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Traditional finance departments have long been seen as a collective of ‘bean counters’, primarily concerned with spreadsheets and numbers. But, finance leaders are fast becoming essential partners to the CEO, providing data and insights that form the basis of future business strategy.

Anita Szarek, Pleo’s Global CFO, recently spoke to Raconteur to provide insight into how she sees the role of the CFO evolving this year and what you need to focus on to achieve strategic CFO status.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s The Future CFO report (2022).

A combined responsibility for crisis management, technology, and strategy

“Today’s finance leaders have an opportunity to develop their role into something central to their organisation, helping to identify innovation, efficiency and future strategy,” says Anita. 

And recent research supports her claim. The latest McKinsey Global Survey on the role of the CFO reports that today’s finance leaders are frequently involved in long-term strategy and management decisions, and two-thirds are involved in digital transformation.

And teaser! 97% of business decision-makers see a dynamic change in the CFOs influence across the business, particularly in operations, marketing and legal teams, according to Pleo’s soon-to-be-published The State of Business Spending report. 👀

This combined responsibility for crisis management, technology and strategy is exactly what Szarek sees as being her remit as a CFO, in both current and previous roles.

There is an awareness that CFOs need to embrace digital technology to drive efficiency and reduce costs, as well as adopt automated and digital systems in finance to identify new opportunities for efficiency and innovation.

And the pandemic, global supply chain challenges, inflation and an impending recession brought even more shifts.

“Today, I see my role as CFO as providing visibility,” says Anita. “I take on board the KPIs and targets, I look at where we are performing well or not, and then I use data to show the business what the future looks like and what levers we might want to pull to steer the business in a certain direction.”

And making more informed decisions is possible with quality data. Powerful technologies like cloud computing, AI and machine learning mean that today’s finance leaders can analyse thousands of data points across multiple systems in near real-time, identifying trends and deviations with more speed and accuracy.

With visibility over the enterprise data that matters most, CFOs can be a voice for change within their organisations. The key is knowing what the impacts of these insights will be on efficiency and performance.

But don’t get too excited just yet – not all companies have moved passed seeing the CFO as someone who focuses on accounting, book-keeping and cost optimisation. Anita’s advice? Build your skills first, and then build your team.

“If you want to be a strategic partner, don’t just focus on cost-cutting; look for opportunities to drive growth and innovation,” she says. “And become extremely familiar with data tools, models and governance to redesign processes for ultimate efficiency.”

With that, you’ll play a fully strategic role.