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What makes a great CFO / controller?

DSC00419If 80 percent of the value created in the economy is not reflected on balance sheets, how much of the CFO job is directly related to technical accounting knowledge?

This was the opening conversation of Panel 17: Rebooting Business, at the AICPA's 125th Anniversary meeting in Washington D.C.

Darren Gersh of PBS' Nightly Business Report moderated a lively discussion with three public company CFO / controllers -- Brad Dickerson of UnderArmour, Ken Kelly of McCormick, and Priyan Fernando of American Express (pictured left to right).

82.46 percent.

They need 82.46 percent of their skills from non-technical, non-accounting areas (at least that is my guess). Darren Gersh's opening statement led to a conversation about value creation, the role of the CFO and what it takes to succeed in the new normal.

So what makes a great CFO/ controller?

Ken Kelly of McCormick (the flavor company) put it in terms of beans: "We have to go from counting beans to helping to grow the beans." In fact, McCormick has been working in a global finance competency model that integrates into their worldwide set of competencies and values.

How, you might ask?

People -- or as the CGMA report said, the human dimension. 

Speaking of the human dimension, I am writing this blog post from the "notes" captured from the Twitter stream, the "Tweet book" which captured the insight from participants via Twitter.

Brad Dickerson of UnderArmour said, "Hire one great person and they hire five" and ... (well, do the math).

Priyan Fernando of American Express said we should all consider people as our most valuable asset and added that he thinks about them as an investment portfolio and manages them accordingly.

Ken Kelly added this: "Are you a problem solver or an accountant?"

According to UnderArmour's Dickerson, "Fifteen percent of work is black and white, 85 percent is grey; success is how you navigate the grey."

They quickly confirmed an earlier study by Grant Thornton that identified "soft skills" as the number one issue (and need) identified by CFOs. The study said, "Fifty-five percent of respondents thought that the lack of employees with the necessary 'soft skills' –- communication, critical thinking and problem solving abilities -– was the most significant challenge ..."

The number one skill according to all of them is the ability to connect and collaborate. The ability to work with other departments and divisions as a translator of financial information. CFOs must be customer-centric and understand the real business. Or as Brad Dickerson said, "The days of sitting behing a desk are over."

The key to success as a finance professional is teamwork and problem solving. The ability to integrate your financial knowledge with the other divisions (and even vendors and suppliers) to solve problems and add value. 

Your role as a CFO is storyteller; make the numbers tell the company's story.

The value of the business is created by employees, customers, and investors in that order and alignment of vision, mission and strategy across all three.

Another insight came from Priyan, who said there are great opportunities for CPAs who can use data as a strategic asset.

The future belongs to companies that can create "platforms" that pull customers to them and they will need business models that can constantly evolve in an era of disruptive innovation. The differentiators, according to Priyan, are two things, speed and innovation.

Speaking of innovation, we have an Innovation Summit on June 27 (registration details here) featuring a lot of the skills and themes mentioned by this panel.

Get your 82.46-percent skills from the Business Learning Institute.

So what do you think? What was your major insight or signature moment from the session or this recap?

Other coverage of the panel:

Also worth a look:

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