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Executive Leadership From the Office of the CFO

The CFO's leadership role is vast, requiring both technical and behavioral skills to successfully navigate.

The CFO's leadership role is vast, requiring both technical and behavioral skills to successfully navigate.


Executive leadership from the office of the CFO embodies the synergy between technical financial management and people skills. It starts with establishing the core values that must be present in anyone filling the role of CFO, be it ethics and fairness or inclusiveness and embracing diversity.

Once the core values are there as a foundation, the CFO can become an effective executive and lead the company to a brighter tomorrow. Here are some of the primary responsibilities a CFO needs to shoulder:

  1. Building a world-class finance team
  2. Managing performance and planning succession
  3. Leading within organizational settings
  4. Enabling innovation
  5. Leading through challenges and disruptions

So, with that said, let's explore the main ethical pillars that any office of the CFO needs to exhibit before we delve into the different responsibilities highlighted above.

Core Values of Executive Leadership

The core values of Executive Leadership serve as a compass guiding leaders through their decision-making process, shaping their interactions with employees, and influencing their strategic approach. These values aren't mere abstractions but tangible standards of conduct that create an environment of trust, respect, and collaboration within the organization. We'll focus on the three fundamental core values of Ethics & Fairness, Honesty, and Inclusiveness. While significant alone, each value also synergizes with the others to create a holistic, values-driven leadership approach. These core values are not just personal virtues but strategic assets in leadership that contribute significantly to team cohesion and organizational success.

Ethics & Fairness: The Backbone of Executive Leadership

In an era of increasing transparency and accountability, ethics and fairness have emerged as the backbone of executive leadership. These elements extend beyond legal compliance to encompass a commitment to doing what's right, even in adversity. They treat all stakeholders - from employees and customers to shareholders and the wider community - respectfully and fairly.

Ethical leaders serve as role models within their organizations, demonstrating through their actions the standards of conduct they expect from their teams. Fairness, on the other hand, involves:

  • Making balanced decisions that consider various stakeholder interests.
  • Maintaining equity in the treatment of employees.
  • Fostering an environment where everyone has an opportunity to succeed.

Honesty: The Heart of Effective Leadership

If ethics & fairness are the backbone of executive leadership, honesty is the heart. Honesty is more than just telling the truth; it's a commitment to authenticity, transparency, and integrity. For executive leaders, honesty forms the bedrock of trust, facilitating open communication, promoting trust, and strengthening relationships within the team and with external stakeholders.

In a world where business landscapes are often riddled with ambiguity, an honest leader is a beacon of reliability, fostering a sense of stability and security within the organization. An honest leader admits mistakes, shares credit, and provides clear and constructive feedback. They are forthright about the state of the business, whether it's thriving or facing challenges. 

Honesty also contributes to a culture of accountability, in which leaders hold themselves and others responsible for their actions. By demonstrating personal accountability, leaders inspire their teams to do the same.

Inclusiveness: Embracing Diversity in Leadership

Inclusiveness in leadership is about embracing diversity in all forms—gender, race, ethnicity, age, orientation, religion, and even diversity of thought. It's about creating an environment where every voice is valued, differences are celebrated, and everyone feels a sense of belonging.

Inclusive leaders understand that a diverse team brings a wealth of perspectives, ideas, and experiences to the table, fueling innovation and enhancing decision-making. They actively seek to understand and appreciate their team members' unique experiences and perspectives, fostering an environment where everyone feels seen, heard, and empowered to contribute.

Inclusiveness not only promotes a fair and equitable workplace but it also enhances organizational performance. Research consistently shows that diverse and inclusive companies are more innovative, better at problem-solving, and tend to outperform their less diverse counterparts.

The Main Responsibilities of a CFO as an Executive Leader

1. Building A World-Class Finance Team

Building a world-class finance team involves leadership development, team building, and strategic recruiting. These components aim to create a conducive environment for the growth of individuals and teams and ensure that the organization is equipped with the right talent to drive its vision forward. Executive leaders need to ensure the continuous evolution of their organization, readying it to meet the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow.

Leadership Development: Cultivating the Next Generation of Leaders

Leadership development is more than just a tool used in succession planning; it's about seeing beyond the current capabilities of individuals and investing in their potential to grow into more effective leaders. Leadership development involves proactively nurturing your team members' leadership skills and potential, preparing them to take on greater responsibilities and challenges in the future. 

