The CFO is one of the highest-ranking executives in a company. Most hierarchy diagrams will place CFOs on equal footing with other chief officers (e.g., CTO, COO, etc.) and have the CFO report directly to the CEO and board of directors. As a CFO, managing the relationships between your CEO and board is key for the successful leadership of the company. To continue your professional growth in the role of CFO, we compiled some key concepts to consider as you manage the relationship between the CEO and the board of directors.
The dynamics between a company's CEO and board is unique due to various factors and identifying these dynamics is key to effective relationship management as a CFO.
CFOs need to respect the chain of command between them and their CEO while still developing an independent relationship with their board of directors.
CFOs need to communicate with transparency and with attention to the financial background of their CEO and board to build trust and effectively share company knowledge.
Identify Current Board and CEO Dynamics
The first step in effectively managing the relationship between the CEO and board of directors for your company is identifying the current landscape of those relationship dynamics. Knowing where things stand can help you maintain what is currently working and navigate areas for improvement. This applies regardless of how long you have been with the company or serving as CFO. Take a few moments to evaluate the current playing field at your company.
Many factors contribute to C-suite and board dynamics that will result in unique relationships from company to company. Some of the factors to look for in this evaluation process include:
Number of board members
Size and nature of the company (e.g., private or public, number of shareholders, etc.)
The level of stakeholder interest among your board of directors (i.e., how much of the company do they own?)
Personal or external relationships between board members and C-suite officials (i.e., where do loyalties lie?)
The history (what prior roles have these people provided for the company that might influence their decision-making lens?)
As the head of your C-suite and company, the CEO can be your greatest cheerleader and ally when it comes to interactions with your board. Likewise, you are an important reflection of the CEO's performance as the person who communicates the company's financial position to the board. A co-dependency exists between the both of you for mutual success and maintaining alignment when possible is beneficial.
In many cases, alignment means respecting the chain of command between you and your CEO. It's essential to building trust, credibility and rapport that can reduce friction and help push your company's mission along. Demonstrating this respect often boils down to communications with your board of directors and allowing your CEO to lead the relationship between the C-suite and your board. Conflicts and disagreements will inevitably arise, but learning to resolve those disputes without board intervention will help you maintain that united front.
Are You a CFO in Training To Be a CEO?
The CFO is often a natural successor to the CEO, creating an inherent tension between the positions. If you have ambitions about being a CEO in the short or long-term, you will have a decision to make about sharing that drive with your CEO. Being upfront about your career aspirations could ease that tension by reassuring your CEO that time is in the distant future. Ultimately, that choice will depend on your timeline and other dynamics with your CEO.
Develop a Relationship With Your Board While Respecting the Chain of Command
Respecting the chain of command with your CEO and board doesn't mean you can't have a relationship with the board that is independent of the CEO. You will have moments where you must present information to the entire board, and you will have opportunities to build deeper relationships in communications with related subcommittees (e.g., the audit committee). Be mindful of other dynamics when developing relationships in these opportunities will help you grow while still being respectful to your CEO and other C-suite members.
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Lead With Transparency for Your CEO and Board of Directors
One of your core responsibilities as CFO is communicating key financial and operational data to your CEO and board along with collaborating on related strategy development. Your CEO and board will expect transparency about the state of the business derived from your data points.
Being transparent will be easier in some cases compared to others--particularly when delivering good news versus bad news. The challenge of transparency will be in times of delivering unfavorable or unexpected results. However, this is when transparency is most important for maintaining trust. Managing this part of the job will be about delivering the news with proper context and demonstrating that you have command over the situation.
Know Your Audience When Communicating Financial Information as CFO
Being transparent about communicating key financial data also requires a firm understanding of your audience (i.e., the CEO and individual members of your board). Part of this understanding comes from knowing the relationship dynamics discussed above. However, knowing your audience as CFO also means meeting the CEO and board members at their level of financial familiarity.
You likely have mastery of finances that comes with its own set of acronyms and jargon. Communicate more effectively by knowing when these terms will be overwhelming to your audience and identifying opportunities to integrate technical financial concepts to help the board learn and grow.
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