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The Five Clichés CFOs Would Love To Lose

Trading in Caricatures

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1. The Abominable ‘No’ Man
This phrase originated with the late, lamented Sir John Harvey Jones. And it’s appropriate to bring up this mistaken stereotype as the world emerges from the grip of recession and spending departments start putting extra zeros onto key budget lines. After all, Sir John was a famous troubleshooter and there are plenty of businesses that need a touch of turnaround magic right now.

The fact is that in this era of relative austerity, not every project can get funded. Cash is tight – even for those of you reading this from the offices of one of the big corporations supposedly hoarding capital like the balance sheet was some kind of Aladdin’s cave. It’s right that we continue to manage risk on the downside as well as the upside – it usually falls to the CFO to turn down requests for bigger budgets.

But when Sir John coined this particular aphorism, about 10 years ago, he was trying to be positive: “It is no fun repeatedly being the ‘abominable no-man’ and apparently frustrating the soaring ambition and exciting opportunities which are the only part of the forward scene observed by your colleagues. Yet it is financial over-stretch time and again which brings apparently well-founded businesses to their knees.”

In other words, while we all know that every CFO is actively looking for well thought-through and properly evaluated growth opportunities, this cliché is the one most easy to attach to the finance function if you’re an over-ambitious marketing director with your eyes on a career-defining opportunity and zero discipline. CFOs do have to say “no” – although it always pays to add a “because…” after it.

2. The Spreadsheet Jockey
There’s something about a sheaf of print-outs from a really well-constructed Excel workbook. Usually reduced to about 7-point type to squeeze in column AF (output from an elegantly worked macro that offers some real insights into weighted returns by division and product), only an internal meeting of the finance function can really appreciate it.

But while the CFO, their controllers and finance colleagues can appreciate the finer points of a detailed spreadsheet, the same cannot be said for pretty much anyone else. And that’s fine. Because when it comes to communicating with the rest of the business, most CFOs know only too well that graphs and charts for KPIs are the way to go.

In 10 years of interviewing CFOs, perhaps the most common anecdote I’ve heard has been the one about how they changed the board pack from 35 sheets of workbooks to a three-page graphical summary. (Let’s face it – making the finance discussion less painful is the best way to ingratiate yourself with new board colleagues.)

Better yet, the new tool of choice, business intelligence (BI) software sitting on top of a well-ordered data warehouse replete with real-time information from pretty much every system in the business, means CFOs can use, and offer, a range of other ways to get information, such as dashboards and alerts.

The frustration? Many finance chiefs still get tarred with the spreadsheet jockey brush – when the truth is that it’s everyone else who’s still using spreadsheets to add up. As relative amateurs, that means mistakes, poor design and lack of integration with said BI systems, often leaving the CFO fuming as the expensive dashboard lies ignored.

3. The Details Junkie
The whole point about being CFO is that you have a unique view across the business. The only other executive with the same breadth of vision is the CEO. But while they concentrate on the big picture, the CFO also has a need (and an ability) to drill down into some pretty fine detail.


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