Employees invest back into organizations that invest in them. In this way, leadership development is more than just preparing for future transitions; it's a tool to enhance employee morale, engagement, and loyalty. Effective leadership development programs often include training workshops, coaching, rotational assignments, and exposure to different business areas. These programs should be tailored to individuals' unique needs and aspirations, helping them bridge their personal development gaps and align their growth with the organization's strategic needs.

Leadership development is an ongoing process requiring a sustained commitment from the organization and the individual. However, the payoff can be substantial, resulting in a robust pipeline of ready leaders who can steer the organization toward its strategic goals. Organizations can ensure their long-term success and sustainability by cultivating the next generation of leaders and retaining top employees. When your leadership development isn't working, the company needs to reevaluate its approach to these initiatives.

Team Building: Solidifying Relationships and Enhancing Performance

Team building is a critical aspect of leadership that focuses on improving group dynamics and fostering a sense of camaraderie and collaboration among team members. It's about understanding and leveraging the diverse skills, experiences, and perspectives within the team to achieve common goals.

Well-built teams are more than just a collection of individuals. They represent a powerful unit that can collaborate effectively, innovate creatively, and respond swiftly to challenges. High levels of engagement, productivity, and job satisfaction characterize them.

Moreover, team building is instrumental in breaking down silos within organizations, promoting cross-functional collaboration, and fostering a sense of shared purpose. By investing in team building, leaders can enhance not only the performance of their teams but also the overall organizational effectiveness.

Recruiting: Attracting the Right Leaders for Your Team

Recruiting is the gateway through which new talent enters an organization. It's not just about filling vacant positions but strategically attracting leaders who align with the organization's culture, values, and objectives. Effective recruiting is a careful balance of assessing technical skills and cultural fit, ensuring incoming leaders can contribute to the organization's strategic goals and thrive within its environment.

For executive leaders, recruitment involves deeply understanding the organization's current and future needs. It requires a vision to recognize the potential in candidates, not just for the role they are being hired for but for their capacity to grow and take on leadership positions in the future.

Attracting the right leaders is a critical aspect of organizational success. It impacts every facet of the organization, from its culture and team dynamics to its ability to innovate and compete. Recruiting should be a top priority for every executive leader, laying the foundation for the organization's long-term growth and success.

Retention: Keeping Your Employees Invested

If you do everything else correctly, talent retention should follow naturally. Talent retention is a product of job satisfaction, compensation, growth opportunities, and environment. Employees will not be satisfied if they don’t feel important or that their work has meaning. This is especially true in the younger, incoming workforce that increasingly seeks to make an impact. 

If the compensation doesn’t match the employee’s sense of value or work load, they will look for other opportunities. Similarly, avoid burning out employees, regardless of compensation. DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast reveals that 86% of high potential leaders feel “used up” at the end of the workday, indicating a high risk of burnout. 

Employees also need to feel they have the opportunity to grow within the organization. This includes developing their capabilities and making advancements in their career. Regular promotions are critical. More than ever, professionals believe their biggest opportunity for advancement lies in taking an outside role.

Lastly, the company environment can make or break an employee’s willingness to stay with a company. Dealing with negative co-worker relationships or a toxic culture can undo all of your investment in your talent, giving them no option but to leave your company for a more positive environment. This means leaders need to keep a close pulse on workplace dynamics as many times it may come as a surprise to hear that your star performer found the environment negative. 

2. Performance Management & Succession Planning

Performance management and succession planning are two pivotal organizational processes that drive its long-term success. While performance management focuses on the present, continuously evaluating and improving employee performance, succession planning looks to the future, ensuring the organization's leadership continuity. Executive leaders are vital in both aspects, guiding teams toward strategic goals and developing future leaders.

Employee Evaluations: Measuring Success and Areas for Improvement

Employee evaluations are a critical tool in a leader's arsenal, allowing organizations to measure progress, identify areas of improvement, and chart pathways for employee growth and development. When done effectively, this process has the dual function of improving performance and enhancing employee engagement and motivation.

Evaluations allow leaders to assess individual and team performance against predetermined goals and metrics. It's a chance to celebrate achievements, address shortcomings, and plan for future objectives. They also serve as a platform for leaders to provide constructive feedback, acknowledging the strengths of employees while guiding them to improve in areas where they may be struggling.

For evaluations to be effective, leaders must ensure they are fair, consistent, and transparent. Employees should understand the evaluation criteria, the process, and how their performance measures up. Also, evaluations should be a two-way street, allowing employees to express their thoughts, concerns, and aspirations.

