Leadership Skills for Finance Managers: Advice from Rob Kugel and Cindy Kraft
Cindy Kraft, CFO Coach, and Robert Kugel, Senior VP at Ventana Research, are very plugged in to the world of Finance. They’ve seen the good, the bad, and the promising when it comes to Financial leadership. They know the skills that can make or break an aspiring CFO’s career.
Cindy has been providing guidance to CFOs for over a decade. “After being in business for about 15 years, I decided I wanted to brand my business—which is exactly how I coach my clients. I looked at my client list: with whom did I most enjoy working? And, then at the market: Where was there an opening?”
Fortunately, Cindy found one. “I truly enjoyed my Finance executives and there was no one in my industry working exclusively with CFOs. I stepped in, planted my flag, and never looked back,” she says.
Robert has led Finance and Business practice at Ventana Research for nearly twenty years. While working with organizations to identify gaps in their ability to execute core Finance and IT functions, he also has crossed paths with many CFOs.
For the last interview in our series on accelerating your Finance career , Prophix spoke to Cindy and Robert to glean insights forged from experience working with hundreds of Finance managers over their illustrious careers.
The Biggest Obstacles for Aspiring CFOs
Competing against experience can be a significant hurdle, Cindy says. “Getting a CFO role if you’ve never held a CFO title is the biggest challenge because you are competing against sitting CFOs,” she points out. “The best way to overcome that obstacle is to position yourself as a problem-solver who delivers value. What you do or what you’ve done is not competitive positioning.”
Robert elaborates, explaining why a typical accountant resume won’t do you any favors in positioning yourself for a bigger role.
“In accounting, doing the same thing over and over again the exact same way is good. That’s why accounting attracts people who like consistency, precision, and routine,” he explains.
While a black and white approach is great for keeping the books, it’s not ideal for setting a corporate vision.
“That quality can be a disability when it leads to rigidity of thought and inflexibility to change,” Robert says. “So, it’s necessary to balance the need for consistency and precision in performing accounting tasks with taking a more flexible approach to dealing with issues as they arise.”
Clear the Way for Your Success
“The biggest change has been the shift from bean counters—purely numbers folks—to operational CFOs to operational technology CFOs (FinTech),” Cindy says. “My observation is that the most effective and in-demand CFOs today are really more Chief Everything Officers with a strong focus on setting strategic vision and driving growth initiatives.”
In addition to picking up new skills, Finance leaders must be careful not to stand in the way of their own success. To that end, Robert has a surprising piece of advice.
“Hire a good controller,” he says. “If you are the controller and looking for a bigger role, you have to stop being the controller.”
There’s a good reason for his advice. If you are invaluable in your current position, the organization may not be eager to move you to a new role. On the other hand, if you are unable to delegate and trust someone with the Controller’s responsibilities, you probably aren’t ready to lead.
“The first thing you have to do as a CFO is take yourself out of the day-to-day and make sure you have someone you can delegate the day-to-day to, someone whom you can trust,” Robert says. He explains that once you’re a CFO you will need to, “Forget everything you’ve done in your career in the Finance and accounting department up until now. As a CFO you have to rise above the day-to-day work, take command of the department and work with the rest of the organization. This means understanding how the business operates: its strategy, its strengths, and weaknesses.”
Gain Knowledge Across the Organization
As Finance moves from the back-of-the-office function to a strategic partner, Finance leaders with skills and knowledge outside the core accounting functions will have a competitive advantage.
“Get involved in operations and work internally with other departments,” Cindy says. “Finance is no longer a silo function but has a hand, or at least a few fingers, in every part of a company’s operations.”
In particular, Cindy says “Operational CFOs with a knowledge of technology (FinTech) are quite marketable.”
Robert echoes the need for diversifying your area of expertise. “I think it’s important for tomorrow’s Finance leaders to be well versed in every aspect of their industry and business. So, there’s no single source of wisdom,” he says.
He adds that it is critical that Finance leaders understand information technology. “IT is evolving rapidly,” he says. “Over the next ten years, IT will have a greater impact on how the department operates than it has had over the past 50 years.”
“Too often, those outside the department do not understand why accounting and Finance need to do things the way they do, and the CFO must be able to explain the reasons in ways that people outside the department can understand,” Robert says. “CFOs must have digital skills. They don’t have to have become coders but must understand the basics of information technology systems. Increasingly, the skill with which a Finance department utilizes technology determines its effectiveness.”
Round Out Your Skills
Beyond amassing stronger organizational knowledge, these Finance experts stress the importance of developing and strengthening other critical skills.
“A senior Finance executive must be well versed in accounting, especially in understanding today’s rapidly evolving standards,” Robert says. “They must understand analytics, both basic and advanced. They must understand the evolving capabilities of the financial system and how that affects the treasury function. They should understand the basics of tax and financial markets.”
But aspiring CFOs need to do more than level-up their Finance skills. “Strong operational and Finance expertise combined with soft skills move the candidate to the top of the in-demand CFO list,” Cindy says.
According to Cindy, Finance leaders need to focus on cultivating “highly coveted soft skills: communication, relationship development and management, team-building, people development, mentoring,” she says. “Without those, you are just a Finance expert. With them, you are a Finance leader.”
Robert further elaborates: “CFOs must be able to communicate effectively orally and in writing with communications that are clear and consistent. He or she must also be able to communicate not just with people in their department but also with executives and managers in other parts of the business,” he says.
Gain the Skills to Reach New Heights
Positioning yourself for success against sitting CFOs will take new knowledge and skills. Visit our Finance Career Acceleration Center for more insights from Finance experts including practical information to help you reach new heights.