hiring the right person. Choose a CFO whose culture does not conflict with that of the company.”

If you are having trouble letting your new CFO get to work, Schwimmer advises you ask yourself: “Why am I not trusting my CFO? Is it a function of history, or do I really not trust this person? Is it me? Is it them? Or is it the organization?

Knowing exactly why you’re feeling uncomfortable with your CFO can help push you into action, whether that’s letting go of your own reservations or searching for a better hire.

Related: 5 Critical Soft Skills for Virtual CFOs

3. Define a CFO’s Role from the Get-Go

Schwimmer believes that for best results, you should know—and clarify—exactly what you need from your CFO on day one. Remember that you hired your CFO to help you make calculated, well-considered decisions.

“In general, the CFO should offer prospective and retrospective guidance to the CEO,” says Schwimmer. “A CFO should provide to the CEO information that helps him reduce risk, make informed decisions and align the company in a certain direction. Then, when the board gives direction, the CFO can arm the CEO with all the tools he needs to execute on that strategy.”

Schwimmer also believes that CFOs should support CEOs by looking at how competitors communicate, identifying specific initiatives of the CEO’s vision and ensuring that progress is being made on every one of the board’s agenda items.

4. Take Baby Steps That Build Trust

Even top-notch executives need a bit of time to warm up to each other and establish good rapport. After all, every good relationship is based on trust. That’s why Schwimmer recommends that all CEO-CFO relationships kick off with a few humble, tiny tasks that establish confidence.

“CEOs and CFOs should initially establish relatively small steps that give others and themselves comfort and build organizational trust. That bridge has got to be built,” Schwimmer says.

According to Schwimmer, CFOs can build trust with their CEOs by taking steps like these:

  • Consistently delivering ahead of schedule
  • Arriving at meetings prepared
  • Delivering bad news prior to meetings
  • Creating structure by creating a calendar of events
  • Circulating information prior to meetings
  • Developing relationships with service providers like accountants and attorneys
  • Identifying ways to execute instead of finding reasons things cannot be done

5. Clarify Deliverables and Benchmarks

CEO-CFO relationships are more complicated than ever before, in part because most companies are no longer siloed. Schwimmer says that in the past, employees had tightly-defined roles and communicated about their projects vertically. These simple organization charts made everything clearer.

“But today,everything is hybrid,” says Schwimmer. Employees of all levels from different groups—sales, finance, product development—are coming together to solve problems. And that’s great, but it can get messy.”

These hybrid solutions can make it difficult for even the strongest leaders to resist letting go of important projects. After all, the lines on what work belongs to whom are so blurred. Schwimmer recommends combatting this problem by “clearly defining who’s running what on day one.”

“Deliverables and benchmarks for all executives,” Schwimmer warns, “have got to be really tight.”

Related: KPIs: 5 Critical Questions to Help Define Your Business Metrics

6. Champion Communication Above All Else

While all the other touchpoints Schwimmer mentions are certainly important, nothing is as vital as establishing strong communication between you and your CFO.

Schwimmer asserts: “CEOs should establish incremental communication that develops a bond that builds a team. CEOs need to ensure everybody’s communication is aligned.”

Good communication begins with a CEO who has a vision and trusts his team can bring it to life.

“A CEO’s job is to align incentives,” says Schwimmer. “So allowing a CFO to do their job is really about a CEO’s ability to trust people and really understand their company’s goals.”

Start Building Bridges with your CFO Today

Whether you’re looking to hire a CFO in the near future or you’ve had one in place for years, there are steps you can take to improve the CEO-CFO relationship that are good for morale and great for business.

Start by remembering why you hired a CFO in the first place, and articulate what might be preventing you from relinquishing control to this person. Ensure the CFO’s role is clearly defined and start taking little strides toward building a bond with that person. To reduce confusion in today’s hybrid workplace, clearly define deliverables and benchmarks. And most importantly, implement excellent communication.

After all, a CFO is there to take your company to the next level—and so are you.

Topics:CFO