Pandemic performance strategies for finance leaders

Pandemic performance strategies for finance leaders

The health and economic impact of the global coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses to revise quarterly estimates, postpone capital expenditure plans, and furlough or lay off staff, testing even seasoned executives’ mettle.

But finance leaders are beginning to chart cautious paths through the ever-present uncertainty. Past crises offer them some guidance along the way.

Global research and advisory firm Gartner identified several winning strategies by analysing 20 years of its research into how CFOs successfully drove performance in periods of crisis and uncertainty. They include:

  • Taking riskier bets on transformational innovations.
  • Building consensus on the most important strategic initiatives.
  • Focusing on customers.
  • Engaging the whole business to save costs.
  • Using a mix of budget models. Driver-based budgeting, which links resources and activities to financials, and zero-based budgeting, which requires a justification of all expenses in each period, tend to create business value.

Finance leaders managing the pandemic’s fallout reported they also follow other strategies to drive performance in this particular crisis.

Getting comfortable with remote working

“I am leveraging virtual leadership skill-building lately and actively putting these in practice when collaborating with my colleagues,” said Jesmin Ehsan, ACMA, CGMA, the CFO of Swedish telecom Ericsson for Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, and the Pacific Islands. Ehsan said informal discussions and fun virtual meetings can maintain positive energy, and she said it is important to recognise teams’ hard work in a timely fashion.

Pre-pandemic, many CFOs were uncomfortable with the idea of distributed workforces and changed or decentralised processes, according to Omar Choucair, CPA, the CFO at Trintech, a US company that provides financial close software.

“The best CFOs … are embracing and accelerating their adoption of next generation technology by investing in the digitalisation of the finance function, understanding things will not go back to ‘the way they were’,” he said.

Putting relationships first

Increasingly, CFOs are leaders who can both model and shape good stakeholder relationships.

“CFOs need to be more creative and flexible than they would ordinarily need to be comfortable with,” said Warren Newbert, the CEO of UK-based Infinity, a company that helps clients such as TripAdvisor and Mazda track and analyse phone calls.

“For example, we all want to bill all customers in full and collect all payments on time, but the reality is that the commercial approach needs to be adapted and continues to be evolved to best serve colleagues, customers, and partners,” Newbert said.

He suggested this can include reviewing commercial terms including discounted pricing, free “stuff”, extended payment, and ensuring the staff employment model is appropriate to retain all staff on the best possible terms. “Businesses that get stakeholder management ‘right’ will be substantial long-term winners,” he said.

Managing the CEO-CFO dynamic

Internally, good rapport between the CFO and CEO will be invaluable. What are CEOs looking for in their CFOs at this time?

“Quick, clear, concise scenario modelling, including ‘what if’ scenarios and great metrics to enable smart, informed decision-making,” said Newbert, himself a former CFO. “Businesses are used to budgeting for more than 12 months and planning for up to three years. But these times dictate speed. Focus and agility are super important to ensure businesses are constantly evolving their thinking, managing risks, and looking to optimise new opportunities. CFOs are financial guardians of the business, but they need to strike a healthy balance of pulling on, and easing on, the reins.”

Supporting mental wellbeing

If the role of financial guardian is changing, so too is the need to actively look out for the wellbeing of finance professionals.

The potential mental health toll of the pandemic on colleagues is front and centre, said Ehsan. “Understanding a teammate’s situation and showing empathy and respect goes a long way. It is always good to check in regularly and clarify expectations with team members. The important thing is to create a culture where team members can ask for help, professionally and personally.”

She suggested doing this through virtual team meetings and regular one-to-one catch-ups where CFOs can listen and help teams feel empowered by coming up with their own solutions to problems.

The pandemic is testing staff, and employees’ mental wellbeing is a key priority, Newbert agreed. “Staff are the key asset of the business, and therefore the effective running and future potential of every business is reliant on these assets. Communication is critical, and a clear understanding of adjusted expectations and objectives, time and support — and maintaining positive energy — are vital behaviours.”

Trintech’s Choucair agreed. “As the CFO, your job is not just to close the books and provide financial reports; it’s about keeping your business healthy. And that means keeping your team healthy and well.”

Luke O’Neill is a freelance writer based in Australia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at