Comfort with the Uncomfortable: CFO Leadership

Nov 30, 2020

Recently I had a conversation with a coworker about professional development to help them prepare to move beyond their current role. The exchange took me back to how unprepared I felt some 10 years ago when I stepped into the CFO role for the first time. There was no textbook I had read or class I had taken that prepared me for the pace and randomness of the CFO role. One can certainly learn from others if you have a good mentor or teacher, and reading articles and attending CPE do help take some of the mystery away over time. In the end, though, the best way to learn is through the experience of being in the role. This column has been prepared to help those who aspire to be CFOs someday understand some of the dynamics they may encounter when stepping into that role.

“How do you handle making a decision today only to get better information a few weeks later that would have led to a different decision?” was one of the questions my coworker asked as part of our conversation. My answer was that sometimes you need to take that leap and be comfortable doing it. It can be unnerving, but you pull from years of experience and couple that with the information you have on the current situation. You are not going to get it right all of the time, but the key is to be able to recognize this and not be afraid to change course based on having better information a short while later.

Agile decision-making also plays into transition planning and talent development for key leadership roles. As a CFO, I understand that my responsibility is to develop my team, cover any skills gaps, and have a continuity plan for the finance function. This all helps to strengthen and protect the organization.

Getting comfortable with the unknown happens with time and experience in the CFO role. Twice I have had the privilege of following two long-term CFOs into that role. These individuals were pillars of their respective organizations, helping to lead them through tremendous growth periods.

When I left public accounting after 15 years to enter the private sector as a controller, my first CFO had occupied that role for 25 years and would be grooming me to be his successor over the next five to seven years. As it was intended to be a fairly long transition period, he started to pass the baton by involving me in as many things as possible from day one – both as an active participant and as an observer in meetings. There was a lot to absorb, but he was patient and did not overwhelm me since we had a longer-term plan. Eighteen months into my time at the company, the CFO unexpectedly passed away. The plan abruptly came to an end that day: the role that I was hired to fulfill eventually arrived much early than expected.

I had a great deal of uncertainty rattling around in my brain. How was I going to make the right decisions for the company? What if I gave bad advice that led to a worse decision?

The answer to these questions is having access to information. The CFO is privy to an enormous amount of information, and yet people may assume that we already know things that we do not. Access to information is the key to making better decisions and realizing that we may need to pivot on a prior decision. When the information stops flowing, that is when blind decision-making can lead to disastrous outcomes. CFOs must create channels that open information flow in all directions. When you do not have the information you require, actively seek input from those around you to be able to evaluate all angles of the decision.

I have watched managers in high-level positions stifle conversations so theirs was the only voice heard. This approach silences team members who are actively looking to contribute to the organization. CFOs should create a structure for information sharing and team input that contributes not only to professional growth but also to a more engaged and accountable organizational culture overall.


Michael F. De Stefano, CPA, is chief financial officer for RKL in Lancaster and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at mdestefano@rklcpa.com.

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