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On the ropes! CFOs and FDs in fight of their lives

Finance professionals are in a fight, and it’s time to glove up! It’s a fight none of us anticipated or expected to find ourselves in. Simon Gray explores the big challenges facing FDs and CFOs.

29th Apr 2020
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In my younger days I competed in full-contact Muay Thai. I’ve had my back against the ropes more than a few times and know how it feels. Facing a barrage of blows from all angles makes it hard to think and hard to make decisions.

The default position is to react, when pro-acting is really what’s needed. In situations like this there really are only two options. Option one is to lie down and give up; option two is to adapt and to find a way to win, no matter how painful or difficult the experience of getting there might be.

As finance professionals we like to be in control, we like to know our numbers and do our best through the budgeting process to predict the future performance of the businesses we run and to keep things on track.

In any normal year, a good FD or CFO won’t be too far off the mark and the business will continue to move in the right direction. This, however, is no ordinary year. Budgets, plans and forecasts made towards the end of 2019 are now meaningless. Everyone is frantically trying to understand the new normal, interpret government policy and protect the business to stay in the game for as long as it lasts.

We have a new vocabulary. Even my kids know what furlough means. This was a word I have no recollection of ever using until my 48 year. We’re firefighting and that’s alright, because everyone else is firefighting, including the government.

This morning I attended an online meeting with senior finance professionals across the Midlands. The majority are CFOs or FDs in business and are facing challenges they’ve never seen before. Cash, cash and cash is a recurring theme, but digging deeper as we move further into the pandemic other issues are coming to light.

The majority of retail is on its knees, this after a warning for the sector very early on this year. Our high streets were getting quieter and have now fallen silent. Construction may be slowly getting back on track, but for the last six weeks sites have been mothballed and work stopped. The travel and airline industries have seen demand disintegrate with British Airways today announcing plans to cut 12,000 jobs.

Will business ever get back to normal? What is normal anymore?

Those without a means to communicate with customers or clients, are embracing digital technologies. Backs against the ropes they’re adapting, not just for the short-term, but potentially taking their businesses in a new direction in the longer-term.

CFOs and FDs recognise that it’s their attitude to the situation that will govern the outcome. Mental health, mindset and emotional intelligence are becoming more important, which means decision makers will have a new set of emotional skills that will benefit themselves and their workforce, both now and in the future. I’ve seen people more willing to open up, show their vulnerability and to ask for help.

Although separated, isolated and distanced, we’re more connected as a community than ever before. It’s ironic that enforced separation is what it’s taken to bring us closer, and if there is one positive thing to come out of this pandemic it’s a move towards real, not just superficial connection.

The CFO of 10 years ago, even 10 weeks ago, will be only a shadow of the CFO of the future. The finance function is central to any business, but when things are running smoothly, often goes relatively unnoticed. With finance failing through no fault of its own, aside from the health and medical implications of coronavirus, finance is the number one topic. Finance may have been the reluctant extra in the movie of life but has now been thrust into the lead role.

Change, change and more change is coming. The only certainty is uncertainty and we have to adapt to advance. The CFO and FD are more important now than ever and I’m certain will rise to the occasion and come out fighting.

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