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CFO Dimensions: Owning the Role of the Multi-Dimensional CFO

Livia Gershon

Dan Kardatzke isn't a CPA, and he doesn't have an MBA. Years ago, that might have hurt him in rising to his current position as CFO of Chicago-based mobile technology firm Solstice Mobile. But what Kardatzke does have is the thing that defines the position of many modern CFOs: Broad experience across a range of business functions.

From a background in corporate finance, Kardatzke got involved in projects that pulled him into IT. When he helped with a string of acquisitions for a former employer, he spent time investigating the HR policies and practices of the firms being acquired, strengthening his knowledge in that area. Running his own business for a time, he took a first pass at legal documents to save money on his legal bills.

Kardatzke said those wide-ranging experiences, not a deep understanding of technical details, are the most significant factor making him effective on the job.

"You need to have a general, broad knowledge of, unfortunately, almost everything," he said.

Kardatzke could be the face of what Proformative Expert Cindy Kraft calls "the new CFO."

"He's no longer a numbers nerd who hides in his office and only deals with numbers," she said. "He's an operations guy…. They really do wear a lot of hats."

But no-one’s head fits perfectly into every hat. Even the most broadly experienced rising star will understand some business functions more than others. So, if you're new to the CFO role—in general or at a particular company—how do you make sure you can handle all of your responsibilities well? How can you delegate in fields where you're not an expert without losing control? And how do you address so many aspects of the business without adding more hours to the day?

Earlier this year, a Proformative blog post by ArLyne Diamond, a consultant with Diamond Associates, prompted a lively discussion about the roles CFOs need to take on. Much of the conversation centered on being a strategically focused leader.

"I think that the qualities that make a good leader catapult you to the top," Diamond wrote. That means being able to set a course for particular strategic objectives and organizing the right team to get it done without necessarily being involved in the nuts and bolts of every decision.

"CFO's do act as advisers/enablers to the people who do the basic things that keep a company productive and profitable," chimed in Ken Stumder, controller at Sprinklr. "They make sure that the health of the business can be measured and assessed. Good orgs understand this to be their function, and provide them with the resources to get it done."

Kraft noted that one of the key issues new CFOs face is managing change—and making sure they have a team they can trust. She said she's known CFOs who fired more than half of the existing teams in their areas simply because those teams weren't functioning well enough that the new boss could reliably delegate important tasks to them.

"You have to be able to build a team that is motivated and that you can trust to delegate to," she said. "Probably the worst of all scenarios is to step into a dysfunctional team."

Assuming you find that the people working for you in your new role are competent, Kraft said it's crucial to get them on your side. "My best advice is to engage those people that you're going to keep, and make sure they're part of the process going forward," she said. "They've been there. They understand the company. That understand what is, and what isn't, working."

Judging whether particular team members are working well demands a certain amount of knowledge about each function. Kardatzke said a key asset that allows him to function effectively at Solstice is a strategic outlook that helps him assess the importance and risk of each decision he has to make. Making less critical decisions quickly leaves more resources so he can put together a team to dig deeply into bigger issues. "It's the ability to look at it from a business side and see 'how big is this problem?'" he said.

To keep on top of developments in all the parts of the business he oversees, Kardatzke said he attends seminars and industry events, meets once a month with a small peer group of CFOs, and uses Proformative and other online resources to ask questions and get answers.

"I try to use real-world experience," he said.

As much as the CFO role may often include things that don't fit neatly into the "finance" box, Kardtzke said money questions remain at the heart of his job. That doesn’t mean a laser focus on accounting tasks, but instead a strategic, long-term vision for the company's forward progress that he can share with the board and with the CEO and COO who share the C-suite with him.

And, as Kraft suggested, he also looks around him to see which team members he can delegate important functions to. If both you and your staff lack a particular strength, it may be possible to delegate it to an outside firm, Kardatzke said, noting that he does just that with tax and audit functions.

"You’re not required to be an expert in everything," he said. "You’re required to know where and how to get the answers."

Learn more about how to maximize your impact and set your course as CFO:

About the author: Livia Gershon is a business- and finance-focused freelance writer in Nashua, N.H.



Ernie Humphrey CTP
Title: VP, Thought Leadership
Company: Stampli
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I would like to note the recent press release for Proformative's 2015 CFO Dimensions Conference,

Also, early registration for the 2015 CFO Dimensions Conference, "The CFO as Chief Future Officer" is now open