Strategy, Transformation, and the New CFO

Image source: Adobe Stock / Elenabsl.

A few weeks ago, I was visiting customers in Europe and I met up with a fellow CFO at a well-known automotive brand. We planned to compare notes on our companies’ digital transformations, but first he asked me, “what’s in your garage.” When I confessed that it wasn’t a car from his company, he gave me a tour of the latest SUV heading to the U.S. market. We sat in it. He skillfully pointed out the options. He was very influential. I’m pretty sure I bought one…

I smile when I think about this story – not just because it was a nice car – because it’s an example of how much the role of CFO has changed. When I started in finance more than 25 years ago, our mission was to be stewards and protectors of a company’s financial integrity. Now CFOs are also building the value they report. We collaborate with the C-suite on strategy, we drive digital transformations, and we help shape customer experiences. When you think about it, it’s not so surprising that we might even sell an amazing car now and then.

A recent study from Accenture underscores this shift. It found that 81 percent of CFOs consider finding areas of new value across the business to be one of their main responsibilities. Seventy-seven percent reported that their role includes driving business-wide operational transformation.

For CFOs today, our transformation—from tracking value to helping create it—is exhilarating, but there’s also a lot to learn. At our recent Adobe Summit I met with a group of CFOs to talk about our changing roles, especially around technology. Three themes came up over and over again: learning about technology, driving value, and creating organizational change.

CFOs are becoming fluent in tech

Aside from our masterful use of a spreadsheet, CFOs of the past weren’t too involved in technical details. At Summit, we all agreed that today technology fluency has become a central part of our roles. More and more, we’re collaborating with CTOs, CIOs, and other business operations leaders to analyze strategic technology investments. To do this well, we need to grasp the fundamentals of tech trends, be able to predict how our tech investments will impact the growth and operating velocity of our companies, and measure the return.

Technology insights are helping us drive value

Our tech knowledge isn’t just about making informed purchasing decisions. We can also use tech and data to develop new metrics for the financial health of our businesses. These insights allow us to improve finance’s agility, speed, accuracy, and insight.

For example, at Adobe, we’ve developed a data-driven operating model. We’re able to use data to create a detailed picture of the customer journey, so we can carefully analyze how users discover, try, buy, use, and renew our products. With a granular look at each phase, we can ask specific questions: How is marketing impacting a particular moment in the journey? What we can do to influence conversion rates? From there, we can guide strategic spending decisions and find new ways to create value.

We’re harnessing tech to lead organizational change

At the Summit, we also talked about our expanding roles as tech-focused change-leaders inside our own companies. This has been one of my most rewarding roles at Adobe. In the midst of rapid growth, we realized that the Finance team was drowning in work. We knew we couldn’t just add more bodies to solve the problem—it was time to use tech to re-architect our processes and build capacity.

To do this, I worked with the team to define pain points, and we analyzed software and robotic process automation tools that could help. We decided to deploy a number of bots —we think of them as digital employees—to handle the repetitive, mundane tasks our team was happy to offload. Our bots do things like retrieving invoices in response to customer email queries and helping users through the auto-renewal process. Then, our team takes over as needed.

Figuring out the right combination of high-tech tools and team mindset has also become part of the evolving CFO function. We analyze business needs, find areas where technology adds value, and lead the way to strategic transformation.

Being a CFO isn’t exactly what you’d expect

When most people hear “CFO” they probably picture piles of spreadsheets and quarterly reports. Yes, that’s part of it, but it’s so much more. I’m excited about the role Finance is playing in my company’s growth story.

Our holistic view means we can help shape our companies inside and out, whether we’re leading our teams into the technological future or making sure our investments nurture delightful customer experiences and build the value of our brands.

For more on the changing role of CFOs, check out my recent podcast with EY’s Better Finance.