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The role of CFO has dramatically changed in just a decade—and it’s still expanding, says McKinsey

November 10, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

It’s no longer just a numbers game.

That’s the conclusion reached by the big brains at McKinsey, who just released new research on the evolution of the finance chief. In an interview with Fortune, Ankur Agrawal, a partner in McKinsey’s New York office, discussed Mastering Change: The New CFO Mandate, released in October. Agrawal has been with the firm for more than 15 years, where he now heads the finance service line in the Americas and consults with CFOs. What is he finding? “Traditionally, the CFO job was all about making sure you can close your books the right way, talking to investors, and advising the business on the right decisions. But making sure your company is transforming, the strategy of the company is in the right direction, making sure talent is aligned with the right business priorities—I think those are the areas where the scope of the role is increasing,” says Agrawal. That tracks with what John F. Woods, vice chairman and CFO at Citizens Financial, told Fortune. Woods has many years of experience, previously a CFO at MUFG Americas Holdings Corporation, Union Bank, and CFO of home lending at JPMorgan Chase, to name a few. “I’d say, maybe just decades ago, the CFO role was very transactional,” said Woods. “There was a heavy dose of accounting presumed in the role. I think the evolution has been toward strategy and business partnering.” 

Below, Agrawal shares his insights about how the role of CFO has evolved—and where it’s going.  

Tech in finance

Between 2016 and 2021, the share of finance leaders who say they’re responsible for their company’s digital activities has more than tripled, according to the report. What is the catalyst for the shift that began before the onset of the pandemic? 

I think it boils down to a few things. The clock speed of decision making in organizations has rapidly increased. It was increasing even six or seven years ago. There’s the competitive intensity of what’s happening regarding disruption in several sectors. And also, the need for stakeholders to understand what’s happening in the business, whether it is investors or business leaders. [CFOs] need to get and consume information to make better decisions. All of that is enabled by technology in a big way. Whether it is planning, budgeting, resource allocation, reporting, all of those aspects which a CFO is responsible for, it was an imperative to do to [enhance] technology. That’s why in 2016, a lot of CFOs began to adopt technology for finance functions.

Another catalyst for digital activities is the need for better and higher efficiency in finance function itself. And finance function leads by example because the CFO is supposed to be driving change in the organization, and a finance chief wants to be representing that change in their own function, fast. COVID has been an accelerant for the adoption of technology not only for finance, but broadly for businesses, and in our daily lives. You really need to talk to your peers remotely. So using collaboration tools became a necessity for the function. Plans for the whole year were made using digital collaboration tools. And then insights and reports were generated virtually and shared virtually.

The data showed that nearly six out of 10 of respondents reported either a positive or very positive ROI from investments made in technology in the past year. But there are still obstacles to adopting new technologies. Some named in the report are the upfront costs, the lack of skills, and resistance to change. How are CFOs going to meet this challenge?

It starts with themselves. The CFOs I work with, they’re going through their own personal professional development in a different way than they used to five or seven years ago. The skills they need include lot more technology, awareness, and literacy. So many CFOs are spending time with their technology team and external thought leaders to understand the implications of technology and their function. So it starts with them, and then exposing their teams to the basics of technology. The role of CFOs in capability building has been heightened. And then making the boards and their leaders aware about suggested technologies and getting their buy-in on cost, I think honestly, that task has become easier given COVID. The preparedness of the company is at risk. Board members and business leaders have been more receptive to jointly make those investments. I would say it is not looked at as a finance technology investment; the entire business ecosystem is changing and evolving. It doesn’t make sense to invest in each and every area, by the way. Being thoughtful and selective, and the sequencing is also relevant.

Future of finance

Suppose we arrive at the point at which most basic and repetitive finance processes are automated. What will the future of a finance team look like?

This is what’s unfolding right before our eyes. The finance function has transformed already in many ways. I think robotics and automation are already here. It’s no longer an accounting-only task. It has become a rapid problem-solving role. And problem solving means you will need lots of different skills, including a deeper understanding of the business, and therefore different talents and skill profiles. That movement has been happening and has been accelerated. You collect a lot of data, but you still have to make sense of it. Exercising judgment will still be the core part of the finance role. However, a lot of the underlying data and systems will need to be upgraded to allow for that. That’s what will happen. The future of finance will have three components­—highly evolved problem solvers, a data analytics resource with interpreters, and transactional automated tasks that are enabled by robotic process outsourcing.

In addition to robotic process automation, will relying on machine learning and advanced artificial intelligence become even more prevalent?

Absolutely. I think it’s an evolution and a journey. They are already areas where a couple of my clients are leveraging advanced analytics and artificial intelligence to predict cases of potential audit risk. They’re leveraging natural language processing and artificial intelligence for understanding opportunities to save procurement cost, comparing one vendor to another, for example. Another example is where advanced analytics is being used to understand how other factors drive and contribute to cash flow forecasts, such as the use of energy and utility. 

You mentioned CFOs needing to get more skills in technology. How should they go about doing that?

I think the best place to learn is on the job. Many CFOs are delegating finance members to participate in big IT projects, and they themselves are spending more time on cross-functional projects. They’re not expected to be IT leaders but getting more well-versed with the challenges and opportunities. Finance was always at the table when technology decisions were being made because these are large capital expenditures. There’s not only the safeguarding and compliance role of making sure the money is spent wisely, but also understanding the business drivers and the technology elements of that project. I think that’s a little bit of a shift they have to make in their mindset.

The next generation of finance leaders

With all of these varied tasks that CFOs have under their purview, will the actual job description of a CFO change?

No, I think the job description of the CFO is the chief decision enabler. And the core part of the job doesn’t change. It is the breadth of the job perhaps, and where the CFO personally drives the biggest impact, could change and evolve.

Young finance professionals, especially digital natives like Gen Zers, are already tech savvy. If they’ve got the tech part down, what other skills should they be developing to become a finance leader?

I think the most important relevant skill for a young finance professional is to make sure they understand the business very well and what is driving the economics of the business. That includes choosing a cross-functional role, where they’re interacting with the business. It could be scary to step out of your finance job and go out of your comfort zone. But many companies actually encourage it. Second, in finance leadership, communication is more important than ever before. Finance has been very good about understanding the numbers very well, and what’s happening in the business because they have the view of the entire business in front of them. But how do you communicate it? And more importantly, how do you inspire the right decisions? Finance leaders of the future need this core competence. So having the right mentors, exposure, and even formal training to drive all of that, and get well-versed with those skills, is quite important. And I would call them softer skills.

Going forward, should CFOs familiarize themselves more with blockchain and cryptocurrencies?

I think having an awareness of cryptocurrency certainly is something which CFO should have; for example, if there is a company that has publicly stated that in the balance sheet it will hold cryptocurrency instead of cash. For sure, it has an implication for CFOs. They should be aware of how cryptocurrency works, etc. But I don’t think it’s a higher priority, at least in my view in my dialogues, compared to reporting ESG metrics, for example.

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This story is part of Fortune‘s Leadership Report on the issues and trends reshaping the C-suite now.