Meet 2021’s CFO: A Data-Minded And Future-Forward Leader

January 3, 2021


Finding a great CFO is as challenging as establishing a unicorn. We’ve seen this elusive search affect many companies – Uber spent nearly three years without a finance chief; Airbnb struggled to secure a CFO for almost 10 months before going public. Others including Reddit, Mapbox, DoorDash, and Compass were CFO-less for months. It’s as if Silicon Valley is facing a shortage of great candidates. Out of 180 US unicorns surveyed in 2019, only 64% with a valuation between $500 million and $1 billion had a head of finance. So what’s the problem? Not enough CFOs? Or a shrinking pool of C-level executives with the right tech muscle?

Heading into 2021, businesses are looking for a finance leader that can digitally transform from the ground up. One who knows how to strike a balance between surviving an impasse and investing in growth strategies such as marketing, R&D, and cost cutting.

We interviewed top finance professionals to understand how their role will evolve in 2021. From anticipating customer needs and keeping an eye on competition, to data-mining and analytics, here’s what these leaders had to say.

Good CFOs know how to code

“The new CFO must be tech-savvy to help take a firm into the future. They cannot delegate this work and understanding to the tech team, but must work hand-in-hand with them to get the best results for the business. There is almost nothing that can’t be accomplished with technology these days and it takes an open, creative CFO to understand that. Think for a minute about GPT3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3). They will be thinking of ways to use GPT3 (or AI text-generation) to better serve their investors or gain an advantage (or better information) than their competition.” Matt Putra, VP of Finance, New Market Funds. 

At Goldman Sachs, Martin Chavez serves as a CFO and CIO. He extends the thought further saying learning how to code is relevant for every profession. He compares it to “writing an English sentence.” There’s already a boost in the number of people learning this skill. LinkedIn Learning saw a 586% year-on-year spike in non-engineers taking beginner level programming courses in 2020.

Cross-functionality is key

“I think there’s a shift away from just focusing on traditional accounting and reporting. I don’t think it’s brand new, but planning, strategy, internal risk management  – and the CFO acting as an integral part of the executive management team – is important. It could be stepping into marketing or stepping into operations during a time of crisis. We all bring certain skill sets that aren’t necessarily just linked to our title. So it is that adaptability and working as an executive team, rather than just staying in the world of finance.” Kate Clutterbuck, CFO, Switzer-Carty Transportation Services.

Kate’s advice speaks to professionals in all companies, big and small. Ann Marie Petach sits as an advisor at Google and a member on the Board of Directors at her current company, BlackRock. In her early years, Petach worked in departments outside of finance such as operations, seizing every opportunity to grow and learn – sometimes even traveling to international sites to build the experience that she has today.

Create seamless workflows

“CFOs are having to tackle the challenge of making sure that their remote team is working efficiently. They are also finding ways to cut costs and figure out what the new realities are. I am always looking for new solutions and new systems that can help improve our workflow. We need to open up communication, provide employees with tools to work through the challenges and always keep an open ear to see what’s going on with other companies. You need to put everyone in your company in the best position to succeed.  ­– Jose Breton, CAO, Brickell Biotech

Recent research says that 47% of accountants take work home every week. The majority of their day is spent doing manual work such as data entry, leaving very little time for strategic duties. The finance head of Springwater, Ontario, (one of the best places to live in Canada) digitized financial operations after noticing that staff was spending excessive time on repetitive tasks.

They replaced handwritten forms and files with a central automated system to give employees more time back. With a simple fix, they were able to improve their turnaround time and eliminate duplicate records.

Be future-forward

Technology implemented correctly adds value to offset its cost and favorably changes business processes to improve accuracy and productivity. It also allows financial managers to respond quickly and effectively to management needs.”Randy Zats, Controller, The Minikahda Club

The CFO of the future needs to know how to flex different muscles in the organization. And sometimes this isn’t entirely dependent on experience. First-time finance leader, Kunwar Chadha made rapid changes in his department by introducing technology at ChannelSight, a Dublin-based startup. With tools such as data-enable forecasting, he was able to improve month-end reporting timeline, credit and collections, and KPI reporting.

Make real-time decisions using AI

“The power of AI and data mining will be used extensively this year. With my automated financial platform, I can get the raw data and present it in the form of graphs and charts. As accountants we have the knowledge to interpret numbers and graphs. Let’s take it another step further by having it automated.”  – Bernadette Mukuka-Ceant, Accounting Manager, Frenchman’s Creek.

Companies are doing this fast. Sue Savage is the CFO at Blue Yonder, a US-based supply chain management company. Her finance team has become so adept in managing and interpreting data using cutting-edge tech, they’re now sharing insights with other departments such as HR to enhance hiring decisions, while also creating learning paths for other associates.

2021 and beyond

CFOs are playing an increasingly pivotal role in driving change within their organization. In 2021, they would have to balance their traditional responsibilities with the new CFO mandate – monetizing data, and supporting innovation with cloud, AI, and analytics. CEOs of high-performing businesses are increasingly relying on finance chiefs to steer the data-driven journey. Now rising out of a crisis-hit economy, they’ll have to identify revenue streams to scale and apply data-driven techniques to traditional processes.

Find out how your finance team can leave outdated systems behind. Watch our on-demand webinar, Modernize Your Accounts Payable for the Digital Age.

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