More CFOs partnering with CEOs to drive corporate strategy, yet many are ignoring the shift to digital

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The FINANCIAL — While the relationship between chief financial officers (CFO) and chief executive officers (CEO) has become more collaborative in the past three years as finance leaders have stepped up to the role of strategic advisor to the CEO, they are still more focused on managing costs and setting budgets than carving out a more strategic role.  

This is according to an EY global survey of 652 CFOs and a series of in-depth interviews with CFOs and CEOs. Findings from the fifth instalment of the Partnering for performance series indicate that 82% of CFOs feel that when they collaborate with the CEO on M&A decisions, performance management, and the shift to digital and operating model redesign, their most important contribution is still within their traditional finance remit.

Tony Klimas, EY Global Finance Performance Improvement Advisory Leader, says:

“Many CFOs emerged from the financial crisis with strengthened reputations. CEOs relied heavily on CFOs to handle cost-cutting and protect their firm during the recent economic downturn. Now that the economy is more stable, CFOs are finding themselves caught between cost control and growth. CFOs now need to find the balance between financial discipline and taking new risks to drive innovation and growth.”

Accelerating digital business

Despite an increased involvement in the strategic direction of their firms, CFOs seem to lack an understanding of the role they need to play in the shift to digital, a key factor impacting businesses today due to the disruption it can cause on their organization’s business and operating models.

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Only 50% of CFOs are making the shift to a digital business model a high priority in the next three years according to the survey, and only 49% believe they will make a high or very high contribution to it. This suggests that many CFOs do not fully understand the impact digital is likely to have on their business, nor their responsibility in leading and enabling this transformation. CFOs have an important role to play in this area, including leveraging digital to cut costs, and managing the legal, tax and regulatory risks that digital creates.

Laurence Buchanan, EY Digital Leader for Europe, Middle East, India and Africa, says:

“It’s surprising that few CFOs are placing a high priority on digital because the digital transformation is arguably one of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing firms today. The consequences of ignoring the shift to digital are far too great for only half of CFOs to be embracing it. It has the power to transform some organizations from market leaders to irrelevance in a frighteningly short timeframe. CFOs who don’t embrace this shift will be caught playing catch-up as their competition takes advantage of the digital culture to gain traction in the industry.”

Critical partnerships don’t stop at digital

Operational redesign and performance measurement are identified as two other critical areas for CFO and CEO collaboration. A large majority of CFOs (85%) who make operating model redesign a very high priority report closer collaboration with the CEO. Performance measurement of the organization is one of the key areas where CFOs feel they need to make a larger contribution, according to the survey.

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“What is clear from the findings is that CEOs and CFOs must work together to balance hindsight and foresight, moving beyond the past to focus on emerging risks and opportunities. And critical to developing a partnership that performs is for the CFO to focus on the considerable value they can add beyond cost control,” says Klimas.

 

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