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Managing Up: Tips for Becoming a More Influential Finance Leader

Much is said about managing down but managing up is an often overlooked factor in both career and organizational success.  In their roles as both leaders and employees, effective CFOs must be adept at managing up.  Ideally, they have the clout of E.F. Hutton, and every time they’re in a room they capture the full attention of those around them including the CEO, others in the C-suite, and the board of directors.

In reality, such clout is earned over time, supported by a strong understanding of influence. Not everyone inherently has that ability, as Dan Markin, president of an eponymous executive coaching and leadership firm, recounts in a tale of a Fortune 500 CFO. He describes her as someone with the potential to become the next CEO, but she lacked a few skills necessary to get to the next step.

She did not understand the importance of influence, in terms of her reach to those above her as well as those around the C-suite, says Markin. After spending time with her, it was clear that her issue was not her lack of business acumen or knowledge. In fact, she was almost clairvoyant in her ability to see future financial trends, he says. The trouble was, “she became so adamant about getting her point across, or telling others what was going to happen, or what they needed to do, they were simply turned off,” says Markin.

By rethinking how she conversed with her colleagues and superiors, she was able to make inroads in her objectives for the company. “Always lead with a question,” Markin suggests. “It is more important always to understand than to be understood. Individuals, especially C-suite executives, like to arrive at conclusions through their own thought processes.”

He also told her to listen twice as much as she speaks. “Even C-suite employees are often intimidated by CFOs,” Markin explains. “You are non-threatening when you are listening instead of challenging.”

Indeed, presentation can be everything, and it’s especially important when finance chiefs are trying to make headway in proposal acceptance, pushing through the finance team’s agenda, or just getting others to truly listen to the financial status of the company. To be heard, they have to do some listening as well. And to influence and secure approvals, they need to create a strategy to effectively communicate with upper management as well as their peers. Here are some ways to do that:

Elevate the finance department’s status. Kray Kibler, CFO of Scrip Cos., a medical distribution company, suggests engaging in day-to-day dialogue about the organization’s happenings with the CEO. “I have partnered with CEOs and they have partnered with me because I have been willing to get involved with the business,” he says. “I don’t subscribe to the traditional view of finance being a scorekeeper for the business. I see the finance function as being one of the players in the business. While it is important that what we do as the finance team fulfills the traditional functional roles of treasury, accounting, and tax, we also have to get into the business.”

Know your targets. You can’t influence others until you understand them, so invest time in forming and growing key relationships with the CEO, the rest of the C-suite, and the board of directors. “What drives them, and what does it mean for them to be successful?” asks Antoine Gerschel, managing partner at, a leadership and team consulting firm. When you can position your proposal in terms of how it could benefit them, you are more likely to be heard.

“Learn the particular work styles of those you work with and adapt to them in the moment,” suggests Lori Dernavich, an executive leadership advisor. “By adapting to the individual, they will become more open to listening and acting, usually in your favor. This will work whether you are interacting with your CEO, board members, or others in the C-suite.” Influential CFOs do this well by being flexible in how they present their data to those above them. Some chief executives may prefer a well-organized, topnotch PowerPoint even during informal meetings, while others are open to free-form brainstorming. If you can get a read on key people’s personal preferences and adjust your pitch, you’ll be more likely to be successful selling the recommendation or change in strategy that you’re trying to push through.

Cultivate allies. “Don’t forget that you are not alone,” says Gerschel. Share an idea with a colleague and provide a tag-team effort to win over the people who are making the final decisions. “Practice your pitch, see whether your arguments are ‘sticking,’ and at the same time, create an important ally in influencing others,” Gerschel adds.

Anticipate pushback. Understand the impact of your ideas across all functions of the business, and consider all the parties that may be against it. For example, the majority of the executive team might quickly dismiss a solid cost-cutting solution if the impact to the commercial side of the business has not been thoroughly considered, warns Michelle Tartalio, co-founder and research director of Enlight Research, which offers services to help CFOs “manage up.”

Be sure to also provide the CEO and board with third-party data whenever possible to give credence to the opinion you’re sharing with them. “At a minimum, it is critical to offer the board a method to receive unbiased industry information,” Tartalio says. “A better informed board is much more likely to make better decisions, including listening to the CFO’s new ideas.”

Be transparent with information. Don’t hold back any risks that are involved. If you don’t present a complete picture, including the potential negative impacts to the business, the management team may not trust your suggestions the next time, warns Tartalio.

Always remember that history speaks for itself. That coveted clout that senior leaders want can only be realized after establishing a level of trust. As executive coach Linda Henman explains, “It can be very difficult or not difficult at all for the CFO to get a hearing. Much will depend on the trust level and track record the CFO has established.”


Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, small business, general business, and career-related topics.


Mahendra Pattni
Title: Director, Financial Systems & Processes
Company: Rogers Corporation
(Director, Financial Systems & Processes , Rogers Corporation ) |

An excellent article and very good suggestions.