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Matt Weston, Director, at Robert Half, looks at how digital transformation and automation are shaping the mandate of the CFO and the role it will play in achieving 2017’s priorities – delivering profit and growth. 

The role and influence of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) is undergoing a transformation and opening-up new opportunities for finance professionals. The traditional CFO is morphing into a more strategic role that balances financial responsibilities with a capacity to influence corporate strategy and drive business change, a task that aligns more closely with other C-suite leaders.

The broadening role of the CFO is reflected in priorities for the year ahead – in our research of 200 interviews with senior finance executives from companies across the UK, increasing profitability (41%) and driving overall company growth (39%) were named as the top focus areas. However, as these hybrid CFO and business development roles emerge, what skills do finance leaders need to develop to stay relevant and what challenges are they facing in the months ahead? 

The digitalisation agenda

Across all industries, digital transformation remains a priority. In the rush to stay one step ahead, organisations are embracing digital tools and processes to improve customer engagement, develop new business models and drive operational efficiencies. However, for digital transformation to be a success then it needs an executive sponsor and the CFO is increasingly filling this role. Reflecting this, nearly two-fifths of the finance directors highlighted implementing new technologies as a priority that is high on their list for the next 12 months. Increasingly, we are seeing that finance professionals are uniquely placed to combine their firm grasp of finance with skills in stakeholder management and communication to assume responsibility for additional functions. Finance professionals that can use their commercial acumen to support operational decision making will be well placed to support the digital agenda and help steer efficiencies or improve productivity in other areas of the business. 

Understanding who can be the architects of change

However, being the executive sponsor for digitalisation doesn’t always mean that CFOs need to be experts in digital transformation, automation or the latest technology trends. CFOs are increasingly acting as business partners that can work collaboratively with other teams to deliver digital change and improvement. Savvy CFOs are helping shape their organisation for the future by bringing in consultancy support or interim skilled specialists who are experts in applying best practice but also offer a fresh perspective. For many, this means building out a project team to drive forward the digitalisation agenda and then finding ways to integrate these skills within existing workforces to support the long-term direction of the business.  

Managing a growing remit 

Interim support won’t just be confined to digitalisation programmes either. As the remit of finance professionals expand, pressure remains to execute general financial activities and manage increasing workloads. As a result, short-term support in financial budgeting, forecasting, planning and analysis is also being relied on to keep the finance function running smoothly. CFOs will also lead by example and embrace the potential that emerging technologies offer by improving and upgrading systems in the year ahead, leveraging data analytics and streamlining processes to address growing workloads.

As digital transformation and workplace automation fundamentally reform the way we work, job descriptions across the board are expanding and becoming more fluid in order to adapt to the changing demands of global businesses. Even the C-Suite isn’t exempt from this trend.

In today’s constantly-evolving world, companies are seeking new innovative ways to operate ‘out of the box’. Whether it be expanding into automation and digital transformation or updating their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, every company is eager to try something new. As we look closely into the challenges companies are already facing – from the skills gap to economic uncertainty – CFOs and finance directors (FDs) are facing the challenge of change also. However, straining as it may be, discovering fresh productivity and direction is crucial and the CFO can be at the forefront of this change.