Jun 28, 2021

CFO as Consigliere

Reading for Lifelong Learning and Leadership: A PICPA Blog Series

Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows by Richard Hytner
The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple

James Caruso, CPABy James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA

One of the terms popularized by The Godfather is “consigliere,” an adviser to a Mafia boss. Richard Hytner adapted the concept to the less-murderous world of business in Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows, a profile of executive leadership below the CEO. Leadership is about service, coaching, mentoring, and influence – not just downward, but upward, too. A CFO should be an adviser, counselor, and confidant to the CEO – a consigliere, or, if you prefer a more law-abiding model, chief of staff, a  role chronicled by Chris Whipple in The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.

Cover of the book, ConsiglieriThere are certain attributes that make a CFO a good consigliere. Here are some of the more notable ones.

Speaking Truth to Power – Tell your CEO what he or she needs to hear, not what they want to hear. Be your CEO’s conscience. Play “devil’s advocate.” In Gatekeepers, Whipple writes, “Some of the great blunders of modern history have happened because a chief of staff failed to tell the president what he did not want to hear.”

Candor – A CEO can’t always be candid. As Hytner explains, “Gather round, the enemy has got twice as many as we have and a very favorable position at the top of the hill” is not a morale-boosting message. However, as CFO, you must be candid enough to share bad news – ideally, with an accompanying plan.

Respectful Disagreement – Disagree in private, be united in public. Having said that, it can be healthy for the organization to see that the CEO’s top lieutenants sometimes disagree; after all, it’s not good for the company if the CFO looks like the CEO’s lackey. Debating in the presence of peers allows them to rebut your positions. But once your CEO’s decision is made, publicly support it and never be subversive.

Cover of the book, The GatekeepersExecution – Demonstrate commitment to your CEO’s vision and strategy. Hytner suggests being more of a galvanizer than a cheerleader. Structure your CEO’s agenda so it can be understood and executed. Distill strategy down through your teams and be an example for your peers.

Mentor – There is nothing incongruous about mentoring your boss. Founders may need the CFO’s experience gained in larger, more established organizations. Even experienced CEOs may need guidance navigating a private equity environment for the first time. Offer your insights gained from prior experiences, reading, conferences, or networking.

Gatekeeper and Organizer – CFOs excel at bringing order to chaos. Gather, process, and curate information for your CEO. Frame decisions without an inundation of needless detail. Protect your CEO’s time and attention for what matters.

Press Secretary – Know when you can speak for your CEO. Sometimes a CEO asks a rhetorical question, or thinks out loud, unintentionally mobilizing the team to react. With an instinct for what your CEO really wants, you can keep peers from wasting time. A CFO is uniquely positioned as the translator and connector among the multiple areas of the company that CEO decisions affect.

Honest Broker – A recurring theme in Whipple’s study of White House chiefs of staff is the “honest broker,” an intermediary who avoids using their position to steer outcomes toward a personal agenda. A CFO that is an honest broker neutralizes rivalries, acting as a sounding board for others without encouraging a gripe session or joining in criticism of the CEO.

Humility – A CFO’s leadership power derives from the CEO. Check your ego: avoid pride, vanity, or envy of the CEO’s top billing. Yield control and recognition, and be content with anonymity. It is easy to see why Hytner subtitled his book, Leading from the Shadows. He drives home the point by quoting President Truman: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Battle Buddy – Can a CEO and CFO be friends? Erskine Bowles, chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, said it was important to intimately understand the president, but not necessarily be his friend. Andrew Card told President George W. Bush that he could not be his friend while he was chief of staff. Yet working together closely for many years naturally blurs the line between work and friendship – thankfully so. It’s lonely at the top. Hytner quotes James Roosevelt, son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the role of Harry Hopkins, FDR’s closest foreign policy adviser during World War II: FDR “needed a little touch of frivolity and sparkling, occasionally aimless, conversation in his life.” Your CEO may need a pat on the back, constructive criticism, or even a metaphorical kick in the pants. Admiral William McRaven, speaking on Ryan Hawk’s Learning Leader podcast, says leaders need a “battle buddy”: someone that can tell the boss, “It’s going to be OK,” or, “Buck up, we need you to be the leader.” McRaven explains that all leaders stumble and have weak moments; a “battle buddy” can be trusted to lend a hand on a rough day.

The Mafia consigliere is motivated by greed or fear. CFOs should be motivated by admiration, respect, a sense of duty, and genuine empathy for the pressures your CEO faces. To be a great CFO requires a great CEO – one that inspires, trusts, is secure enough to take criticism, does not need to be the smartest one in the room, and values the consigliere relationship. But, while your relationship with your CEO is of the utmost importance to you, remember that your CEO has other direct reports – your peers. As Hytner says, the good of the leadership team will always be bigger than your own relationship with your CEO.

James J. Caruso, CPA, CGMA, is CFO of J. Knipper and Company | KnippeRx in Somerset, N.J. He can be reached at james.caruso@knipper.com.

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  • Frank J Viola | Jul 15, 2021
    Thanks Jim for the insight - I think the Battle Buddy role may be the one I look back on as the best role in my career.  It was often accompanied by Respectful Disagreement.

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