5 top CFOs on what it takes to become a strategic leader

The position of chief financial officer has evolved over the last decade from a bookkeeping role to a strategic one. These days CFOs manage the growth and transformation of the most innovative companies in the world, not just budgets. It’s no longer enough for the individuals in these roles to be bean counters—now they must be bean farmers, directing where to plant seeds and helping them grow.

In a panel moderated by Fortune’s Sheryl Estrada, five CFOs discussed the evolution of the role, the importance of technology to their work, and partnering with human resources on more than just raises.  

“I really see the CFO role as being an increasingly strategic one that helps our company balance aspiration and discipline,” says Block CFO Amrita Ahuja. She defines aspiration as the big business opportunities the company wants to address (or can’t afford not to), while discipline means being rigorous in measuring the effectiveness of all the investments it makes along the way. 

As CFOs work alongside strategy and product teams, they find themselves dealing with a variety of issues as far ranging as talent, according to Workday CFO Barbara Larson, or geopolitics, says The Estée Lauder Companies CFO Tracey Travis, in addition to the more traditional duties of navigating the macroeconomic climate. 

To manage all these newfound responsibilities CFOs need to integrate technology into their financial reporting methods to expand the tools they have tools at their disposal. “It’s really hard to run [business] processes if you don’t design the technology solutions upfront, so that you have the chance to build the right infrastructure with the right process,” says incoming Meta CFO Susan Li. With the growing array of data and tech tools CFOs can now look to drive efficiency across an ever-growing portion of their companies in ways they couldn’t before. That’s allowing them to work as forward-thinking partners that help the company evolve.

And leaning into technology is universal: “Fifty percent of our business is digital…and 75% of our investments are in tech,” Nordstrom CFO Anne Bramman says. However, some of the most recent tech investments were borne out of the pandemic’s near-total overhaul of how companies work, and employees collaborate. “I work very closely with our CHRO,” Travis says. “A big focus of ours is future of work so we can enable a hybrid workforce for the foreseeable future and measure productivity.” 

The relationship between human resources and finance has become even more important during a tight labor market, as companies try to retain their most talented employees. Again, CFOs find themselves making strategic decisions about how to drive value for their organization because more than just financial compensation is required to retain the most talented employees.

Bramman acknowledged that culture was a key retention tool for the company, while over at Meta Li mentioned that she’s been trying to implement an “ROI culture”—perhaps the ultimate marker of strategy-focused finance.

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