Effective employee evaluations lead to better alignment between individual and organizational goals, clearer communication, and higher employee motivation and job satisfaction levels.

Succession Planning: Preparing for the Future of Leadership

Succession planning is the process of identifying and developing new leaders. This entails developing internal capabilities to fill key leadership positions within the organization when the time comes. Succession planning ensures that businesses will run smoothly during a transition.

A proactive succession plan focuses on immediate replacement needs and emphasizes the ongoing development and identification of high-potential leaders at various organizational levels. It's a systematic process that involves assessing current talent, identifying gaps, and preparing individuals through professional development and strategic job assignments. 

Executive leaders play a crucial role in succession planning. They are instrumental in creating a culture that values development and crafting a diverse leadership pipeline. Leaders can ensure a seamless leadership transition by investing time and resources in succession planning.

3. Leadership in Organizational Settings

Leadership, while often viewed in terms of individual qualities and actions, doesn't operate in isolation. It comes into play within the intricate dynamics of an organization, shaping and being shaped by various elements such as committee leadership, communication, and organizational culture. In this section, we'll explore the role of executive leadership inside organizational functions and provide insights on how they can be effectively managed to enhance effectiveness.

Committee Leadership: Guiding Groups to Success

In many organizations, committees facilitate collaborative decision-making, provide expert advice, and drive strategic initiatives. As such, effective committee leadership is a valuable skill for executive leaders.

The committee is about creating an environment where every member feels valued, heard, and empowered to contribute. It requires the ability to facilitate discussions, build consensus, and navigate the diverse perspectives and interests within the committee.

Effective committee leaders are adept at setting clear objectives, defining roles and responsibilities, and ensuring that the committee's efforts align with the organization's strategic goals. They are skilled communicators, able to articulate the committee's purpose and progress to various stakeholders and solicit their support and buy-in.

Moreover, committee leaders play a critical role in driving action, ensuring that the committee's decisions and recommendations translate into meaningful outcomes for the organization. This involves monitoring progress, providing feedback, and addressing any obstacles or challenges that arise.

Communication: Facilitating Information Flow in Leadership

Effective communication connects leaders with their teams and stakeholders. It involves creating a two-way dialogue that encourages feedback, promotes understanding, and builds trust. It's about being clear, concise, and transparent with messages, ensuring they resonate with the audience and prompt the desired action.

For leaders, communication is a powerful tool for inspiring and influencing their teams. It enables them to articulate the organization's vision, align team efforts with strategic goals, and acknowledge successes. It also provides:

  • A platform for addressing concerns.
  • Managing change.
  • Fostering a culture of openness and collaboration.

Culture Development: Shaping the Environment for Success

Culture plays a crucial role in determining an organization's success. The invisible hand guides behavior, influences decision-making, and shapes the overall work environment. Culture development is a critical task for executive leaders, one that requires thoughtful attention and sustained effort.

Culture development involves creating an environment that reflects the organization's shared values, supports its strategic objectives, and promotes employee engagement. It's about fostering a sense of belonging, encouraging the right behaviors, and creating a space where employees feel valued, motivated, and aligned with the organization's mission.

For leaders, shaping culture starts with setting an example. Leaders are the embodiment of the organization's culture. Their actions, decisions, and communication set the tone for the rest of the organization. By modeling the desired values and behaviors, leaders can influence the cultural norms within their teams and broader organizations.

Furthermore, culture development involves weaving the organization's values and norms into its policies, procedures, and practices. This includes recognition and reward systems, performance management, and recruitment strategies. Regular lines of communication from leadership to the rest of the organization can reaffirm cultural values simply by the tone of the message.

A strong, positive culture can be an organization's competitive advantage. It can enhance employee engagement, boost performance, and contribute to attracting and retaining top talent. Therefore, culture development should be a strategic priority for every executive leader, serving as a powerful lever for organizational success. According to a study by Michaela Striteska and David Zapletal, "Company adaptability, innovation, and employee engagement can only thrive in a high-trust, low-fear culture."

4. Leadership and Innovation

In today's rapidly evolving business landscape, innovation and transformation are no longer optional; they're essential for organizational survival and growth. As such, leaders manage innovation and lead transformational change within their organizations.

Innovation Management: Guiding Creativity within the Financial Context

Innovation management involves creating an environment that encourages new ideas and supports their development into viable products, services, or processes. This may involve fostering a culture of curiosity and experimentation, providing resources and tools for idea generation, and implementing processes to evaluate and develop promising concepts.

