The Power of Relationships for CFOs: Moving Beyond Spreadsheets

In today’s fast-paced workplace, where spreadsheets and numbers reign supreme, there lies a hidden secret to true success for Chief Financial Officers (CFOs). It’s not just about crunching numbers and analyzing data; it’s about mastering the art of building relationships and harnessing the power of influence. Let’s take a deep dive into the untapped potential of relationships for CFOs, exploring how they can transcend the boundaries of spreadsheets – and in the process, maybe even elevate their leadership to new heights.

Influence Without Authority: The Key to CFO Leadership

I’ve written before about why the CFO may well be the toughest of all jobs in the C-suite and I stand by that assessment, after more than 2 decades of helping CFOs pursue their full potential. I’m often struck by how much CFOs often find themselves in a unique position. Unfairly charged with being solely focused on the bottom line and painted as the “Dr. No” standing in the way of new initiatives, CFOs are too often underutilized in their full capacity for strategic planning and decision making. Think about it; they typically lack direct authority over the various teams and departments they interact with. However, their ability to exert influence becomes paramount.

It is here – in the realm of influencing, persuading, inspiring – that relationships take center stage. The days of “command and control” are long gone, and leaders who can move the needle must become adept at the art and science of getting others to follow them by choice, not by edict. High performing CFOs understand that the quality of their relationships will determine the quality of their careers far more than technical expertise alone. Thus, the first step is to take a relationship inventory, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their connections within the organization.

From there, a comprehensive plan can be devised to improve all relationships. This journey requires understanding, intentionality, action, and assessment. CFOs can implement various strategies to enhance relationships, such as asking more questions, expressing genuine interest in others, actively listening with the intent to change their minds, embracing compromise, and promoting early collaboration. It also entails relinquishing the need to be “right” and focusing instead on improving relationships through a deep sense of responsibility.

Demonstrating Leadership Through Relationships: CFOs as Catalysts for Change

Impactful CFOs excel at showcasing their leadership skills through the cultivation of strong relationships. They recognize that their colleagues come from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and their role often involves educating, supporting, and coaching others. These CFOs enter potentially contentious meetings with an open mind, ready to have their viewpoints challenged and changed by new information or perspectives.

When I think of the most impactful CFOs I have known and worked with, I note a common theme – they almost invariably do not take anything personally. They effectively express their views, seek compromise, and lead others to their point of view while nurturing relationships. For example, when facing pushback on sales targets from the Chief Revenue Officer (CRO), a CFO can set aside dedicated time to discuss and genuinely understand the CRO’s numbers. Through this approach, a trusting relationship is built, and a compromise can be reached that satisfies both parties. The positive impact extends beyond the CFO and CRO; it resonates with the entire sales team, boosting morale and driving performance.

Navigating Challenges and Obstacles on the Relationship-Building Journey

The job is a lot harder than it may look. CFOs may encounter a range of expectations and perceptions within their organizations, varying from being seen as mere bookkeepers to being regarded as second-in-command and strategic visionaries. This lack of clarity regarding the CFO role presents a significant challenge. To navigate successfully, CFOs must build relationships, communicate clearly, actively listen, and demonstrate their unique value proposition. By aligning expectations and setting the stage for influence without authority, CFOs can pave the way for impactful leadership through relationships.

Aspiring CFOs can enhance their ability to build relationships and influence stakeholders by adopting effective practices. One valuable technique is relationship mapping, a technique that calls for all work-related notes to be categorized by the individuals involved, not by topic, department, or date. Each relationship is assessed for its quality, and a plan for improvement is devised accordingly. This process ensures that relationship-building becomes an integral part of the CFO’s working style – not an additional burden.

Distinguishing Qualities of Impactful CFOs: Leaders Anchored in Relationships

The best CFOs – the ones worth their weight in gold – possess key qualities and characteristics that set them apart as leaders anchored in relationships. They prioritize people above all else and approach interactions with a genuine desire to have their minds changed. They understand that their colleagues bring valuable perspectives and experiences to the table. These CFOs never take pushback or differing opinions personally but instead view them as opportunities for growth and collaboration. By adopting a teaching, coaching, and mentoring approach, they foster an environment of trust and open communication.

Contrary to the traditional command-and-control style, impactful CFOs actively seek contrarian views to refine their thinking and communication. They value diverse opinions and use them as a catalyst for innovative solutions. By embracing the power of relationships, these CFOs create a harmonious and collaborative work environment that drives organizational success.

Striking the Balance: Time Management for Relationship-Building CFOs

All of these impressive individuals bring so much to the table – well beyond the quantitative and bean counting skills we might think about first. They each bring a delicate understanding of team psychology, emotional intelligence, and the importance of cultivating relationships to get anything significant done. But finding a balance between financial responsibilities and relationship-building initiatives can be challenging for CFOs.

The good news is that relationship-building does not necessarily have to be a time-consuming task. It is more about a mindset shift, questioning existing habits and processes, and integrating relationship-building into daily working practices. Prioritizing relationships becomes crucial, as the quality of relationships directly impacts the quality of leadership. CFOs can ask themselves important questions to ensure they are nurturing connections, such as considering who may be surprised or disappointed by their actions and proactively addressing those concerns.


In the world of CFOs, the power of relationships should never be underestimated. By moving beyond spreadsheets and embracing the art of connection, CFOs can unlock a realm of limitless possibilities. Aspiring CFOs can learn from the success stories of those who have mastered these skills, while also recognizing the need for balance and continuous growth. By harnessing the transformative power of relationships, CFOs can shape a future in which financial success intertwines with meaningful human connections, driving positive organizational outcomes and contributing to the overall success of their companies.