21 February 2023 | Startup

5 Tips To Manage The CEO/CFO Relationship

Few business partnerships are as important as the relationship between the CEO and CFO of a company.

This is even more true today, as CFOs are increasingly taking on a strategic role, acting as trusted advisors and planning partners to the CEO, as opposed to senior number crunchers.

To navigate these changing expectations, it’s critical that both executives have a unified view of what the CEO/CFO relationship should look like, and how the two can work together to create organizational success.

This article will act as your guide for building that relationship.

We’ll begin by exploring the changing role of the CFO in order to put the CEO/CFO partnership into context.

Then, we’ll dive into five actionable tips for managing and improving this critical business relationship.

The Changing Role Of The CFO

The role of the CFO in modern companies is evolving, and it’s happening quickly.

In the past, the CFO’s role was strictly as a financial advisor to the CEO. They’d collect financial data and insights from their accounting and FP&A teams, and provide them to the CEO.

In most cases, this was a rear-view mirror operation. CFOs looked at what happened in the previous financial period (say, last quarter), and left it to the CEO to interpret what to do with that information.

In the most trusting of relationships, the CFO might have acted as something of a handbrake to overzealous CEOs with a great vision for the future but a loose grasp on the financial ability of the company to deliver on that vision.

Today, the CFO role is much more strategic.

The relationship between the CEO and the CFO has become more of a partnership, and the CFO is more and more involved in the strategic direction of the company and associated planning.

Where once CEOs would ask questions like “Why did revenue stall last quarter?”, they’re now having conversations with CFOs that involve questions such as “If we double down on this expenditure, what would the impact of that be on revenue in the coming quarter?”

It’s a more forward-looking role on the CFO’s part, and is altogether a much more collaborative relationship.

For this strategic partnership to be fruitful, then, both executives need to understand the new boundaries of their roles, and how they can provide each with the necessary tools, advice, and support to thrive within this context.

5 Tips For Improving The CEO/CFO Relationships

The tips we discuss here are not about how to be a better CFO to your CEO, or vice versa.

They are collaborative action steps that require the commitment and attention of both executives to be effective.

Implement these five tips, and you’ll develop a more successful and long-lasting CEO/CFO relationship.

1. Create Clarity on Expectations

Begin by ensuring both the CEO and CFO understand what is expected of each other.

This includes the expectations of the role itself (for instance, how often the CFO is to share financial forecasts with the CEO and what they should consist of), as well as what each wants from the other.

Most CEOs want a CFO who is a great communicator and is skilled at strategic thinking.

In their role as a communicator, the best CFOs are those who are adept at storytelling.

Communicating financial information needs to go beyond numbers and graphs. This data tells a story about how this business did, is doing, or will do, and it’s the CFOs job to communicate that story (concisely) to the CFO.

Say, for example, you’re at the end of quarter one, and as the CFO, you’re pulling together a report on profit for that period.

Revenue came in as expected, but profit was lower than anticipated due to an increase in shipping expenses.

The CEO can see this in the numbers; your job is to explain why that happened, what it means for profitability going forward and your ability to hit other financial targets, as well as to provide options for solving the issue moving forward.

This is where strategic thinking comes in.

The old-world CFO simply says, “Here’s what happened.” Modern CFOs need to pull together several solutions, explain the pros and cons of each, and recommend a path forward.

Though the CEO role may be more senior than that of the CFO, it’s equally as important to establish what is required of them for the relationship to flourish.

For instance, a CEO that doesn’t consider the recommendations of the CFO and adjust direction accordingly is unlikely to foster much trust in the longevity of a strategic partnership.

Clearly define the expectations of the working relationship, and schedule time once a quarter to review.

2. Adopt A Collaborative Approach To Strategic Planning

The modern CEO/CFO relationship is one that takes a collaborative, forward-thinking approach.

As opposed to the CEO taking the lead on all things future and the CFO providing context on past financial successes (or challenges), work together to design a strategic plan for financial growth.

For example, the CFO can pull together an analysis of current revenue streams and drivers to understand the impact of company investment on future revenue growth.

They might identify, for instance, that investment in sales team headcount actually has more of an impact on revenue growth than marketing activities like paid advertising.

With this information uncovered, the CEO and CFO can work together to shift the revenue strategy from a marketing-focused approach to a sales-focused one.

3. Automate Data Collection And Presentation To Focus On The Future

Today’s software environment offers an abundance of tools to enhance the finance role and take care of repetitive tasks like the creation of financial forecasts and statements.

For instance, by setting up a financial modeling platform and connecting all of your revenue and expense data, you can design a real-time dashboard for projecting future cash flow.

The CFO should take advantage of these tools to gain back time in their day, allowing them to take on a more strategic role rather than an operational one.

Rather than spending a day each month pulling together data to create a cash flow projection, you can now use this time to review an automatically generated report.

Then, you can create recommendations for your CEO as to what to do with that information, such as providing options for cost-cutting measures if cash flow is looking lighter than anticipated.

4. Develop A Finance Communication Plan

The CFO and CEO should work together to create a communication plan for disseminating financial information (projections, reports, results, and plans) to the wider organization.

The idea here is to make this information digestible to all, and to frame it in a way that makes sense at the department level.

That is, telling a story that puts financial data into the context of your employees’ day-to-day jobs.

Consider, for example, that you plan to make a shift toward a more sales-led revenue growth approach. How will you communicate this information to your team members?

It’s not enough to simply explain that you’ll be hiring more sales team members. The marketing department will wonder, for instance, how those new hires will be able to sustain momentum without additional cash in the marketing budget.

Your job (or rather, jobs) in this case would be to explain how the data you’ve pulled together regarding your revenue drivers translates to the spending and budgetary decisions you’ve made.

As far as the CEO/CFO relationship goes, the CFO should act as the bridge between the CEO and department leaders from the viewpoint of budgets and forecasting.

As an example, this might look like one-on-one meetings between the CFO and the VP of each department to discuss the budget and goals set out and to create realistic action plans for achieving those objectives.

5. Get Out Of Spreadsheets And Make Data Visual

A visual method for representing data is key to strong communication not only between the CFO and the CEO, but between this partnership and the wider team.

The traditional method for handling financial data (spreadsheets) is simply inefficient and ineffective for communicating financial information.

Rows and rows of numbers and formulas don’t inspire much motivation; graphs, trends, and charts tell a visual story that even those who struggle with numbers can understand at a glance.

Use your financial reporting and modeling platform to transform your finance approach to a visual one. Create a custom dashboard (if your software tool allows for it) with all of the reports you want to see on a regular basis, and ensure that, at a minimum, both the CEO and CFO have access to see this data in real time.

Conclusion

As you’re no doubt coming to understand, the biggest lever in improving the CEO/CFO relationship is strong communication.

From the CEO, this looks like clearly communicating expectations, goals and initiatives, and taking on board the recommendations from their CFO.

For the CFO, it’s all about their ability to turn hard numbers into stories that the CEO (and the wider team) can understand with ease, as well as to make strategic recommendations about the financial direction of the company.

To achieve this, CFOs need a robust financial modeling and reporting platform that automates tedious work like data collection and report building, and presents financial information in an easy-to-interpret visual format.

This allows finance executives to focus on what matters—financial strategy.

Finmark from BILL is the financial planning platform designed to help startups and SMBs deliver on their ambitious goals and drive revenue growth.

Get started today and begin building a fruitful CEO/CFO relationship.

Josh Krissansen
Josh Krissansen
Contributor

This content is presented “as is,” and is not intended to provide tax, legal or financial advice. Please consult your advisor with any questions.

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