CFOs support innovation by allocating resources strategically to fuel innovative initiatives. They also monitor the performance of these initiatives, further investing in the ones that show the most promise. CFOs work with internal teams and external partners to foster innovation. They seek opportunities for strategic partnerships, joint ventures, or acquisitions that can drive innovation and provide access to new technologies, markets, or talent.

Transformation Management: Leading Organizational Change

As businesses evolve, so must their structures, processes, and strategies. Transformation management is a facet of leadership that focuses on guiding these significant changes. Whether implementing a new business model, adopting new technology, or driving a culture shift, transformation management is about navigating the organization's current state to a desired future state.

Transformations are an exercise in change management for the organization. The CFO needs to be an expert at delegation, identifying key personnel to lead project teams and the groups that will oversee concurrent projects. This will most likely include establishing a Project Management Office (PMO) as a focal point for project management standards and processes.

Communication is key during times of transformation. Leaders must ensure that everyone in the organization understands the reasons for the change, what it entails, and how it will impact them. Regular updates, open dialogue, and active listening can foster trust and buy-in, mitigating resistance and fear associated with the change. The timing of these communications is as critical as their content.

Moreover, leaders must manage the human side of transformation. This involves understanding change's emotional and psychological impact on employees, providing support and resources, and helping them navigate uncertainty. Any significant change will impact culture, especially when integrating separate organizations with your own.

5. Leading through Challenges and Disruptions

Every organization, regardless of its size or industry, will inevitably face periods of challenge and disruption. These can range from economic downturns and financial crises to industry shifts and technological innovations that disrupt established business models. In such turbulent times, the executive leader's role becomes even more critical.

Managing through economic turmoil requires leaders to steady the ship amidst stormy seas, making tough decisions to ensure the organization's survival while preparing for recovery. It calls for resilience, adaptability, and a deep understanding of financial management. It also calls for a keen eye on potential opportunities, leaning on leadership's foresight and willingness to challenge the status quo.

Managing in Economic Turmoil: Steadying the Ship in Stormy Seas

Economic turmoil, whether in the form of a financial crisis, a market downturn, or a global recession, can pose significant challenges for organizations. Managing in economic turmoil often requires tough decisions—such as cost-cutting measures, restructuring, or strategic pivots—to ensure the organization's survival. It's about clearly focusing on the organization's core strengths, prioritizing essential functions, and safeguarding its financial health.

Moreover, leaders must maintain open and transparent communication during these challenging times. This involves keeping stakeholders informed about the organization's situation, the steps to navigate the crisis, and the implications of these actions. By doing so, leaders can foster trust and solidarity, ensuring everyone is aligned and engaged in the crisis response efforts. Attempts to conceal the facts or overly delay their release can, and most often will, backfire. 

At the same time, leaders must also keep an eye on the horizon, preparing for the recovery phase. This involves identifying potential opportunities, reinvesting in growth areas, and repositioning the organization to thrive in the post-crisis environment.

Managing Industry Disruptions: Navigating Uncharted Waters

Industry disruptions can occur in many forms, such as technological breakthroughs, regulatory changes, or shifts in consumer behavior. These disruptions can undermine established business models and require organizations to adapt or risk becoming obsolete.

Disruptions, by definition, require innovation and adaptation. Not all disruptions are equal, and some will have a more profound impact on the business than others. Nevertheless, most disruptions can be anticipated and prepared for. Leaders that prepare the organization with a willingness to change will foster agility and rapid innovation. This might involve exploring new technologies, adopting new business models, or redefining the organization's value proposition.

Disruptions can be seen as an impending forced innovation. Failure to adapt to major disruptions can render entire business lines obsolete, while proactive responses can lead to new competitive advantages through innovation.


Executive leadership is one of the Ten Pillars of Finance that make up the primary responsibilities inherent in the office of the CFO.

Leading as a CFO requires far more than financial acumen. It requires a deep understanding of core values, effective communication, attention to company culture, and a strong character capable of bringing it all together and setting an example for others. Where a CFO feels they have gaps in their leadership capabilities from a technical or behavioral perspective, a seasoned CFO Coach can help quickly bring them up to speed in the new role, industry, or unique circumstance.

Most importantly, effective leaders understand that their role extends beyond achieving financial targets and business objectives. As the unifying pillar of finance, they create an environment where individuals can thrive, teams can excel, and organizations can create lasting value. It's about building a shared vision, fostering a sense of purpose, and positively impacting the lives of those they lead.

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