What it means to be the CFO of the Future

By Simon Robinson

CFOs today are spending less time on operational finance activities and more time on strategy, as increased automation is allowing more time for value-added tasks. 

We only have to look back a decade to see how our roles can barely be compared to today. Technology has changed so much of what our teams do and, most importantly, how they do it. And if CFOs think these changes will continue with the same velocity, they’ll find themselves wrong—finance transformation will only gather more speed in the next decade. 

CFOs will make more-informed decisions, faster

Technology is already enabling the faster production of results, and more sophisticated forecasting, ultimately allowing greater surety and fewer surprises.

Cloud based systems allow finance teams to access the latest global technology instantly. System providers, driven by simple access to the global market, will continue to innovate to solve finance pain points. There’s no reason for tedious, repetitive tasks such as end-of-month processes not to become increasingly automated.

With automation taking care of these operational finance activities, decision making is changing. New inputs from the integration of ERPs and so many other business technology platforms are creating a wealth of data and information. The challenge for finance leaders now is to use this information to make more informed decisions and provide data and insights to the rest of the business so that they can do the same. 

They will be involved in broader strategic conversations

With increased automation and smarter systems, CFOs are being provided with the opportunity to be involved in other areas of a business’s growth, such as sales, marketing and product development. CFOs will be able to contribute a point of view that often hasn’t been part of broader business discussions, especially those that are impacting the customer.

Accelerated by COVID-19, collaboration with other areas of the business have started to improve, and this is expected to increase over the coming years, bringing greater accuracy, and improved resource management and bottom lines. For my team, this collaboration is bringing about a better understanding of the numbers which allows them to be more proactive in recommendations.

Their roles will expand beyond finance 

The CFO is now central to new technology adoption in most businesses. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of adaptable and flexible technology tools.

The willingness to shift work from physical environments to undertaking activities remotely can ensure any future changes in the workplace dynamic are managed simply, causing minimal workflow interruptions. 

The CFO will play a central role in defining internal processes, which allow the business to scale. Technology can be layered on top to create efficiency, but it is these processes that ultimately determine the ability to create efficient internal systems that provide the foundations for the customer facing teams.

They will feel the impact of technology on finance teams 

 Automation offers a huge opportunity for finance teams to do more interesting, value-add roles, working more closely with the wider business. This change, however, will disrupt many traditional roles, and a key challenge for the CFO will be to recruit the right talent and provide development opportunities for existing staff, so that teams embrace these changes.

There are many powerful data and analytics tools available. Given the emphasis on technology as more businesses move to digital, this opens up more opportunities for what can be measured, and CFOs will start to create new roles to help calculate and communicate data and insights.

They will rely on real-time data 

Real-time data justifies business decisions to management, is used in scenario planning, and coping with uncertainty. At EP I have embedded this culture, and we make key decisions informed by data—our new customer onboarding is a prime example. 

At the end of 2019, we built a data warehouse and introduced a new BI tool for key metrics and the value of this was underlined at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Internal data from early February showed a large usage spike in China, giving an early warning of what was happening. We made our platform available for free until the start of May for any impacted school.

In March, we received over 5,000 new trial requests for our platform. Teachers can be quickly set up, but there’s quite a bit involved in onboarding a whole school (students, classes, year groups, curricula all need to be set up). The data showed where drop-off occurred, and we learnt a lot about how to onboard successfully at scale. 

Having access to this data, and the ability and willingness to act on it made a world of difference to our ability to keep up with the needs of our customers in a rapidly changing environment. The CFO of the Future needs to embrace not only the technology that provides similar data, but a corporate culture which is willing to act on it.

They will optimise ROI 

Technology and new systems can be transformational, but critical to the success of these projects is buy-in from the whole team. There is always the danger of people fearing change or being replaced by technology and undermining the success of projects.

At Education Perfect (EP), one of our core values is continuous improvement – for all levels of the organisation. By actively participating in a company’s evolution, staff will gain a sense of pride and accomplishment. From this, we get a greater sense of belonging, which positively impacts employee retention. Through involving multiple staff levels in the process, you’ll boost employee engagement and reduce turnover rates. Human capital is a key investment, and a greater return is guaranteed through their active involvement in the company’s acceleration and growth. The CFO of the Future should have champions for their systems, and never stop evolving.

therefore, their skillset will need to be broad 

As technology advances and finance requires fewer manual tasks, the CFO of the Future needs to focus on strategy, people management, creativity, leadership and storytelling – a far broader portfolio than has traditionally been the model.

Storytelling is a particularly critical skill. CFO’s need to effectively communicate with investors, boards, and internal teams about the broader vision, with data supporting it. We do a lot of this at EP where data supports our new product areas or new markets strategy, but our bigger story and vision is told so our strategy is understood. 

Overall, the CFO will be a key part of the leadership team, bringing unique expertise and viewpoints. They must act as an enabler to change, with an openness to ideas, and a broad understanding of the whole business and strategy for future success.

About the Author:

Simon Robinson is the Chief Financial Officer at Education Perfect (EP). Simon joined EP as CFO in August 2018, attracted by the opportunity to drive growth and craft strategy within the EdTech industry. As a member of the leadership team, he is focused on evaluating opportunities, designing, and executing the strategic plan, and creating internal systems and structures for growth and scale.