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Confirmed at last: CFOs can't do it all

Lisa Yoon | Sept. 30, 2011
Between striving to contribute strategic value to the company and running an efficient finance department, the finance chief is the Sisyphus of the C-suite. Just about every company activity involves finance, after all, which can make it seem as if a CFO's work indeed is never done.

That's another mistake I think a lot of time management books make: the idea that if you just organize your work well enough, nothing will fall through the cracks. I believe things should fall through the cracks -- indeed, they should be pushed through the cracks strategically.

I would like to decide specifically to ignore certain things so that I can get other things done, because I admit to myself that I will not be able to get everything done. And when you admit that to yourself, it's a profound moment. It means you have an opportunity to be strategic about what you're going to get done and what you're not going to get done.

You're going to lose certain things anyway. Why not choose the right things to ignore? It opens up a world of possibilities and lets you be in control.

Let's talk about saying No. CFOs feel a pressure to deliver functional excellence on one hand and big-picture business leadership on the other. How can CFOs get comfortable saying No, given this dual expectation?

CFOs need to be very clear about what they want to spend their time on. That's the most strategic decision they can possibly make. And as C-level executives, CFOs have the opportunity and the authority to delegate. If I have a really good team and I'm really strategic about where I'm going to spend my time, then I'm going to have the time to work on company strategy.

Handing off the details to the team can be hard for CFOs -- detail-oriented financial analysis is in large part how they became CFOs. So now we're telling them, "You have to let go of handling these details" -- and that's very counterintuitive for a CFO. So it's important for CFOs to schedule check-ins with the team members they delegate to, at long enough intervals to allow the team to make meaningful progress. This way CFOs aren't micromanaging, but they can still feel they have control and can intervene if they need to.

Incidentally, with many CFOs I know, they either micromanage or they delegate everything and completely remove themselves from a project. To be successful as a CFO you need that middle ground so that you're neither micromanaging nor taking yourself completely out of the loop.

You have a chapter on avoiding tunnel vision. What practical tips do you offer for finance leaders who want to keep their vision for finance fresh?

In the book I talk about the five areas [where you should focus] 95% of your time. Determine those five areas to fit your vision for finance, together with the CEO so that you're both on the same page. It's tremendously helpful in keeping sight of your vision and in making the tough decisions not to do things that don't support your vision.


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