Growing Your Income

A new McKinsey report highlights the biggest challenges and opportunities CFOs are facing right now

“I’ve probably had 80 plus conversations in the last few months, and literally every CFO and CEO that I have spoken with have said, ‘We’ve lived through many crises, but this is just pretty unprecedented,’” Ishaan Seth, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company’s New York office, told me. “We’re running from putting out one fire to the next.’’

I sat down with Seth for a conversation about McKinsey’s new report based on research pointing to the value of being prudent about managing the downside while aggressively pursuing the upside. As this macroeconomic environment continues, CFOs require a mindset shift from traditional tactics to guide their companies through volatility, according to Seth.

That tracks with what Dan Durn, Adobe CFO and EVP of finance, technology services and operations, recently told Fortune. “I think there’s been a tectonic shift where finance organizations are pivoting the CFO role to sort through complexity, get to core underlying root cause issues, frame the debate and dialogue inside of the company, sharpen business decision making, and then help drive execution to deliver tangible impact and tangible results,” Durn said.

In the following Q&A, Seth shares insights from the report, “Strategic courage in an age of volatility.” He also explains how CFOs can take bold moves, enhance collaboration, modern KPIs and metrics—and what skill sets future CFOs will need. 

Best practices and bold moves

You work with financial services and private equity clients, including investment banks, retail banks, brokerages, and insurance companies. Is there a common theme you hear from CFOs about the current environment? And what are some of the best practices?

If there was one thing to point to that I’m hearing every one of my CFO clients talk about: the degree of volatility and uncertainty in today’s market is really quite unprecedented. What is interesting is we’re seeing multiple shocks layered one on top of the other—the pandemic, digital, sustainability and climate transitions. And then you put on top of that inflation, the labor markets, supply chain dislocations, and the Ukraine and Russia conflict.

The best CFOs are actually seeing this current environment as an opportunity. They’re seeing this as an opportunity to be bold. I’ll use the analogy of the late Brazilian car-racing champion Ayrton Senna: ‘You cannot overtake 15 cars in sunny weather, but you can when it’s raining.’ And let me tell you, it is raining today when you look at the world more broadly. That kind of mindset of being incredibly aggressive and bold on the upside while absolutely continuing to manage the downside is something we see the best CFOs doing.

That’s ambidextrous leadership—you’ve got to do both. You’ve got to manage the downside, work on costs, have your inflation scenarios, and take a hard look at expenses, but that’s not enough. Our research on resilience from the ‘08-’09 financial crisis strongly suggests companies that pulled out of the crisis ahead of their peers moved on both the upside and downside.

When you talk about bold moves, do you have any examples of what that would entail?

We think about, particularly in this environment, the idea of leadership and CFOs who are building an edge in three ways: an edge on insights, commitment, and execution. Just like with a financial option, the value of the option rises in times of volatility. The same is true right now. So getting that edge on insight or commitment 10% more accurate and 10% ahead of your peers is actually going to add a ton.

In boldness around this idea of insights, we are seeing the best CFOs pushing hard to get better information from a more diverse, non-standard set of sources than ever before. Relying on conventional data, conventional analysis, and the common ways of doing things is not going to hack it in this environment. I’ll give you an example. A bank brought together probably 75 or so chief country officers from all of their global markets.

They put them in a room for two days and said: ‘We’ve got people here who understand China, Brazil, India, Germany, and that are talking to clients, regulators, and suppliers and have different sources of signals on everything from inflation to wage rates to payment flows. But we’re not tapping into this. How can we take all this wonderful information and harness it in a way that we as a company can get this kind of wisdom much more quickly?’

Much has been written about technology and better data-driven insights, which is one central element. But the human element of driving insights includes going and talking to your frontline employees and your salesforce. If you’re a bank, talk to people in your branches. Talk to your cashiers and salespeople if you’re in the retail business. You need to communicate with people who are dealing with customers on a daily basis. Historically, as a CFO, you may have relied on a group of senior management managers to convey that sentiment. We think moving to the frontline is even more important to stay current. 

