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4 tips for every CFO in the post-pandemic world, from industry veterans

May 12, 2021, 1:45 PM UTC

For many companies during the pandemic, it no doubt seemed at times a near impossible task to forecast or understand how the crisis would actually impact their business—making the job of a CFO, or chief financial officer, no simple task in 2020.

But coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, that role is only expanding within companies—and the 2021 CFO has a lot on his or her plate. “Today’s CFO needs to be that partner to the business,” Aneel Bhusri, cofounder and co-CEO of Workday, said at Fortune’s virtual CFO Collaborative event on Tuesday.

For executives navigating the post-pandemic world, current and former CFOs offered up advice on how the role is—and needs to be—changing in 2021 and beyond.

Unpack, and repack, the data

Today’s CFOs have more data than ever to work with—especially with the proliferation of big data and machine learning.

As a veteran CFO at Carlyle Group and Nasdaq, Adena Friedman, now president and CEO at Nasdaq, says a key skill most CFOs have is that “they’re very analytical, and they like to kind of unpack, process, and repack it,” she said.

Notes Friedman: “What you really have to do as a CFO is unpack a data process and then try to figure out, ‘Okay, where does that data originate? How does it flow through the system? How does it end up where I need it to be, and how do I organize it in order to be able to draw conclusions from it?’”

Once CFOs understand what questions they need answered and decisions they need to make, “then you look at all the data, and you have to make sure that you’re parsing through it to say, ‘Let’s stay true to the North Star and make sure we’re really focusing on these questions and these answers,’” she adds.

Understand the real ‘power of forecasting’

If there’s one thing most CFOs likely learned in 2020, it’s that you can’t plan for everything.

That’s why Christina Spade, the executive vice president and CFO at AMC Networks, keeps things in perspective: “I always like to say, whenever you’re done with the budget, when you put the pencil down, it’s already wrong. Because so much has changed.” The budget instead serves as a “set of guidelines to work with” but isn’t something “you follow like a Bible,” she suggests.

Instead, for CFOs she believes “the power of forecasting really comes in when a collaborative group across the company is able to access how you’re doing real-time against the budget, and then what new measures you’re seeing that you didn’t anticipate in the budget and how to adjust accordingly.”

Be a ‘constant learner’

Workday’s Bhusri has some simple advice: “Be that constant learner; be curious, and find places to experiment.” But not necessarily in the core business: “There’s a lot of technologies out there that can add quite a bit of leverage to your business—experiment in a division, do a prototype, just try a bunch of different things.”

There are lots of things, Bhusri notes, that can be deployed within months, not years, that can provide a “big competitive advantage and leverage in the business.”

Focus on the ‘key’ inputs

With so much data coming from so many directions available to CFOs, it can be hard to wade through the noise and pick out what’s actionable and important to the business.

That’s why Allen Parker, the CFO at online real estate platform Zillow, says that, especially coming out of the pandemic, it’s important “to identify what are the key inputs?”

“When things get a little hazy,” as they did during the COVID crisis, “making sure you pick the right inputs,” and tracking them on a daily or weekly basis, “so that if those inputs come to a result you would hope for, your outputs will be as expected—that allows you to react a lot quicker than waiting for the monthly close review or waiting for the next forecast.”

It’s something Parker says is important for CFOs and the company’s business leaders to identify, and helps “weed out the noise.”

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