CFOs’ balancing act: Juggling priorities to build resilience

| Survey

In the past few years, CFOs have been faced with daunting challenges and tectonic opportunities. Is this the time for offense or defense? The latest biennial McKinsey Global Survey on the role of the CFO reveals that CFOs’ priorities are not a matter of either/or.1 Instead, we find that effective CFOs report that they toggle continually between offensive and defensive considerations, while also addressing other priorities such as capability building. These CFOs have a bifocal view of both short-term and longer-term priorities, which call for different mindsets and approaches. We find that CFOs are balancing different strategies, driven by the need to navigate what they see as the top threats to their companies’ growth: increasing industry competition and greater economic volatility. The results show how CFOs are spending their time as they aim to develop their organizations’ resilience. They further reveal that CFOs expect profound changes for their organizations in the year ahead. These finance leaders identify capability building and advanced technologies as the two sources that will best support their organizations for the long term. Indeed, respondents who say they work for organizations that outperform industry peers report being further ahead in both areas.

How CFOs are preparing for the future

The survey results show that CFOs perform a strategic balancing act, spending much of their time taking steps to reduce their companies’ exposure to financial risks while also seeking growth opportunities. While surveyed CFOs report spending most of their time in the past year managing financial risks, nearly three in ten also prioritized future growth: they report having invested significant time identifying growth opportunities, while also addressing areas, such as capability building, that support both defensive and offensive efforts (Exhibit 1).

In the past year, CFOs spent the most time managing financial risks but also looked ahead to offensive strategies.

We also see a mix of defensive and offensive considerations when CFOs share their expectations for the year ahead, regarding both how they spend their time and which transformative moves they see on the horizon. CFOs expect profound changes in their organizations to bolster resilience and capitalize on market opportunities (Exhibit 2). Fully 55 percent of surveyed CFOs say their organizations will build a new business in the next year to create new revenues. Respondents who say their organizations outperform their competitors expect changes that are long-term strategic moves: they are, like others, most likely to expect new-business building, and they are much more likely than others to report that their organizations plan to engage in M&A within the next 12 months.

CFOs expect their organizations to make both offensive and defensive moves in the year ahead as part of efforts to build resilience.

Amid competing priorities and major initiatives to strengthen their organizations, CFOs point to two key areas that can help their organizations build resilience (Exhibit 3), which we define as overcoming adversity and shocks while adapting and positioning the company to accelerate future growth. They see capability building across the organization and advanced technologies such as automation and real-time reporting as the most valuable areas to address, as opposed to more reactive, short-term measures such as contingency planning. What’s more, CFOs who say their finance function has succeeded at strengthening their organizations’ resilience2 in the past year are 6.5 times more likely than other CFOs to say they spent most of their time on talent management, and 4.3 times more likely to report spending most of their time supporting digital capabilities and advanced analytics in that time frame.

CFOs see capability building and advanced technologies as the most effective ways to build their organizations’ resilience.

Retooling the finance function as a strategic priority

Not only do CFO respondents view organization-wide capability building as a top tool for enhancing resilience, but about half say they are involved in capability-building programs, both across the organization and within their function. Responses suggest that capability building will be of utmost importance moving forward because finance functions are not equipped with all of the skills that executives believe will be needed. Few survey respondents point to foundational skills, such as understanding financial principles, as those most necessary for the future, suggesting that those skills alone aren’t enough. Overall, the skills that respondents—including CFOs and other executives and managers within and outside of the finance function—see as most critical for the future are the skills that they most often say are missing in the function today (Exhibit 4). They most often cite change management skills, such as adaptability and project management, as the ones most critical for the function in the future. Yet, just 12 percent of respondents report that most of their organization’s finance employees have that skill set.

Change management is the least developed skill in most finance organizations, but respondents say it is a critical addition for the future.

However, the survey finds meaningful differences in the skill sets that company CFOs find most important and those prioritized by other executives—that is, the internal customers of the finance function (Exhibit 5). Other executives, for example, are 1.4 times more likely than company CFOs to see change management as critical, suggesting that the importance of finance employees implementing changes during cross-functional projects—as opposed to focusing solely on analytics—is a high priority for them. Also, CFOs are 1.5 times more likely than other surveyed executives to want finance talent to be able to make decisions alongside business partners, while other executives appear to be satisfied to have finance talent offer financial recommendations to business partners.

Internal customers and CFOs have different expectations regarding the necessary skill sets within the finance function.

Notably, respondents who say they work for organizations that outperform competitors3—who are 1.5 times more likely than others to be satisfied by their organizations’ ability to attract and 1.2 times more likely by their ability to develop finance talent—think differently about how to develop the capabilities they will need within the finance function. While these respondents from top-performing organizations and respondents from other organizations largely agree on the variety of skills that will be needed, respondents from top-performing companies point to talent development as the best way to strengthen the finance function’s capabilities, while others focus on succession planning (Exhibit 6). More specifically, those from top-performing companies see efforts to rotate talent as effective approaches. In our experience, three types of talent rotations are particularly valuable for developing skills within the finance organization: moving finance talent across geographies or divisions; moving employees, such as those working on financial planning and analysis, into specialized roles that focus on areas such as project management or analytics; and allowing finance employees to rotate into business roles and then return to the finance function.

Executives who say they work for top-performing organizations point to talent rotation as the most effective approach for developing capabilities.

The increasingly tech-enabled finance function

The survey findings suggest that CFOs are increasingly digitizing their finance functions and that top-performing organizations have taken more steps than others to embed technology into their daily finance operations. The share of respondents reporting that more than half of their finance function activities were digitized or automated in the past year doubled since the 2021 survey, which found that increasing technology adoption in finance could have lasting effects on a company’s resilience. This year, two-thirds of respondents say that more than a quarter of finance-related processes have been digitized or automated. Looking at specific technologies, a majority report use of visual tools and dashboards to display real-time data, such as for key measures of business performance, and nearly half report using advanced analytics for finance and business operations, while just 22 percent say their finance functions are using artificial intelligence.4

Respondents from top-performing organizations report higher levels of digitalization and broader adoption of technologies within their finance functions than other respondents do (Exhibit 7). Thirty-nine percent of respondents at these organizations say that more than 50 percent of processes in their finance function have been digitized or automated, compared with 23 percent of other respondents. Furthermore, these functions are using more data-driven technologies to enable their work. For example, respondents from top-performing organizations are 1.6 times more likely than others to say their finance functions are using advanced analytics for both finance tasks, like cost analysis and budgeting, and business operations tasks, such as predictive modeling and pricing.

The technologies used by finance functions in organizations that respondents say outperform go far beyond visual tools and dashboards.

Looking ahead

Amid ongoing economic volatility and, for many industries, strategic challenges with long-term effects such as structurally higher capital costs and geopolitical tensions, it’s no wonder that CFOs are spending much of their time managing financial risks. Moving forward, high-performing CFOs are taking a long-term view on their priorities. To best prepare their organizations for the coming years and the next period of volatility, they are focusing on “three Ts.” First, they are taking an active lead in transforming their organization’s business or operating model, taking steps such as building new businesses and making acquisitions. Second, they are investing in technology across the organization, specifically within the finance function, which can help leaders receive the information they need from across the business and improve decision making. Finally, they are prioritizing talent development, recognizing that organizations need employees who can help to implement change. Strengthening the finance function’s operating model might require significantly rethinking the skills needed within the function and, in particular, adding nontraditional skills that fall at the intersection of finance, technology, and business building.

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