What future CFOs should know

October 2021

CIPFA CEO Rob Whiteman has some top advice on how you can progress in your career in the public sector.

A chief financial officer (CFO) helps regulate the financial interests of an organisation by offering advice, while also working in-line with stakeholder interests.

For students looking to gain their public accountancy qualifications in the next few years, becoming a CFO may be a professional aspiration. For those keen to work at the board level, here are some key traits that a future CFO needs to have.

Be Creative

Any successful CFO should recognise the importance of thinking in an entrepreneurial way and look beyond just being an organisational bookkeeper. In the public sector, a CFO acts as a bridge between various aspects of public finance, so it is crucial they are capable of, and willing, to come up with ideas that consider both the community and the market.

It’s also important to be able to deliver creative solutions to financial problems, as part of their effort to maximise the outcomes of public expenditure – especially during tough economical periods.

Take Risk!

Those who come from an accountancy background may adopt a more cautious, numbers-focused approach to public financial management. While this is undoubtedly an important trait for safeguarding public funds, it can also be limiting in the context of public regeneration.

Taking well-assessed risks is part of achieving new outcomes for any public sector objective, and it is the responsibility of the CFO to protect both financial interests and the interests of the community by facilitating such change.

Maintaining an approach to public expenditure that includes capital or commercial investment, when prudent, is essential if public bodies wish to evolve with the times.

Build Real Relationships

Though the chief obligations of a CFO are linked to financial safety and regulatory compliance, building relationships with key stakeholders and other non-financial colleagues is a great way to ensure public money is spent effectively and efficiently.

It is important that people within a decision-making body can trust and rely on one another and thus maintain a collective vision when delivering a financial strategy. This is especially true in the context of the CFO and CEO, which is one of the most important relationships within an organisation. Both the CFO and the CEO should be equally involved early on in any decision-making process to guarantee clear communication, proper regulation and a balance of corporate and financial needs.

Work Across Departments

Lastly, it’s also essential that a CFO knows how to engage with colleagues across departments in a way that is relevant. Regardless of organisation, establishing relationships with people both in and outside of the central leadership team helps ensure that the interests of the public are at the forefront of decision making. Working with the people like non-executive directors or empowered citizens promotes more robust financial management by reducing the CFO’s reliance on a single strategic framework.

By working in a holistic manner, and outside of functional silos, finance professionals can more effectively apply their technical understanding of the numbers to a real-world, practical context.

See the Wider Picture

By developing creative problem-solving skills, continually working to understand organisation risks and maintaining a variety of professional relationships, students can set themselves up for sound and successful careers in public finance.

While your focus may be on developing technical knowledge in the short term (which of course is incredibly important too!), Students should always keep in mind the need for nuance in public money management, and that a range of qualities beyond technical knowledge is needed to be a good CFO.

  • Rob Whiteman, CIPFA CEO