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What to do when a CEO can't see he owes it to the organization to change his mind?

More precisely, "as a CFO, how do you tell your CEO he or she is wrong about an important issue of strategy?"

 

This question was asked at a recent webinar, now available on-demand: "CFO to Chief Trusted Advisor: Earning that Role with Your CEO"

Please add your thoughts about it below. Thanks!

Answers

Topic Expert
Blair Cook
Title: Partner
Company: Executive Finance
LinkedIn Profile
(Partner, Executive Finance) |

The CFO must voice his or her opinion, even if it's a dissenting one. You can't become trusted if you aren't going to exercise your professional judgement. How you dissent though is also very important. Your opinion should be shared with the CEO in private and not aired in front of other managers unless the practice is encouraged by the CEO. The CFO and CEO should present a united front and work out fundamental differences in private. If differences are significant and controversial, then the CFO will need to make the decision about whether he or she can continue working with this particular CEO.

Topic Expert
Mark Richards
Title: VP of Finance & Operations
Company: RBA Consulting
(VP of Finance & Operations, RBA Consulting) |

Your goal is not to convince the CEO that they are incorrect, your goal is to facilitate an open discussion to revisit the decision. If it is an important issue, then likely more people will need to be engaged. The right decision for the company lies between the two points of view.

A couple of thoughts

1) Your position must be from a business perspective, not financial. Absolutely need to work with the business in developing the message. When it comes to strategy, not everything comes across the CFO's desk, so you need to seek other's input.

2) I prefer an even handed view of the issue. Laying out the facts of both positions - CEO's and your own. You need to give the CEO the ability to do the comparison of positions and allow them to provide feedback of points not considered in your analysis. Again, you want a dialogue.

Your approach is simple: Another business executive providing a different viewpoint of the same issue - in the spirit of improving the business.

Hope this helps.

Mark

Topic Expert
John Kogan
Title: CEO/CFO
Company: Proformative, Inc.
(CEO/CFO, Proformative, Inc.) |

One other thing to keep in mind is just how much of the business the CFO does NOT see. It may seem like we see it all, and we certainly have historic numbers on all of it, but the CEO will definitely have information and perspective the CFO does not have. The CEO is looking to the CFO for more input, as Mark says above, to weigh along with their other knowledge and insight. Remembering that they are hired by the board to steer the ship is sometimes difficult from our particular purview, but a critical perspective to keep in mind.

EMERSON GALFO
Title: CFO
Company: C-Suite Services
LinkedIn Profile
(CFO, C-Suite Services) |

This is my short answer from experience....... You present your argument (and data/analysis) not one time but twice...maybe thrice if you are really against the decision and the repercussions will be big. If he is still unmoved, you tell the CEO that you are expecting risks/blowback from his decision and you will initiate moves to mitigate or minimize those risks/blowback. This latter move is what separates a CFO from a CFO partner to the CEO.

How many times have you made decisions and it blew up only to find out that your wife made back up plans? Same thing here.

This will tell the CEO that you are doing your job and still recognizing that he is the head of the organization....the decision rests on him. That is what partnering with the CEO should be all about.

Alternative actions need to be taken if the company has a Board.

Topic Expert
Wayne Spivak
Title: President & CFO
Company: SBAConsulting.com
LinkedIn Profile
(President & CFO, SBAConsulting.com) |

While I agree, one must tread lightly.

For most CFO's are still beholden to the CFO for continued employment; and unless the decision violates either the CFO's fiduciary responsibilities or is clearly illegal; one can only make contingency plans and keeps one job if indeed your are right and boom goes the idea.

Anonymous
(Co-CEO) |

While it is important to convey concerns to the CEO, something Dr. Laura Schlessinger said...well, actually it was the Dr. Laura talking Barbie Doll..."Are you sure this is the hill you want to die on?" has always stuck with me. If what you have to say will save the company money and keep employees from losing their jobs, then, sure, press hard. But, if what you have to say only makes a little difference, share the information and your opinion but let the CEO do his job. It is impossible to know all aspects of every situation and the CEO might have information that makes a difference that you cannot consider.

Even if you are right, and all signs point to doing things your way, the CEO was put in place by the shareholders to make the decisions, not you.

One caveat. If you feel that failure after the CEO makes a decision will directly reflect bad on you, such as a major financial disaster occurs, and the CEO plans on making you the sacrificial goat, then go in guns ablazing (figuratively, of course). "Our CFO failed to inform us of the error," should never be said, and if you failed at nothing, make sure you have the paper trail to show to the otherwise and sue the pants off the liar.

Topic Expert
Regis Quirin
Title: Director of Finance
Company: Gibney Anthony & Flaherty LLP
LinkedIn Profile
(Director of Finance, Gibney Anthony & Flaherty LLP) |

The CFO functions as a trusted adviser to the CEO. He/she assists in setting strategy and provides council based on what they see, in relation to their experience and what the data shows. But they are not the final decision maker. Do not make the mistake that your recommendation is the right recommendation. It is only one point of view. It is for this reason why CFO's must have thick skins. Not every recommendation will be followed, and that is ok.

I have been in many situations where I have disagreed with an approach, and I was correct. But I also have disagreed with an approach and I was wrong. The CEO is in his/her position because the Board has trust in their decision making process. More than likely the CFO is in their position because the CEO has trust in their decision making process.

If you feel the CEO is wrong, make the case once and then move on.

Mark Matheny
Title: VP - FInancial Planning and Analysis
Company: Novolex (formerly Hilex Poly)
(VP - FInancial Planning and Analysis, Novolex (formerly Hilex Poly)) |

By what measure has it been determined the CEO is wrong? It is the CFO's job to present the facts and make the case for the alternative path. However, ultimately, short of criminal activity, the CEO is the boss.

Mulekye Mukoko
Title: President
Company: Uzima Int'l, Inc
(President, Uzima Int'l, Inc) |

Need to know first what is the problem (administrative, financial, management, legal, etc)? Check the internal policy in place before cutting each other throat. We are all human and capable of making mistakes. We need to know the size of the business, in small business this is easy to solve. In large corporations there are more levels to search for good judgment. Beside all morning meetings are channels to let employees and employers where the company stands. CEO, CFO are officers of the company so a good business relationship is a must.

Mike Haile
Title: Founder
Company: Haile Consulting Solutions
(Founder, Haile Consulting Solutions) |

I agree with the majority of the comments above. A effective CEO will be able to justify (or at least explain) any decision to the board which means that the chances are that CFO has a different opinion which may or may not be right. The CFO should absolutely give his/her opinion, otherwise he/she is not a trusted advisor but ultimately the CEO makes the call.

Anonymous
(CPA) |

In dealing with CFOs & CEOs, it is necessary for the CPA watchdog in industry in a C-support role to gain the “trust” of the C-suiters. This is accomplished by supplying professional guidance that explains or supports the reason for dissent. In situations where the C-suiters have perpetrated acts of mismanagement, or criminal malfeasance, the rules of professional conduct affecting CPA licensing require a CPA to elevate the dissenting concern above the C-suite level and to communicate directly with the Company's Board of Directors. In some situations, additional actions need to be taken by the CPA.

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