‘Vocabulary in measuring and monitoring growth’

Do CFOs need increased collaboration within the C-suite and different departments?

I think that type of teaming across functional silos and organizational silos is actually a critical element of what we call an edge in commitment. You have to make material shifts in your resource allocation—people, budget, dollars. And you need to move quickly and early on doing those things. To do that, you have to have to team between technology and finance, marketing and finance, and HR and finance. What are your 10 biggest growth cylinders across the company? And do we have our best people decked against those as we look out over the next few months?

A second element, which is also key, is having the vocabulary to measure and monitor this idea of growth. The CEOs I have been in discussions with routinely will say some version of the following: ‘My CFO has an amazing way of talking about expenses. They know how to manage expenses, headcount, and technology spend. We’ve got an amazing vocabulary on efficiency and expense management. I wish we had that same vocabulary in measuring and monitoring growth—leading versus lagging indicators, lifetime value of customers, return on technology spent for growth, and innovation. We have no artillery to go after that. Is there a way for CFOs to really step up their game on that?’

That’s a really important element in building this edge on commitment, which includes building up that vocabulary on measurement, working across silos, and also making material shifts in the resources.

So with all of these different elements going on simultaneously that you’ve described, including geopolitics, inflation, talent, retention and talent attrition, and modernizing metrics, what’s urgent to prioritize?

CFOs are running from putting out one fire to the next. I actually had a CFO last week who said, ‘We have our competitors picking off our recruiting teams in HR; our recruiters are being poached.’ That’s how crazy the talent market has gotten. The urgent will often take the place of the important, but now is not a time to let that happen. You’ve got to fight the fires. But you’ve got to be able to create time as a management team for strategic thinking. I think CFOs do have a unique ability to do that. Let’s have the fact-based M&A. Let’s know what the next several targets are that we may go after, so as valuations decline, as they’ve already done significantly, we can move quickly. Let’s know which markets we like the most so that as we continue to dial up new client acquisitions, we’re able to move more quickly.

The value-creation story

How is the role of the CFO continuing to evolve? 

I think the role of the CFO has evolved exponentially over the last decade. What traditionally used to be more of an accounting and compliance transactions-oriented function is not the case in most organizations. If I had to pick one area where I think CFOs will need to continue to work on, it’s owning the value-creation story for the company.

This is basically saying, as a senior team, with the CEO and the board, what is going to double the value of this company, double the value of the stock, double our market cap, three to four years from now? And then, really importantly, being able to tell the investor story, the narrative, so people actually understand the journey that you’re on. That’s the integrated set of things that we call the value creation thesis. I think there’s the next frontier for many CFOs out there.

What crucial skill sets will up-and-coming CFOs need in the future?

These may not be the typical things you hear, but one crucial skill set is understanding what the best companies are doing around technology-driven product development. How does stuff get built? How do you take a group of creative people, whether it be R&D in pharmaceuticals, or digital product development and banking, come up with an idea, get in a room with a group of engineers and other professionals, and bring something to market in a shorter space of time? In every industry, every CFO has some version of that challenge.

Going back to the point raised earlier, it’s working across silos. It’s engineering, product marketing, and people close to the customer working together to get things to market more quickly. And I think that only happens when CFOs get a little bit more dirt under the fingernails to determine—how do good coding and engineering and product development get done?

And another skill set is storytelling rooted in a value creation thesis. That’s something I see the best CFOs do supremely well. Everybody has access at the end of the day to the same facts. You’ve got the data. You’ve got the financial reports. The investors and analysts have it. But what are the three or four big markers we publicly commit ourselves to reach as a company? And how do we create the proof points, the operational milestones, not just the financial milestones? So new customers and markets will give people conviction along the way.

I think CFOs and the markets are generally very good at communicating financial metrics and KPIs. But I think there’s an opportunity to do more on conveying operational metrics and KPIs because, most often, the financial performance will lag behind the operational metric. The actual P&L may show up two or three years down the road. But finding a way to communicate interim steps of progress is a skill.