Talking yesterday with a group of Fortune 500 CFOs, I got some insight into what’s on their minds and how they’re responding to the advent of a Trump administration and a unified government, as well as to other large-scale trends. Their concerns and their thinking are instructive for all leaders now:
—Politically, they’re worried most about regulatory uncertainty and protectionism, but they’re hopeful about the possibility of tax reform. Virtually all of them think Trump’s promised protectionism would be bad for their business because virtually all of them represent global companies. Some of their companies manufacture abroad and would be hurt directly by trade restrictions; others export and realize that protectionism would spark a trade war that would hurt them.
At the same time, they figure 2017 is the best shot at tax reform we’ll see in a long time, and while they don’t believe Congress will cut the corporate tax rate to Trump’s proposed 15%, they’d be very happy with a reduction from today’s 35% down to 25%. An important point that’s often overlooked: A rate cut would benefit all companies that operate in the U.S., even if they’re not U.S. companies.
—Hedging is becoming a valuable tool. For example, a U.S. company that does a lot of business in Mexico planned in September for the possibility of a Trump victory, which executives knew would drive down the peso; the CFO hedged against that possibility in the currency markets and is obviously glad he did.
Another CFO, this one in the energy business, hedged against changes in oil and gas prices in light of candidate Trump’s pro-carbon, anti-renewables stance. And a third CFO in a capital-intensive business hedged against lurches in interest rates, which occurred immediately after Trump’s election.
Hedging costs money, but it buys stability, which is worth paying for in this environment.
—They’re struggling to understand how technology will transform their function. For them, as for everyone, the pace of technology change is noticeably faster than it was just two or three years ago. The CFO of one global company now realizes that soon he won’t need people managing accounts payable in offices around the world; software will handle the job instead. Another CFO says it will no longer make sense for employees to do financial analysis in different locations; predictive analytics software will do it better, and locating that function centrally will make more sense. But they also realize with frustration that they’re probably not even imagining how technology will disrupt their function more deeply.
—They’re trying hard to develop people in new ways for new roles. Many specialized jobs of the past are disappearing as technology takes them over. The finance function increasingly needs big-picture thinkers who at least understand the language of technology. That requires moving good performers through a variety of jobs—always challenging because it means putting people into new jobs that, at least initially, they can’t do very well. Those jobs must include low-glamour roles as well as the glamorous ones in M&A, for example.
That’s a glimpse of how CFOs are adapting to an uncertain, fast-changing environment. What’s striking is that at a high level, their challenges are everyone’s challenges. One implication: We should spend more time with people whose world we may know little about. We probably have more to learn from them than we think.
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