How airline CFOs are rising above

How airline CFOs are rising above

By John E. Luth

As former chief financial officer (CFO) of a major airline (Continental Airlines), I cannot begin to tell you how exciting it is to see the rapid pace of change in the role of the CFO and other senior executives in finance.  In late 2018, Accenture published a research report, “From Bottom Line to Front Line” based upon a survey of more than 700 senior finance executives, 49% of whom are CFOs, along with 200 up-and-coming finance professions, dubbed the “talent of the future.” I will discuss the findings of the research in this and three upcoming blogs.

CFOs have a unique opportunity to be the key player in transforming their enterprises.  But as highlighted in Accenture’s research, with those opportunities come somewhat daunting technology challenges and organizational obstacles.  But there are ways in which CFOs and their senior staff members can anticipate and navigate those challenges.

At the intersection of these trends is what we believe to be the most important factor in the successful deployment of “Intelligent Business Services”— the human experience.  A study recently published by Accenture highlights why the human experience should be the focal point for CFO’s as they consider the contours of being the leading executive for driving intelligent business services across the enterprise.

The role of CFO has taken off

As highlighted in the “From Bottom to Front Line”, the role of finance executives has greatly evolved in the last 60 years.  From the 1950s to the 1980s, CFOs were essentially accountants.  Then, from the 1990s to the 2010s, they ascended to the level of business partner.  By 2020, CFOs are increasingly the strategic enablers, going beyond a supportive role to a proactive one.

CFOs embracing the opportunities that come with their unique bird’s-eye view of their organization are collaborating with CEOs to drive strategy.  The power and depth of insight that comes with data is not only expanding the role of the CFO — it is enabling them to play a key role in helping their businesses to thrive in the new economy.

In virtually every company we look at, the CFO is becoming the second most important C-suite executive, sitting at the right hand of the CEO and articulating a story about the financial results they expect to realize,” says David Axson, Senior Strategy Executive Principal, Accenture CFO Strategies and CFO & Enterprise Value for the UK and Ireland  “An effective leadership team depends on the CEO and CFO being a great double act.

Equally important, CFOs are increasingly seen within their firm’s executive ranks as an important business partner and collaborator (as well as invaluable resource) for other C-suite executives such as the chief commercial officer, chief strategy officer, chief people officer, among others.  As CFO of Continental Airlines, I experienced firsthand the power of teaming with my C-suite colleagues, and in our global aviation practice we look particularly to the CFOs at our clients to be a key player in driving enterprise change.

Yet not all CFOs are filling the dynamic roles available to them. In part, this may be simply that they have not personally experienced in being part of a fast-moving enterprise transformation, particularly if they spent a good portion of their professional career at their current firm.  Based upon that experience, I am personally focused on assisting our client CFOs to understand how they can leverage technologies, skills and relationships to position themselves — and their companies — for growth.

Five major forces are driving the CFO’s role:

  • Increased expectations of boards, CEOs and the enterprise overall
  • The pace of change is accelerating
  • Power of insights derived from data – albeit hindered in some respects by the explosion of data
  • Expanded control and compliance requirements and expectations – driven by both an ever-increasing regulatory environment across multiple jurisdictions and consumer expectations

Exploring the future of the function

We have reached a pivotal moment in the finance function.  We will explore the major themes influencing the shift in my upcoming blogs: