Being a CFO today is demanding. They’re providing predictive insights, identifying new sources of value and sizing up digital investments. And that’s all before they’ve finished their morning coffee. It’s a role where billion-dollar decisions are the norm, and all eyes are on them to drive top-line growth and bottom-line profitability. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Getting inside the CFO’s mind 

I find it fascinating to work with CFOs as they navigate this dynamic role. For several years, I’ve helped lead a unique event for next-generation finance leaders. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the CFO of the Future Summit convenes Harvard faculty and top finance leaders to discuss the most pressing issues in the finance function.

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Before the pandemic, we met annually on Harvard’s campus. Since then, we’ve transitioned to a virtual event—at least for now—and hope to continue both formats moving forward. We recently completed a virtual series that included presentations from Uber CFO Nelson Chai and Adobe CFO and Executive Vice President John Murphy. In addition, several Harvard professors discussed the value of going beyond the status quo with unconventional mindsets and practices to transform how finance works with the business.

Whether these sessions are in centuries-old, ivy-covered buildings in Cambridge or streamed into my home, they always inspire me—and get me thinking. That’s why I want to share my top takeaways. Think of these as more than simple reminders or best practices. Think of them instead as three truths every successful finance leader knows.

  1. Competitiveness never stands still

While it’s become cliché to say that the pandemic taught business leaders tough lessons, it’s definitely true. For CFOs, a key lesson was to avoid the trap of getting comfortable with how things are—because they will inevitably change. Usually quickly. And when you least expect it. Times of pressure or disruption require CFOs to take a hard, objective look at the business model, sources of competitive advantage and investments. This can be an act of sheer survival, or a means to protect the business through turbulence and prepare for a future of recovery and growth.

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This is what Nelson Chai did at Uber when demand for its ridesharing business plummeted during the pandemic. The company used M&A to lean into its delivery business—acquiring Postmates, Cornershop and Drizly. It also divested several businesses, like its bike and scooter unit and autonomous driving division, that didn’t align with its prime source of competitive advantage: an asset-light business model grounded in its platform that connects consumers and drivers.1 Chai’s talk was a powerful study in a CFO acting as an economic guardian for the business, protecting competitiveness in a fluid environment.

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“While it’s become cliché to say that the pandemic taught business leaders tough lessons, it’s definitely true.”

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  1. Hands-on innovation wins hands-down 

CFOs’ historical relationship with innovation in the business has typically been to “count the numbers” that come from it. As such, their role in driving innovation has been less direct and tangible than it is for other executive leaders, and certainly at arm’s length. Yet as the CFO has become more of a strategic partner to the business, I’ve seen this traditional dynamic break down as CFOs roll up their sleeves and get more intentional about their involvement in the innovation agenda.

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Adobe’s John Murphy is this kind of CFO. Finance at Adobe is very involved in the governance and incentives that cultivate innovation. One way to do this is with different metrics that reflect the innovation objective, whether it’s incubating, scaling or sustaining a “cash cow.” With the CFO involved in all the stage gates of innovation, managing it as a portfolio, and releasing funds along the way, the finance function can drive a culture that supports experimentation and fast failure. If the CFO agrees that failing is part of innovating, and there are never any failures, the innovation agenda isn’t aggressive enough.2

  1. The closer to the customer, the better

When you think about executive leaders who are closest to the customer in most companies, you probably don’t think of the CFO first. Chief marketing officers and now chief digital officers and chief experience officers are expected to see everything through that all-important customer lens. But in a market where rapidly shifting customer expectations and behaviors, in both B2C and B2B environments, are such a driving force for change, every leader should make a commitment to understanding customers

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Harvard Professor Dr. David Ager challenged CFOs to do this. He believes that part of being an agile company is trading a capability-led strategy for a customer-led strategy. I completely agree. Too often, he has seen companies get so enamored of what they do that they lose sight of who they do it for, and what those customers need today.3 What’s exciting is that progressive CFOs are studying customer data and even engaging with customers directly. This gives them insights and credibility with the business to inform pricing and creative commercial constructs grounded in specific customer needs.

But what do other people think? 

One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about the CFO of the Future Summit is the sense of community that exists around it. That’s something that we’ve been able to continue even across our virtual sessions. In this spirit, I’ll be connecting with some of this year’s attendees to learn more about their big takeaways and get their advice for their peers. Watch this spot for their thinking. 

You can see more finance insights here.

12021 Virtual Summit Series with Harvard Faculty and Accenture

2Ibid.

3Ibid.

Aneel Delawalla

Managing Director – Accenture Strategy, CFO & Enterprise Value

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