Candy Davies is CFO at RWS Group. Here, she explains how the CFO role is changing, challenges ahead, and how she tackles those in and outside the boardroom whilst keeping company values front of mind. This interview was conducted as part of our research inquiry into the role CFOs will play in creating a fairer future.
How has the CFO's role changed?
My father was also a CFO, so I have a perspective of what the job was like in his day. Back then, the role seemed to have an extremely heavy finance reporting and compliance focus, and whilst he was involved in a series of acquisitions and drove some significant transformation, it doesn’t feel as if there was the same level of competing demands on the role. As they didn’t have computers to pick up the heft of the number crunching, the pace seemed slower, and reliance seemed to be more on people than processes and systems.
Fast forward to today, and the role is transformed into being the business partner to the CEO. The CFO is really the only other executive whose remit encompasses the whole business. The role has shifted from a traditional finance-focused role to a multi-faceted position that involves strategic planning, technology adoption, risk management, and broader organisational issues. Finance is able to adopt a broad perspective thanks to the visibility it gets on the rest of the company, and uses this to inform the organisation’s strategy and measure its performance.
I think much of the change has been largely enabled and driven by technology. Previously, you were a numbers person there to make sure the figures balanced and report on the company’s performance. Today you have systems that can do the legwork, and it frees you up to apply your insight across the business and spend more time trying to drive performance. CFOs today are increasingly leveraging data analytics and financial software to make informed decisions and optimise processes. It will be interesting to see where AI can take us.
“CFOs today are increasingly leveraging data analytics and financial software to make informed decisions and optimise processes.”
CFOs also have a more prominent role in risk management, being responsible for identifying and mitigating financial and operational risks to protect the company’s financial health. Regulations continue to evolve and the CFO must stay updated and ensure the company’s financial practices comply with local and international laws, and the issue of cybersecurity is something that did not really exist a couple of decades ago.
As businesses expand internationally, the CFO has to deal with more complex currency fluctuations, tax regulations, financial reporting standards, and has more options to consider in terms of strategic financing.
I think there is a higher expectation for the CFO to be a skilled communicator. Internally they need to be able to explain complex financial concepts to non-finance colleagues, and support the CEO in mobilising the organisation behind the strategy. Externally, the CFO plays an important role in providing transparency and communication about financial performance and future prospects to investors and other stakeholders. As a CFO, an important aspect of the role is knowing how to effectively communicate and engage with the Board. It took me some time to think through what they were looking for from me in terms of behaviour, and not just content and information.
Finally, the CFO has an increasing role to play in creating a fairer future, by promoting ethical financial practices within the organisation and ensuring that financial decisions are made with integrity and fairness. This encompasses many areas such as transparent accounting, responsible tax practices, fair treatment of employees, promoting diversity and inclusion, ensuring appropriate non-financial measures are also included in decision making, and focusing on long term value creation rather than short term financial gains, which can promote fairness by ensuring the organisation’s financial sustainability and resilience.
“The CFO has an increasing role to play in creating a fairer future, by promoting ethical financial practices within the organisation and ensuring that financial decisions are made with integrity and fairness.”
How does that translate to the CFO's role in transformation?
I think the CFO brings a unique perspective that is able to keep things in balance and arbitrate between the competing priorities of any transformation. This is especially helpful in the early days when the CEO, CFO, and the board are deciding the organisation’s strategy, objectives, and priorities where the CFO has a role to play in ensuring that the financial decisions and resource allocation supports the overall transformation objectives whilst also upholding fairness and ethical principles. Ultimately, the financial health of the business is reliant on making the right decisions around resources, at the right time, in the right sequence, and delivering on the return of those investments in the timeframe expected. During the course of the transformation, the CFO can support the team by providing timely reporting and insights to enable effective course correction where or if it's needed. With each member of the executive team managing their own functional or divisional priorities, having the CFO on hand to balance driving current performance and ongoing progress on transformation can be really useful.
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing CFOs currently?
Trying to balance everything appropriately is a particular challenge facing CFOs in this environment, as is effective prioritisation. You need to make bold choices. There’s so much to do and you can’t do everything.
The world seems increasingly volatile; economic uncertainty, geopolitical events, and market volatility can make financial planning and forecasting very challenging. The CFO has to navigate these uncertainties to make informed financial decisions, to provide a clear direction for the organisation whilst also creating sufficient flexibility to be able to respond appropriately if needed.
Another challenge is posed by rapid progress in technology, especially where it relates to AI, data, and content. These tools are developing and improving at such a rapid rate that continuous refinement and recalibration is required. Balancing large-scale multi-year technology implementation programs such as ERPs, with smaller more agile projects is important to ensure progress is made whilst constantly staying relevant.
How do you define success beyond financial metrics? If you had a magic wand, how would you change or improve your data and metrics?
As an aggregate group of companies, I wish that we had better data and metrics everywhere. We have some great insight at a divisional level, but for me the challenge is to arrive at the right decision for the group without having comparable data across our companies. It’s something we’re getting better at, but there’s always a ways to go.
One metric we monitor continuously is our Net Promoter Score (NPS), which we use to track client satisfaction. However, it’s not just about the services we offer; as part of this, we also track customers’ thoughts on whether we operate according to our values. We don’t just want to know whether we deliver on time, we want to be sure we did it in the right way.
“We don’t just want to know whether we deliver on time, we want to be sure we did it in the right way.”
What are the societal and economic issues keeping you awake at night?
I think one of the issues is that some of the emerging issues are so vast it is difficult to see how one can make a meaningful impact. The expanding global population is something that concerns me and our use of our planet’s resources. As a mother, I worry about how competitive my children will be when they enter the world of work, and in recent years there’s been a general sense that we are working at a much faster pace and running harder just to stay in pretty much the same place. At times, I do wonder how much progress we are actually making in some areas. The NHS is in crisis, mental health issues continue and both seem to have been exacerbated by the pandemic. There seems to be volatility in our financial markets, geopolitical tensions seem to be increasing , the impacts of climate change are becoming a concerning daily occurrence -it all seems uncertain and somewhat volatile. I did read somewhere that the older you get the more concerned you become as the challenges feel increasingly insurmountable, but the younger emerging population has more hope and inspiration and sees a world full of opportunity. I think that is a marvellous thing, and there is definitely some incredible progress being made in many important areas; I just hope we turn our collective attention away from conflict and to our planet in time.
Another thing that concerns me is the sheer speed and breadth at which communication can take place. Although this has many obvious benefits, it also means that many more people react much quicker and often with less reflection than they would perhaps otherwise undertake. So, when something happens, the entire world has both heard and reacted almost immediately – and this means that these situations can inflame and deteriorate much more rapidly than they did previously. It also means we are continuously bombarded with news and information which can feel overwhelming, and for many I fear is only exacerbating mental health issues. I personally wish everybody would take more time to be in nature, away from screens and devices, and spend more time nurturing relationships with the people physically around them whilst worrying less about what people are doing online or through social media.
This interview was conducted by Dr Scarlett Brown, Director of the Board Intelligence Think Tank. If you’d like to nominate a CFO leader to be part of our interview series, get in touch.