Juliet Grabowski, a managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group, talks about how the changing nature of finance calls for a new type of CFO.
Global Finance: In The Future of the Finance Function, Boston Consulting Group floats the idea of a “bionic” organization. What does that mean?
Juliet Grabowski: It’s a hybrid approach to finance, blending digital and people. In the past, there’s been a focus on digital for automation. In forward-looking finance, organizations continue to take digital approaches to automation, but they also work with people to complement their capabilities. So there is an organic back-and-forth among process automation, data collection, and analysis, and people to create a continuously improving feedback loop. The way finance supports the business is evolving in an exciting way that requires a different way of operating, a different set of talents and capabilities, and different ways of engaging stakeholders.
GF: So it’s not enough to know finance?
Grabowski: There will always be a role for deep technical expertise. Think about tax experts: They tend to be a tiny group but provide outsized value to the organization. Similarly, within banks, having the right folks in accounting who understand the rules, and aren’t going to get your leaders sent to jail and are doing right by your business from an accounting standpoint is important. In fact, the range of technical skills that are helpful and necessary in finance is widening, because you also need the data scientists and the tech people.
The era of finance not knowing the business—the widget a company makes or the services it provides—has come to a close. If you are going to truly be a decision-support professional—and I don’t mean just strategic planning and analysis; I mean helping to answer questions and inform what questions get asked—then you absolutely must know the business. Fortunately, that plays well with the younger, purpose-driven generation.
GF: What are the key traits of the next generation of CFOs?
Grabowski: To me, the skill that matters is the ability to learn. In the past, technical capabilities were paramount–and there’s still absolutely a place for your accountants and your tax people. You need people with specific expertise. However, you also need people who can learn, ask questions, break down problems and work across silos.
Smart CFOs and their human-resources business partners are sourcing folks from many different places, that include pulling people up from operations, strategy teams and other areas, to bring them into finance. Many forward-looking finance organizations are heavy importers and exporters of talent, which I find is very positive and healthy. I’d add that many CFOs are also rethinking where they source people from geographically. In the past it was very much, “Here is where our team is located.” Now, there’s much more acceptance of remote work.
GF: How are old-school CFOs impacted? Do they adapt?
Grabowski: A CFO plays many different roles, and one of those roles can and should be the person who questions those around them and uses data to push other people. With old-school finance teams there can sometimes be a little bit of the “gotcha” in the approach, debating and arguing the case.
Changing the finance function in the way that I described is about developing the talent of your people to upskill and drive the business collaboratively, and collaborative is the key word: collaborating versus contending. The old-school CFOs, I find often either contentious or passive—either challenging analyses or just holding up a mirror.
The collaborative approach is to get on the same side of the table and work through solutions together, which is a very different mindset. In my experience, many old-school executives, though not all, can be coached to get there as leaders. But it requires a fundamental acceptance that what got them where they are isn’t going to get them where they need to go.