StrategicCFO360: Stop, Reflect, Reset

Jul 10, 2023

Four CFOs with a slate of responsibilities that would intimidate their peers a generation ago are finding value in stopping to assess their leadership performance.

Like other CFOs in today’s turbo-charged world of business, Katie Grahmann struggled to find time in her jam-packed day to pause and think about the big picture. So many details required her attention that it was difficult to step back and assess how she was doing.

“My whole career I’ve been told, `Katie, you’re doing great, just keep up the good work,’” said Grahmann, finance chief at the 92-year-old Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the world’s largest livestock exhibition and rodeo. “But am I really doing great? I know what I know, but what I need to know is what I don’t know—my blind spots.”

Not taking time to understand one’s leadership strengths and shortcomings also troubled CFO Chris Young at private equity fund Montage Partners, which invests predominantly in family-owned industrial consumer products companies. “There’s just so much on our plates these days as CFOs that we’re getting stretched thin, going from one crisis to the next without a pause,” Young said.

The workload and blistering pace made another finance chief, Susan Lynch, wonder if her communications with finance staff was correctly interpreted. “When someone is not performing at the level they should, I ask myself, was I clear, were they capable of performing the task, or do they need help?” said Lynch, CFO at public company V2X, a leading provider of mission critical solutions to global defense clients, with $3.6 billion in annual revenue and 15,000 employees worldwide.

All three CFOs came to the realization that a relentless focus on the minutiae of business leaves no time to reflect on their leadership, how they are inspiring and mobilizing people toward attaining the CEO’s vision. Minus this introspection, they were in a liminal state, in between thinking all was well and not really knowing.

This confusion is much less today, thanks to their determined efforts to pause to frankly assess their leadership performance. Their methods of self-examination are different, but they collectively appreciate the need to sit back and take notice. Young, for example, schedules his much-needed break every two weeks to reflect on his plusses and minuses. “I zoom out to evaluate what I’m doing and how I could do it better,” he said.

Leadership self-assessment falls into the category of a CFO’s softer skills, but it is as immensely important as closing the books correctly and keeping tabs over a seemingly endless set of responsibilities. “It’s crucial for CFOs to turn everything off, take two hours, go for a walk and think about the things they’re doing well and not so well,” said Owen Ryan, former CEO of Deloitte Advisory. “Self-assessment is an opportunity for continuous improvement.”

Ryan’s long career comprises three additional stints as a CEO: at investment firm Geller Advisors; property/casualty insurer AEGIS Insurance Services; and leading finance and accounting automation solutions provider BlackLine, where he serves today as chairman and co-CEO (with founder Therese Tucker). “Good CFOs understand the vision and have put forth the strategy to achieve it, but great CFOs pause along the way to contemplate their progress,” he said.

He’s not alone in reminding CFOs to stop, reflect and reset. “The speed and intensity of change in the world challenges CFOs as enterprise and function leaders, but it also challenges them to find needed moments of time to nurture their souls,” said Ankur Agrawal, a partner at McKinsey & Co. focused on strategy and corporate finance issues.