The Care and Feeding of Your CFO

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If there’s one position in the organizational construct that most HR leaders have trouble connecting with, I’m betting it’s the CFO. Judging by the packed house at Karl Ahlrichs’ presentation at the SHRM 2010 Annual Conference, my bet would have paid off. Entitled “Thinking Inside the Box – The Care and Feeding of Your CFO,” Karl helped us understand a bit more about the friction and frustrations that often envelop CFOs and HR Leaders. Turns out we’re programmed differently; who woulda thunk it?! Believe me, I’ve had my fair share of excruciating interactions with CFOs – some of them resulting in knock-down-drag-out battles. In retrospect, those battles could have been avoided – or at least tamed – had I been more deliberate in my dealings with those CFOs. According to Karl, there are a number of (pretty easy) things we can do to be more successful in influencing, selling to, and working with CFOs.

  • Recognize and accept that most CFOs quite simply don’t want to be your friend. Get over it and move on.
  • Be more direct and succinct in your discussions with them; minimize the small talk.
  • Read what they read (CFO Magazine, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, etc.)
  • Understand their pain points and sell to them. And those pain points more often than not involve a dollar sign. Cost impact and return on investment are pre-requisites to any successful conversation with a CFO.
  • Offer accountability: “Here’s how you’ll know this is successful…”, “In 30 days you’ll see…”, “I personally guarantee…”
  • Make sure you include the potential limitations, downside, and weaknesses to any proposal you present – it will build credibility with them.
  • Convince them things are worse than what they grasp…scare them if you have to.

Based on my experience, I tend to agree with these. I’d also add a few of my own.

  • Take at least one financial accounting class – enough to understand major accounts, journal entries, and how to read a financial statement and its footnotes.
  • Remember that the CFO probably has the CEO’s ear better than any one else in the organization. That can help or hurt you; just take it into account.
  • Create an “HR Dashboard” that you share with the CFO and his/her team monthly (whether or not they ask for it). Include turnover, headcount, FTEs, cost of benefits, payroll, hiring statistics, etc.
  • Get on their calendar (I’d recommend monthly). Have an agenda and send it out in advance. Popping your head into their office usually doesn’t win favor.
  • Hang with the finance directors regularly – they are your CFO’s lieutenants and will have his/her attention.
  • It’s hard…really hard…for a CFO to accept fault and blame or to admit they are wrong about anything. Even if you are righter than right, don’t push it with them…it just isn’t worth it.
  • When charged with hiring someone for the CFO’s group, view it as an opportunity to demonstrate “gold-standard” attention to their needs. A great hire will be your gift that keeps-on giving to them.

One thing is for sure: avoiding the CFO is not a viable solution to your misgivings, fear, or frustrations. Your success in the organization may in fact hang in the sensitive balance of your relationship with the CFO. You probably need to be more thoughtful and deliberate in how you forge and maintain that relationship and you’ll probably need to adapt your style in order to do so (because they won’t do the same for you).

Photo Credit: Babble

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5 Responses to The Care and Feeding of Your CFO
  1. Libby Sartain
    July 5, 2010 | 1:28 pm

    Great post Charlie,

    For me the key to winning over the CFO is to look at Human Capital expense with the CFO as your partner.

    At one company, people costs were 1/3 of all costs for the organization, at another…1/2. So, I met with the CFO regularly and brought data. I reported on overall human capital costs, benefits, comp, etc.

    I found that the CFO meetings were advising that HR didn’t understand the numbers, so that was a good place to look to cut costs.

  2. Benjamin McCall
    July 5, 2010 | 4:15 pm

    Those of us in HR, in fact anyone that may be considered an operational expense, needs to consider and need to understand the perspective of the CFO. I had a good relationship with my last CFO. Maybe it’s because in a room full of people, I was the only one that could tell what was wrong with the financial picture of 3 different financial statements.
    People are what makes the business run, however the business listens to the sound of the $$
    Benjamin McCall´s last blog ..Metrics of Leadership- 7 measurements for Leadership DevelopmentMy ComLuv Profile

  3. Charlie
    July 6, 2010 | 7:58 am

    @Libby – I imagine you could write a book on your interactions with CFOs alone. I like the notion that they should be partnering with us on managing (and optimizing) the costs of OUR business (i.e. HR). That’s a nice spin. Thanks for the comment!

    @BenThinks – First of all, you and I need to talk live for goodness sakes…let’s make it happen. Second of all, it doesn’t surprise me that you had a good relationship with your CFO. Finally, HR people sometimes need to wake up to the harsh reality that while they are committed to people, they should be more committed to the financial impact of those people. Well said.

  4. David
    July 6, 2010 | 9:32 am

    “•It’s hard…really hard…for a CFO to accept fault and blame or to admit they are wrong about anything. Even if you are righter than right, don’t push it with them…it just isn’t worth it.”

    I was disappointed by this statement. It seems stereotypical, which is not what I would expect from a practitioner of HR (where stereotyping employees is surely discouraged…). And, it would seem that many (most?) people are uncomfortable owning their mistakes. Do CFO’s need to be singled out for this? Are other “C”-level executives known to be better at this–CEO? CIO? COO?

    I re-read the post without the statement–and I think the piece reads better without it.

  5. Charlie
    July 6, 2010 | 9:43 am

    @David – Just to be clear, I prefaced my own tips with “based on my experience…” In my experience, this comment is in no way whatsoever a generalization. Be thankful I didn’t use the term “self-righteous.” I’m sure there are CFOs out there with humility and yes there are other close-minded C-Suite players (including CHROs). But I still think CFOs are the most challenging when pitted against HR professionals. Thanks for sharing your (valid) perspective.

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