6 Factors For a Successful CEO-CFO Business Relationship

A healthy professional relationship between the CEO and their CFO is critical to the success of any organisation.

However, in many businesses, there is still some work to do on the subject.

Let’s be clear it’s not that CFOs and CEOs are not working well enough most of the time, but since when was ‘well enough’ good enough to help a business forge ahead of its competition in an economic climate which is at best, turbulent?

Answering the question and exploring the relationship between CEO and CFO highlights some interesting tactics, some new, some not-so-new, but all of which will be critical to new or existing relationships.

#1 The Right Mindset

There are many reasons why a CFO and CEO have reached the C-Suite level.

They include a successful track record in their respective fields, and the mindset and the strength of personality to go with it.

When two people at a senior level, successful in their own right, get together, they are at a crossroads.

Turn left, and things could end in disaster with two egos in conflict.

Turn right, and the synergy created by two individuals at the top of their game can be genuinely career-defining.

In some cases, a CFO and CEO will go straight on, carrying on as before.

This may not create havoc, but it is unlikely to be the route which will take their business and careers to the next level either.

As is so often the case, it will take one or the other to initiate a business relationship which breaks new ground and builds trust, understanding and shares business acumen.

Taking this option is a demonstration of leadership at a senior level.

Whether it is the CFO or the CEO who takes the first step, it will require an ego replaced with bravery.

Without this proactive solution-led mindset from the start, any strategic wishlist risks remaining just that – a wishlist.

#2 Multiple Strategies

Having the right mindset in forging a CFO / CEO relationship which could turn out to be groundbreaking is critical, but of itself alone is not enough.

There are many different published articles on the CFO / CEO dynamic, advising a handful of strategies each time.

Building trust, listening, open communication, confidence, leadership, coaching, clarity and involvement, to name a few.

The illuminating fact here is that there are examples of CFOs and CEOs who had ended up having an interdependent relationship when it had started as anything but.

Having a handful of strategies is useful; having a boxful gives you a higher chance of success when one doesn’t work out.

In some cases, perhaps due to time constraints and organisational responsibilities, a strategy may be appropriate but is not given enough time or deployed in the right way.

In other cases, it is simply not the right strategy.

Flexibility and a variety of different approaches at your disposal dramatically improve the likelihood of you building the CFO / CEO relationship that your business needs.

#3 Selfish Motivation

It may be counter-intuitive to suggest that selfish motivation is key to building a relationship at the C-Suite level between a CFO and a CEO, but there is evidence in its favour.

Answering the question ‘how will it benefit me personally to build a strong relationship with my CEO?’ is not only healthy in terms of taking ownership for making the relationship work; it is a C-Suite leadership attribute which also answers that most basic of all human needs, the question as to ‘what’s in it for me?’

A CFO or CEO who can not only see why building a strong relationship will benefit both parties, but also understands it at an emotional level has a far greater chance of making that relationship work.

Provided that the motivation has its basis in mutual respect, there is a qualified chance of success.

In building a global empire, Soichiro Honda encouraged everyone to think first about themselves and what they would get out of working within the company because then, he said, they would be much better for the company and other people in it.

#4 Belief in a Successful Outcome

Most CFOs and CEOs would almost certainly be able to run the company in their own right to a greater or lesser extent.

In building a relationship which will take an organisation to the next level and continue that trajectory, one party must have belief in the other as well as belief in themselves in knowing that they can be part of the solution.

With CEOs often concentrating on speed, success and making things happen at all (calculated) costs, a CFO routinely has a focus from the other side of the spectrum: measured, specific, balanced.

Does one party always believe that the other is capable of really understanding where they are coming from or being able to flex their approach even in the senior, pressurised environment of a boardroom?

If the answer to this question is yes, then it is the key which will unlock all the others.

In contrast, a lack of belief between CFO and CEO either in themselves or in the other person will render an initial solution-led mindset, strategies and motivation redundant.

#5 Taking One Step at a Time

If a CFO or CEO position were that of a departmental manager, there would be far more of a chance that they would interact with each other on a more or less consistent basis.

One of the barriers to a strong CFO / CEO relationship is the amount of time they can dedicate to building the requisite understanding.

To strike the right balance between doing the ‘day job’ to ensure fiscal and commercial health is maintained, the process of C-Suite relationship-building can only really happen one step at a time.

Authentic, long-lasting relationships are generally forged to a greater depth over time than with a clearing of the air board meeting or a couple of frank discussions over dinner.

Ironically, against a backdrop of fast-paced commercial activity, it is the leadership team who need time to build strength among themselves.

#6 Having The Energy

Creating the right mindset, devising strategies to build a relationship between a CFO and CEO who, in reality, have different priorities and challenging yourself to believe that it is possible all take serious effort.

This is before the raft of organisational roles and responsibilities for which each of these senior positions is held accountable.

Enter the energy question. Do both parties have the energy to put into a relationship at this level?

In a way, it is a big ask, given the seniority of both roles and the sheer effort each requires to get through their own daily cadence.

It is a serious question, however, for anyone at the top of their game.

Being able to draw upon the energy needed to get optimum results is critical to a CFO / CEO relationship.

Increasingly, a focus on health and well-being at CFO and CEO level is seen as mandatory in that it is personal energy which will deliver everything else.

In Summary

Forging a successful, enjoyable and authentic CFO / CEO relationship relies upon several factors:

1. The right mindset at the outset
2. Multiple strategies and flexibility
3. Selfish motivation
4. Belief in a successful outcome
5. Taking one step at a time
6. Having the energy to do it

All of which are necessary to achieve a successful outcome for both business performance and career.