The New CFO: 7 Insights from Top CFOs

The 20th century version of the CFO role is dead.

Between intensifying competition, technological innovation, changing customer expectations, and new business models that have upended finance department workflows, CFOs’ responsibilities have changed immensely.

Zuora Co-Founder and CEO Tien Tzuo spoke with four topflight CFOs — Todd McElhatton, CFO of Zuora; Mark Garrett, Adobe’s legendary ex-CFO; Megan Murray, eMoney’s Head of Finance; and Steve Cakebread, formerly CFO at Salesforce, Pandora and now CFO at Yext, and author of the upcoming “The IPO Playbook: An Insider’s Perspective on Taking Your Company Public and How to Do It Right” about how the role of CFO has changed — and what it takes to be a successful CFO today.

Two things we found across the board:

    1. The CFO role has broadened significantly.
    2. Successful CFOs must have the ability to master data to drive business results.

We’ve distilled their perspectives into six core traits and skills for today’s CFO. Read on for their take on what success looks like within the finance function, the role of automation, and why the distinction between front and back office is less and less relevant.


#1 Soft Skills Matter

No more are CFOs “Dr. Nos,” responsible only for managing company purse strings. Today’s successful CFO is much more out in the forefront, and needs to be able to tell the company’s story, coordinate across the organization, and drive change.

Compared to 10 years ago, CFOs now spend a lot more time communicating to internal (employees) and external Wall Street analysts, members of the press, and customers) stakeholder groups.

So, as Todd McElhatton puts it, excelling at so-called soft skills such as communications and leadership are not nice-to-haves: they are imperatives.

Megan Murray echoes that view, identifying collaboration and listening skills as some of the new must-haves.


#2 Business Model Execution

CFOs have evolved from focusing on controlling costs, monitoring P&L, and reporting to helping execute the business model. That means they are a lot more involved in operational details than ever before. At the same time, they need to be much more strategic and forward-looking, maintaining their focus on risk management and having the vision to home in on longer-term opportunities and emerging risks.

With CFOs taking on more of a COO role, as Mark Garrett sees it “the CFO today has to be instrumental in helping to formulate and implement the company strategy.” If that sounds a bit like a traditional COO’s role, that’s because the line between the two has increasingly blurred. Garrett actually exemplifies this shift himself — telling us he’d seldom even worked at companies with a COO.

McElhatton views it as vital that CFOs are “sitting at the table” helping drive decisions around capital and resource allocation as well as growth strategies. There is a definite correlation between this new expanding CFO role and what some perceive as a reduction in the number of companies with COOs. The fact that “ultimately everything leads back to P&L,” as McElhatton puts it, is another driver for the declining presence of COOs.


#3 Embrace Technology

Continuous disruption, rising business complexity, ever more intense competition, and the rise of the subscription model have all helped drive the evolution from CFOs as managing a reporting function to helping to set and drive company strategy.

The reporting requirements are still there, but as Garrett explains, CFOs are now called upon to both “predict what’s going to happen, and then tell me what to do about it.”

Add in the fact that pricing is increasingly recognized as a key strategic lever, and CFOs can no longer treat technology as something the IT department or the CIO handles. Not only is a deep understanding of data “absolutely essential,” says Murray, There’s also no room for lukewarm or narrowly functional adoption. ”It has to be something you’re really interested in and passionate about,” says McElhatton.


#4 Chief Revenue Driver

CFOs are now responsible for bottom line and top line growth. Garrett spoke to how pricing’s strategic importance prompted him to consolidate pricing responsibility under the finance function while he was CFO at Adobe. The driver? The company’s launch of a subscription revenue model, which required alignment across business units, experimentation, and coordination across business departments to drive growth.

The impact was two-fold. It focused the team on the customer experience (essential for subscription-based businesses). It also “changed the kind of people we needed in finance, because they really needed to become much more data-oriented.”

CFOs can’t drive revenue in a vacuum, of course. That involves multiple teams — from product to marketing to sales to operations — across the company. But more and more, the CFO role demands coordination, communication, and collaboration. Why? “To make sure that all those different pieces come together and make sense and work to drive that growth, Garrett says.


#5 Deep Customer Understanding

Today CFOs are increasingly being asked not just what happened, but why it happened. For Murray, answering the question “Why exactly did my revenue grow so much last quarter?” necessarily requires a deep understanding of the customer and of the data.

As automation drives deeper into finance organizations, providing richer data sets, she says, “you spend less time doing the basics and more time absorbing, understanding and analyzing.” That means “appreciation of data and relational data models is absolutely essential.”

Which highlights another development. With customer satisfaction front and center, something that’s mission-critical for subscription companies, the lines between front and back office are increasingly blurred. That’s true for a couple of reasons. First, the distinction isn’t super relevant for customers. Second, automation’s reach means both teams have access to the same data, and are driving to the same bottom-line goal, namely optimizing the customer experience. That said, there’s still work to be done on alignment and communication across front and back office teams. As Murray brought up, “we’re realizing the more we do this that we’re using different words to describe the same outcome. So we’re trying to align our language.”


#6 Learn the Language of New Metrics

Forget about the traditional image of CFOs as bean counters. Creativity and a willingness to experiment are now of fundamental importance, especially when the old GAAP standards for financial performance are no longer enough. As Cakebread describes having to figure out how to measure performance when he led Salesforce’s transition to a subscription model: “We realized we had to invent a whole new language” to capture subscription metrics.

And Murray concurs: “You need to learn a language first in order to become fluent.”


#7 Automate for Finance Freedom

The trend to automation has both enabled evolution of the CFO role and helped drive it. Not only does automation solve critical pain points inside companies, boosting efficiency; it frees finance teams to concentrate on more strategic areas that will drive growth. Instead of being caught up in running reports, managing spreadsheets, and manual re-checks, teams have more time — and are expected to — analyze the data, draw conclusions, and make recommendations. To do that, they need to be much more data-oriented.

It’s that greater runway to engage in deep analysis of the data that allows for the creativity that’s needed to iterate on product offerings, develop new performance measures relevant to changing business models, identify emerging shifts in customer behavior, and spot opportunities coming down the track.


Beyond Table Stakes

The bottom line is that CFOs still need to show expertise in traditional areas. Quantitative skills like accounting aren’t any less important. But those are just table stakes now. Having a facility with languages, so to speak, means today’s CFO toolkit needs to meld those traditional skills with broader analytical, strategic, relationship management, executional, and data management expertise.

With so many developments driving it, this shift will only continue. Summarizes Murray,


“I think the CFO’s role is only going to become a heck of a lot more forward-looking and predictive and strategic.”